Rooney: Long walk ends in CU Buffs HOF honor for Gary Barnett

Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Former CU coach Gary Barnett, right, took over for Larry Zimmer, left, as color commentator on KOA radio for Colorado football games.

When Gary Barnett exited the University of Colorado campus on a bleak December night in 2005, presumably it  was for the last time.

Mired in controversy not of his own making, still reeling from a 70-3 thrashing Texas delivered upon his Colorado Buffaloes football team just days earlier in the Big 12 Conference championship game, Barnett played the waiting game with the media throng camped outside the Dal Ward Center. All of them knew what would become official a day later — Barnett’s seven-season tenure at CU was over. And the divorce was an ugly one.

The wait for that media pack was a long one. Long enough for this much younger reporter to make his way over to Dal Ward from the Events Center, where earlier in the night the men’s basketball team topped Utah 76-52 behind 19 points and 10 rebounds from Richard Roby. So the evening wasn’t a complete disaster for Buffs fans.

Eventually Barnett stole away into the night, forced to leave a program that defined much of his decorated coaching career in an escape that more resembled a walk of shame than the first confident steps toward anyone’s Hall of Fame.

Then, slowly, something interesting happened. Healing. Mending. Reconciliation. It didn’t occur overnight. Eventually the football coach that outlasted the athletic director, president, and chancellor in the fallout from the twin scandals of a recruit sex party and the rape allegations leveled toward a teammate by former kicker Katie Hnida discovered the angst getting hurled his way, justified or not, simply was the tumult of a fleeting storm.

Storms pass. Life goes on. And now Barnett gets to take his place among CU immortals, as on Wednesday it was announced that Barnett will be part of the 2019 Hall of Fame class for CU athletics.

“It was a really difficult moment, that’s for sure. I think it’s a difficult moment for any coach that goes through that situation,” Barnett said of that 2005 night. “Mine might be different than others. Maybe not.  But I certainly didn’t have this (HOF) moment on my mind at all, and wouldn’t have imagined it being possible.

“But as time went on, and my friends and other coaches sort of gave me some sort of assurance that it would happen…I don’t know that I saw it. I probably didn’t see it maybe the way that they could. My wife as well just said that time will make a change here, will make a difference in how you’re viewed in this thing. That’s pretty much what happened.”

Any balanced documentation of the Barnett era has to include the murky ending, from the lingering stink of scandal to the combined 100-6 losses against Nebraska and Texas that signaled the end of a situation that had grown untenable, particularly from a recruiting standpoint. Yet just as it is impossible to accurately detail Barnett’s tenure at CU without recounting the ugliness that marred the end, it also is impossible to compile any “Best-Of” list about Buffs football without a healthy dose of the Barnett years.

His CU HOF credentials speak for themselves. Barnett went 49-38 in seven seasons, claiming the Big 12 Conference North Division title four times in five seasons and winning the league title game in 2001. The 62-36 thrashing the Buffs heaped upon Nebraska in 2001 will forever be a fixture on the shortlist of memorable games for any CU football fan, and his departure harkened the end of nearly two full decades of national prominence that, outside of the blip that was 2016, the Buffs’ program still is trying to recapture.

Never mind how Barnett was a prominent assistant — first as the quarterbacks coach for signal-callers like Sal Aunese, Darian Hagan, and Charles Johnson before taking over as offensive coordinator—on the best CU teams ever, including the 1990 national championship team.

It was a little more than a week ago when Barnett was sitting in a meeting for Buffs 4Life, the organization dedicated to offering mental health services for past and present CU student-athletes, when his phone buzzed. CU athletic director Rick George was calling. Barnett has been a dedicated contributor to Buffs4Life, and didn’t want to interrupt the meeting to take a call he assumed was to inform him the tee time he and George had planned for the following day was off.

Instead, George told Barnett his time had come. It was a long walk since that cold December night in 2005, but it ended in Buffs lore for Barnett.

“I came back about seven or eight years ago to Boulder for summers, and from the minute I set foot in Boulder from that moment on, everybody has been great,” said Barnett, who is set to begin his fourth season as the color analyst on CU radio broadcasts. “I stayed away for a couple years. But the minute I came back, I was just treated with great respect. It was very humbling, actually, how much respect and the feelings people had for me, and that they expressed them to me in a number of different ways. It was cool to come back and feel that maybe it was a very small population that felt the way they did at the time.”