(Note: this is the latest in an occasional series looking at former Big East stars and where they are now. To suggest a player for a future story, e-mail me at this link.)
Chad Barnhardt may not be a famous name in college football history, but he can claim something few others can: He was the first starting quarterback in the history of his program.
"Most of them are a lot older than I am," he says. "It's pretty cool. They can never take that away from me."
When South Florida kicked off its inaugural season in 1997, Barnhardt was under center. He didn't really see himself as a pioneer. He just wanted a chance to play.
Barnhardt had been a star high school quarterback and baseball player in Lake Wales, Fla. He was drafted as a catcher in the eighth round by the Boston Red Sox and played one year of rookie ball before deciding to go back to school. He went to South Carolina, where he found himself stuck behind starter Anthony Wright. Itching to play, Barnhardt remembered the man who recruited him hard in high school: Jim Leavitt, who then had been an assistant at Kansas State.
Leavitt, of course, was starting the South Florida program from scratch and welcoming all transfers. So Barnhardt enrolled in January 1997 and adapted to the scrappy surroundings, which included trailers for football offices and cramped lockers in the Sun Dome.
"It was a little bit different," Barnhardt says. "I remember having our position meetings together with the wide receivers in Coach Leavitt's office, on the floor of one of the trailers. We used to fight over who got to sit on the leather couch. But we made do, and I think it brought us closer together."
Competing as an FCS independent, the Bulls won their first-ever game, 80-3 over Kentucky Wesleyan. Barnhardt says the players -- many of whom had done nothing but scrimmage the previous year -- were hungry for actual competition. He was most amazed at the fan turnout of more than 49,000 that day.
South Florida went 13-9 in Barnhardt's two seasons of starting, and he stills holds school records for highest career passer efficiency rating (135.8) and most yards per completion. He finished with 4,138 yards passing and 27 touchdowns.
"We all felt like we were a part of starting something and getting it off the ground," he said.
Barnhardt stayed in sports after graduating, first coaching baseball and football at Lake Wales High School for six years. Then he took a graduate assistant job under Leavitt at his alma mater for a year before becoming the offensive coordinator at Webber International, an NAIA school in Lake Wales.
About a year and a half ago, though, Barnhardt began to feel burnt out on coaching. So he quit and took a job at CenterState Bank in his hometown, where he works with commercial lending. He and his wife are expecting their first child this fall.
Barnhardt was sad to see Leavitt forced out this winter and said he talked with his former coach and boss several times after the controversial firing. Still, Barnhardt is excited about new coach Skip Holtz. He met Holtz earlier this year and says he "couldn't be more impressed with the way he handles himself and the type of ship it sounds like he's running."
Barnhardt is a well-known figure in Lake Wales, a town of about 13,000 in central Florida. And for those who don't know his place in South Florida history, all they have to do is take a peek into his bank office. Barnhardt has a framed picture from that first game and a helmet from the Bulls' first season on display
"It's certainly a good conversation piece," he said.