Perception gets best of good man

Let's get the disclaimer over early: I played high school football for Gary Barnett. I respect him immensely. I learned a lot from playing for him. As a former teammate put it in an e-mail just yesterday, Barnett was a very positive influence in our lives.

So I don't approach today's subject matter with optimum objectivity. If you want to read a Barnett-bashing column, you'll have to look elsewhere. They shouldn't be in short supply now that the controversial coach's two-year walk on the ledge has ended in a final fall from grace at the University of Colorado.

His fall will be cushioned by plenty of CU's money and plenty of his own pride. If he wants to coach again, he will -- and he'll succeed. Strippers and a 67-point loss will not define him or his career.

But here's what he's losing: Colorado was the end-of-the-rainbow place for Gary Barnett.

He began his coaching career in the state at Air Academy High School in Colorado Springs in 1971, and even after transforming himself into a national sensation by taking moribund Northwestern to the 1996 Rose Bowl, he would have been satisfied to end his career in Colorado as well.

Here's the funny thing about Barnett's career arc, from nobody to famous to infamous to fired:

Despite the abundant charisma and evident talent we saw in him 25 years ago, none of us envisioned him one day guiding one of the great seasons in the history of college football. Yet once he became that shooting star, once we saw him on the sidelines in Pasadena, none of us envisioned him one day being chased from a job in the state he and his wife, Mary, always loved.

Just goes to show, not every Horatio Alger story meets the perfect ending.

This one took two fateful turns toward the demise we witnessed this week in Boulder. One turn nearly two years ago, and one turn less than two weeks ago.

From the day in January 2004 when Barnett's program was rocked by allegations of a sex-fueled and alcohol-drenched recruiting strategy and other scandalous behavior, he seemed doomed. The headlines were salacious and nationwide. The negative publicity was immense and sustained. The knee-jerk national judgment -- out-of-control program, renegade coach -- quickly hardened around a fragile set of allegations.

For those of us who played for him a long time ago, the disparity between the national reputation and the coach we knew was almost comically inconsistent. This was like viewing our old coach in a fun-house mirror: the authoritarian who lectured constantly to stay away from alcohol, who threw players off the team for using drugs, who disliked even seeing you in the hallways holding hands with your girlfriend ... this guy was now a renegade coach?

Time and money and fame and pressure can change a man, to be sure. But this seemed impossible. And in the end, it was impossible. Barnett was not proven to be Jerry Tarkanian's football cousin.

After outlasting the hysteria and the onslaught of investigations -- seemingly one by every governing body but FEMA -- Colorado was left with no mortal sins that were directly attributed to its coach. There were no criminal charges filed against any players. Barnett was not found guilty of anything more severe than lax oversight of recruiting visits, an aversion to accepting complete program responsibility and an impolitic inability to suffer criticism in silence.

His program had embarrassed the school, no doubt. And Barnett was too unwilling to stand up and take a bullet or two without emptying all chambers in response.

It was his zeal to respond to every question and every allegation that led to the first small turn that put him on the path to this sad day. Maligning kicker Katie Hnida after she had alleged she was raped by a teammate, with cameras rolling, made Barnett an instant sound-bite villain in February 2004. A three-month suspension followed, and a perception took hold.

Still, Barnett simply worked through that firestorm. Took his suspension, accepted the fairly Puritanical recruiting restrictions placed upon his program, came back to work without his jousting armor and authored a surprisingly good 2004 season. The Buffaloes went 8-5 and won the Big 12 North Division for the third time in four years. Barnett was named Big 12 Coach of the Year.

That was followed by a 7-2 start this season, which in turn prompted more Coach of the Year talk. And then everything crumbled.

It started with a shocking loss to Iowa State in Ames. The Buffs significantly outgained the Cyclones, but surrendered a pair of 66-yard touchdown returns of turnovers in the second half to lose, 30-16.

That game seemed to expose exactly how fragile the program was. Even after a week off -- a week in which it was widely expected that a contract extension for Barnett would be announced but never was -- Colorado was a shattered team when it played rival Nebraska the day after Thanksgiving. A mediocre Cornhuskers team dominated the Buffs, 30-3.

And then, the next day, came the second fateful turn in the path.

Iowa State, in control of its own destiny in the Big 12 North, blew a lead and then missed a field goal and lost in overtime to Kansas on Saturday, Nov. 26. Just like that, an emotionally shot Colorado had backed into a national television game against a monster opponent.

Had the Cyclones, and not the Buffaloes, gone on to provide cannon fodder against Texas in the Big 12 championship game, I'm certain that Gary Barnett remains the coach at Colorado. But given one more opportunity to look bad, the Buffs seized it. In epic fashion.

They were humiliated 70-3 by the Longhorns, and it could have been worse. Texas had all 70 points after 2½ quarters.

Suddenly, a season-ending slump had become an utter collapse, a program freefall. After expending every last penny of political capital over the previous couple years just to stay employed, Barnett had none left. And all his enemies simply re-loaded their guns and fired.

This time, they had the company of the hypocrites you can find in and around every college football program.

The stand-by-your man crowd was loud and loyal enough to help Barnett to ride out the off-field storm. His contract, which calls for a hefty buyout if he's terminated before June 2007, helped as well at cash-strapped Colorado.

But we all know that when it comes to job security, the worst sin in college sports isn't off-field embarrassment. It's on-field embarrassment. Suddenly, after this three-game debacle, not as many folks were standing by their man. Suddenly, the money reportedly could be raised from boosters to buy out that contract.

And so one Horatio Alger story detours through unhappy terrain, short of its dream conclusion.

I've talked with Barnett many times over the years -- sometimes on a personal level, sometimes because our jobs now intersect. (It's a weird feeling, interviewing your former coach. Weirder still writing about his firing.)

Last time I talked to him was Wednesday morning, when the news first broke that he would be dismissed. As always, Barnett sounded upbeat. Optimistic. Stubbornly so, perhaps.

"Personally, I'm fine," he said, and we chatted a while longer.

When we were exchanging goodbyes, my soon-to-be-fired coach had the grace to say, "Hey, I'm proud of you."

I told him I was proud of him, too.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.