BY NEIL HAYES
Special to the Sun-Times
It would make for a better story if Gary Barnett knew his program was on the brink of a historic breakthrough after finishing 3-7-1 in his third season at Northwestern 20 years ago.
It would also be a lie.
“What I saw coming was a winning season,” Barnett said. “I didn’t see a Rose Bowl coming. We saw that we had a lot of players coming back and great team chemistry. Our team could compete, and we thought we could get ourselves into a bowl game.”
The man most responsible for one of the most celebrated resurrections in college football history worries about how other long-dormant programs can navigate a similar path given the shifting sands of the college football landscape.
Barnett is convinced the new four-team playoff will be a death knell for all but a few.
“It will make it more like the NFL, where there are 32 teams that everybody can get excited about,” said Barnett, an analyst for Sports USA Radio. “What happens to the Iowa States of the world and the Kansases and Colorados? There is so much emphasis on the final four and the eight or 12 teams that have a chance to get in, that there’s a clear separation between the top teams and lower-level Division I teams. The lower-level Division teams will need to reinvent themselves. It’s going to create a big problem.
“I don’t think I’m even speculating about this. It will result in everybody in lower Division I having to make all the changes the power-five conferences do, like spending more on food and facilities and maybe even paying players. How can they keep up with that? It’s a crapshoot. Anybody who tries and isn’t successful will have to cut sports. They’re going to have to eliminate college sports eventually.”
Barnett believes the format will serve as a shot of adrenaline for the top programs. The focus will be so intense that second-tier programs will become even more obscure.
“Believe it or not, the single biggest recruiting service is ESPN,” he said. “Everybody watches it and listens to it. How many times do they mention Northern Illinois? How many times do they mention Alabama? You can’t overcome that kind of constant subliminal advertising.”
Barnett feels for Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald. The program appeared to have turned a major corner after Fitzgerald coached the Wildcats to a 10-2 record and a Gator Bowl victory over Mississippi State in 2012 but back-to-back 5-7 seasons followed.
“I don’t know whether all the union stuff created any kind of separation or division on that football team or in that locker room,” he said, referring to ex-quarterback Kain Colter’s attempt to unionize players. “I can’t tell you that. From the outside, you would almost expect that to happen.”
He also doesn’t think anybody should feel too sorry for Notre Dame and coach Brian Kelly, who lost five of the last six games to end a once-promising season.
“Everybody at Notre Dame thinks next year will be their year, anyway,” he said. “They were surprised at their start this season.”
If Barnett sounds as if he’s still passionate about college football, it’s because he is. At 68, he’s still interested in a return to coaching and even expressed interest in the vacancy at Kansas created when ex-Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis was fired this season.
“I didn’t get to call my own shot when it comes to walking out of this profession,” he said, referring to his being forced to resign as Colorado’s coach in 2005 after accusations of improprieties. “That eats at me still. It only made my interest more intense. I’m a better coach now than I was 10 years ago. You learn a lot when you do what I do.”
Contact Neil Hayes at firstname.lastname@example.org