Like a lot of former coaches, Gary Barnett went from the sidelines to the broadcast booth when he found himself without a team to mentor in 2006.
Barnett never expected that would be a permanent change, but a decade later, he’s enjoying a successful second career and embarking on a new challenge.
Last week, Barnett, 70, began his first season as the color commentator on KOA radio for Colorado football games. On Saturday he’ll be in the booth for the Buffaloes’ home opener, working alongside play-by-play partner Mark Johnson.
“I’ve had so many people say to me that they’re excited to hear what I have to say about (the Buffs),” Barnett said.
Barnett was the Buffaloes’ head coach from 1999 to 2005, going 49-38 and taking the team to five bowl games in seven years. After the 2005 season — a year in which the Buffs won the Big 12 North Division — Barnett was fired by athletic director Mike Bohn.
At that point, Barnett had spent 37 years in coaching. He won a national championship as an assistant at CU in 1990. He had turned around a moribund Northwestern team that had posted 23 consecutive losing seasons before he took them to the Rose Bowl in 1995. He then had a successful run at CU.
After being fired by CU, Barnett took jobs in 2006 doing color commentary for national radio broadcasts and as a TV commentator for a BCS show on Fox Sports Net.
“When I first got into it, I saw it as a way of staying somewhat visible and staying in the game,” he said. “I really thought the combination (of TV and radio) would create the visibility I would need (to get back into coaching).”
It also gave him the opportunity to travel around the country and talk to fellow coaches, stay up to speed on schemes and learn from his colleagues.
“I could pick guys’ brains and get myself ready for my next coaching job, should that come around,” he said.
Unfortunately, it never did. One season quickly turned into four, and Barnett saw the writing on the wall.
“About the fourth or fifth year, you start realizing that maybe this wasn’t going to happen,” he said.
Barnett said it was a “huge disappointment” that he never got another opportunity to coach, but he also said he never got angry or bitter about it.
“I got over it, just like anything else,” he said. “I totally embraced (being a broadcaster) and do to this day embrace the opportunity.”
Barnett said he could have – and probably still could – get a job as an assistant coach, but would only want to return as a head coach.
“The reality of it is it just isn’t going to happen at this point in time and I understand that,” he said.
Instead, Barnett is back in Boulder, where he will now talk about the team he once coached.
“I think it’s a little difficult to come back and be the color broadcaster for the team you used to coach, and the team you got fired from,” he said. “It’s awkward, but life is too short to worry about that stuff.”
Bohn and other administrators who had a hand in his firing are no longer at CU, which certainly makes Barnett’s return easier.
Current athletic director Rick George, who has known Barnett since they were on CU’s staff in the late 1980s, wanted Barnett in the booth after long-time commentator Larry Zimmer retired after the 2015 season. With approval from Johnson, Zimmer, KOA, CU president Bruce Benson, chancellor Phil DiStefano and Learfield Sports, Barnett agreed.
“If there was one person that didn’t think it should happen or thought it was the wrong decision, I wouldn’t have gone forward with it,” Barnett said. “I wanted to make sure that everybody thought it was a good idea.”
Now that he’s back, Barnett said the reaction from the CU community has made him thrilled to be a part of the program once again.
“You never really know how it’s going to be accepted, and it’s just been really tremendous to hear so many people actually say they’re looking forward to me being a part of it,” he said. “That’s made it very easy, and made it a little more exciting for me.”
Brian Howell: firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.