BOULDER — With reading glasses hanging from the end of his nose, Gary Barnett looked more like a 58-year-old English professor than the steely football coach who has spent the last six months defending both his reputation and his program.
During the University of Colorado football team’s first Thursday night meeting of the season, Barnett paced the stage in the team auditorium, reading from the three-page weekend itinerary for today’s 6:10 p.m. game against Colorado State. The yellow itinerary cover featured the words “212 degrees,” a term Barnett said he didn’t need to explain to his players.
“We are at boiling point,” he said.
Barnett’s matter-of-fact lecture, during which his voice rose to a football-coach roar only a few times, touched only once on the team’s self-proclaimed vow to circle its wagons in an us-against-the-world formation. The phrase “I don’t need to tell you” came up more than once.
Barnett’s players certainly didn’t need to be reminded of the events of the last seven months. And they didn’t need to be reminded of the scrutiny they will face on and off the field for the next 12 weeks.
College football teams that finish with 5-7 records — and are picked to finish in the middle of the pack this year — rarely receive much national media attention.
The 2004 version of the CU football team, however, is quickly becoming a rare exception.
When Barnett and his team open the season tonight, attention and curiosity will focus not on the trash-talking of now-departed CSU quarterback Bradlee Van Pelt or the plays unfolding on the floor of Folsom Field, but on the Buffs’ attempts to show the world they are not the kind of people they have been portrayed to be.
And while the players, coaches and others associated with the CU football program say they have moved beyond what will likely go down in history as the Recruiting Scandal of 2004, the rest of the nation clearly has not.
How the team responds to that nightmare both on and off the field has been and is one of the hottest stories of the season, both on and off the sports pages.
In recent days, news organizations have made their way to Boulder seeking interviews with Barnett and his players.
The New York Times attended this year’s Media Day.
ESPN.com sent a reporter to advance and cover the game.
A Sports Illustrated reporter — not Rick Reilly — came to practice Wednesday.
Lingering questions about what Barnett calls the “controversy” have already reached the point of irritation for CU officials, who earlier this week cut off player interviews because of what they called repeated “inappropriate” questioning and “badgering.”
College football’s winter of discontent also touched other schools and brought negative attention to the state of big-time college football. Other major football programs — specifically the University of Minnesota and Brigham Young University — may want to thank CU for taking most of the offseason heat over recruiting practices.
Minnesota briefly made the news when it was alleged that recruits were taken to a strip club. The super-strict BYU program was rocked by allegations that recruits were taken to the home of a group of football players for parties that included alcohol and sex. That allegation produced a harsh February editorial in the Provo, Utah, Daily Herald, decrying the “baptism of young men in moral cesspools” and warnings that young men were being shoved into “a swamp of hedonistic behavior.”
As if determined not to be accused of swimming in that swamp, the CU football players were quiet and business like Friday night as they downed chicken, beef and lasagna — their last big meal before today’s game. The biggest thrill seemed to be that provided by the return of clam chowder to the training-table menu after a two-year absence.
After the team dinner, coaches gave last-minute instructions and new defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz gave his players a video quiz.
When the meetings ended and darkness fell, the Buffs boarded buses for the 10-mile drive to the team hotel.
Today, they begin what they hope is their journey out of the shadows.