Buff Puff
Patrick Merewether

Buff Puff

In a rare moment of privacy last Wednesday afternoon, Gary Barnett stood before a picture window in the dining room of the Dal Ward Athletic Center, gazing out at his world. Two stories below, the sunlit expanse of the Folsom Field gridiron stretched before him: an acre and a half of brand-new, high-tech natural grass, not the unforgiving AstroTurf that had been in place for almost three decades.

Fittingly, Barnett's view was as yet unobstructed by white sidelines, painted end zones or numerical yard markers. There was only the great vista of green grass growing in a huge bowl of empty stands. Virgin territory. Terra incognita. A work in progress.

So, too, are Barnett, the twenty-second head football coach at the University of Colorado, and his presumably talented roster of Golden Buffaloes. On September 4 at Mile High Stadium, the Buffs will face Colorado State in game number one for their new mentor and game number 1,001 in CU's long and often perturbed football history. All eyes will be on Barnett, and if he and his new balanced offense don't get off to a winning start, the grumbling will be audible in the alumni and student sections faster than you can say...Rick Neuheisel.

Truth is, 53-year-old Gary Barnett carries a great burden with him into this football season. As the miracle-worker who lifted the long-dismal Northwestern University Wildcats out of the doldrums in the mid-Nineties and sent them to the Rose Bowl before leaving the Evanston, Illinois, campus under a cloud, he's expected to make more dazzling magic with better material in Boulder. As a coach who learned his trade in eight seasons under Bill McCartney, who led the Buffaloes to a co-national championship in 1990, Barnett is a man in a long shadow -- with promises to keep.

With that in mind, his bold motto for the year is "Return to Dominance."

"Sure, there's greater pressure [here]," Barnett says. "Whether I feel it or not, it's greater. There was no pressure at Northwestern...no one really cared about [football]. A few of the athletes and a couple of fans and the coaches."

Naturally, that changed after the Wildcats turned an all-too-familiar 3-7 record in 1994 into an astonishing 10-2 year and a Big Ten title the next year. But football at Boulder comes front-loaded with more assumptions. "Here I've inherited, on paper, a better team," the coach says. "I've inherited a team with more tradition and with higher expectations in the community and the state. There are state expectations here -- there were no state expectations in Evanston."

Indeed, Colorado boasts the nation's seventh-best record over the last ten years, returns 52 healthy lettermen (including thirteen starters) this season and ranks anywhere from number five to number 21 in pre-season polls.

That kind of pressure hastened Barnett's plans and firmed up his resolve. Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak was evidently CU's first choice to replace river-rafting, guitar-strumming Rick Neuheisel, but when Kubiak turned the job down, Gary II leaped in with both feet.

Since January, he has visited the families of every player on CU's team (save three) in hopes of avoiding the emotional trauma of a "transition year" and sidestepping some errors he made in Evanston. His 1992 and 1993 Northwestern teams were divided between "Barnett guys" and players recruited by previous head coach Francis Peay. "I went in there with a plan before I knew what the problems were," he says. "I won't do that here."

After getting up-close and personal with the CU parents last winter, Barnett's putting their sons through hell this fall. Translation: Three-a-day practices -- at 9 a.m., 11:15 a.m. and 5 p.m. Each session is shorter than in the traditional two-a-day plan but more intense. He wants his kids "to practice like their hair's on fire," Barnett says. Three-a-days, he adds, are "more of a mental grind than a physical grind, and that's what we want."

Barnett and offensive coordinator Tom Cable, late of the University of California, have also scrapped Neuheisel's pass-happy offense -- which produced a 5-6 season in 1997 and an injury-plagued 8-4 last year -- in favor of a fifty-fifty pass/run attack based on multiple formations, complex motion, quick timing passes and constant pressure on the opposing defense. It's a brainy offense that catapulted an undertalented Northwestern team boasting good SAT scores to the top of the tough Big 10 Conference. It is also, Barnett acknowledges, the kind of offense that may suddenly look familiar to Denver Broncos fans. Head coach Mike Shanahan and Barnett share some ideas, and "it's scary how similar these offenses can look," says CU's new man.

To be sure, the Barnett Plan will keep the cobwebs off CU's swift but heretofore underused running backs -- all three of them. Last year the team averaged just 123 yards per game rushing, and that must improve. Meanwhile, the new offense is also designed to give the element of surprise back to senior quarterback Mike Moschetti.

He'll have help. As always, Colorado has a flight of superior wide receivers whose very names sound sleek and fast. Who would you like to cover, Mister Free Safety? Cedric Cormier, who's downfield before you can hiccup? How about Marcus Stiggers, who's run a 4.17-second forty-yard dash? Or Javon Green, who averages almost fourteen yards per catch? Give those guys a breather on the bench and you've still got to contend with Robert Toler and Eric McCready. Roman Hollowell is five-foot-six, weighs 160 pounds and might have trouble playing on Sundays in the NFL. But you won't catch him on Saturdays.

"This is the fastest team I've ever coached," Barnett said at Wednesday's annual football media day. "Even going back to '89, '90 and '91 around here. Certainly, we didn't have this kind of speed at Northwestern."

With the exception of Barnett's departure, that is. After going to the Rose Bowl, leading "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" at Wrigley Field and becoming a hot property, Barnett signed a twelve-year contract to coach the 'Cats. But he also talked with traditional football powerhouses like UCLA, Notre Dame and Texas. When the beleaguered Neuheisel resigned from CU (with equal alacrity) and fled to the University of Washington, Barnett knew he wanted to return to Boulder. Chicago sports columnists excoriated him as a traitor -- not least for his reluctance to take any responsibility for a football-gambling scandal that shook the entire Northwestern campus. Even the university's president got into the act.

Neuheisel's departure after four up-and-down years in Boulder has provoked equal rancor. That will give special meaning to the September 25 clash between the Buffs and Neuheisel's Huskies in Seattle. The new coach plays coy when asked if he's marked any red-letter days on this year's schedule, but you don't need to be an astrophysics major to read between the lines: The Washington game has likely been targeted, as well as the home tilt with powerful Nebraska on November 26, the day after Thanksgiving.

How good will the Buffs be? If they can avoid the demonic rash of injuries that devastated them last year, dramatically improve their running game and sharpen a defense that ranked thirteenth overall last year, they could be very, very good. Watch special teams -- especially kick and punt return units. CU's speed burners could provide frequent excitement.

The rest, Barnett says, depends on guts and attitude. "There's lots and lots of talent in the country," he points out. "What you need to get it done, besides that, are toughness and collective will. At the end [of the year] there are only five or six teams left standing, and we want to be one of those. We'll have games where we'll have to scratch and claw in the fourth quarter to win, and I've got three weeks to get these players ready for that."

For now, they're a work in progress -- and so is their coach.

The Colorado Rockies' woes -- dreadful pitching, no speed, spotty fielding, lately even a lack of power -- aren't going away anytime soon. In fact, there's no guarantee they'll go away ever -- especially the bad pitching.

But original general manager Bob Gebhard is going away, and none too soon. He should have gotten his pink slip last fall, when manager Don Baylor got his. The Rockies, after all, know all about clean sweeps, having been so often swept out on the diamond.

But the team owners gave Gebhard one more chance to put Humpty Dumpty together again. That he hasn't done it is not entirely his fault, of course. Ask supposed staff ace Darryl Kile (seven wins, eleven losses) or third baseman Vinny Castilla (25 home runs, 18 errors, one stolen base) if they've done their jobs this year, and they would have to answer no.

But it's Gebhard who has to go, with the fans' thanks for a job half well-done. The man had an eye for offensive talent: He brought Andres Galarraga, Eric Young, Castilla and the peerless Larry Walker to the club, and he saw the Bomber potential of a struggling outfielder named Dante Bichette.

His luck with pitchers has been godawful, however. His first draft pick, David Nied, went 14-18 with a 5.47 earned run average in four seasons with the team. Gebhard bit on Greg Harris (4-20, 6.60) and Bruce Hurst (0-1, 5.19), paid a small fortune for Billy Swift and Bret Saberhagen (who combined for 16-11) and stuck with moody Marvin Freeman (20-18, 4.91) against all odds. Kent Bottenfield, who's 16-5 with the lowly Cardinals this year, won six and lost six with Colorado.

As for Pedro Astacio, Kile and two dozen current and former Rockies relief pitchers with sore arms and shattered egos, the less said the better.

So Geb is Gone, leaving two questions behind: Who would want his job, and why would the victim bother unpacking his suitcase?


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