Inductee spotlight: Gary Barnett, from Mizzou player to college football coach

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The plan after four years of playing football at the University of Missouri seemed straightforward enough: Go to law school and then into the real world.

However, Gary Barnett stopped himself. After earning a letter on the 1968 team and graduating, he still felt the pull of the sport: The times growing up in the northern Missouri town of Mexico and Saturdays ushering with the Boy Scouts for Mizzou football games. The days daydreaming of becoming the next Hank Kuhlman, a Mizzou standout. And the high school years quarterbacking Chesterfield’s Parkway Central Colts.

“I found myself absolutely lost without football,” Barnett said. “The happiest guy I knew was my high school football coach, Jack Wells, and that’s when I said, ‘I can’t live without this game.’”

Barnett eventually carved out quite a career as a college football head coach, first at Northwestern University and then at the University of Colorado, and it’s why the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame is proud to induct Barnett with the Class of 2018.

His induction is part of the Enshrinement presented by Killian Construction, set for 5 p.m. Sunday, January 28 at the University Plaza Hotel & Convention Center in Springfield. Associate sponsors are Advertising Plus, Hiland Dairy, Hillyard, Inc., and White River Valley Electric Cooperative. For tickets, call 417-889-3100.

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A 1964 graduate of Parkway Central and former Mizzou receiver, Barnett’s 1995 Northwestern team won the Big Ten Conference outright and earned the program’s first bowl game berth (Rose Bowl) in 47 years and followed that season with a co-Big Ten Conference championship and Citrus Bowl invite.

Previously, Barnett was a Colorado assistant from 1984 to 1991, including time as the offensive coordinator for the national championship team that beat Notre Dame on New Year’s Day 1991.

Barnett later returned to lead the Buffaloes to a 42-33 record from 1999 to 2005. His teams won the Big 12 Conference title outright (2001) and captured four Big 12 North Division crowns (2001-2005), with four teams playing in bowl games. The 2001 team narrowly missed playing for the national title, finishing 0.05 percentage points in the computer rankings from advancing.

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Barnett also was National Coach of the Year in 1995 on 17 lists, and a four-time Coach of the Year by the Associated Press (1995, 1996, 2001, 2004). He also is one of only three college coaches in history – Bear Bryant, John McKay and Johnny Majors – who have twice coached the NCAA’s Most Improved team.

This from a coach who could thank his wife of 50 years, Mary, for his career. Because she had a year left to finish at Mizzou, Barnett stayed, too. That allowed him time to re-think his law career.

Then, at age 24, he was hired at Air Academy High School in Colorado Springs, Colorado, spending 11 seasons there, nine as head coach.

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“I loved the game, and I had gone against (NFL & College Football Hall of Famer) Roger Wehrli every day in practice at Mizzou,” Barnett said. “And I kept notes of what the coaches said, so I had a file cabinet of all the plays we ever ran.”

After Barnett assisted Fort Lewis College for two years, Colorado coach Bill McCartney hired him.

“He asked me, ‘All right, how much are you making?’” Barnett recalled. “I was making $25,000, but I said $27,000. So he said, ‘I’ll give you $28,000 to coach.”

Money didn’t matter to Barnett, who was learning how to run a program. Eventually, he landed his first college head coaching job at Northwestern, an academic school in the rigorous Big Ten.

“We took 100 transcripts to the registrar that first year, but they allowed us only 10,” Barnett said. “We knew right away that we needed to really look at this (how to and who to recruit).”

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Thanks to nine ambitious young assistants, Barnett led Northwestern’s revival with players such as linebacker Pat Fitzgerald, Darnell Autry and quarterback Steve Schnur, a St. Louis native.

He returned to Colorado in 1999 and emphasized smash-mouth football.

“That was going back to the way McCartney built the built the program. We beat you up,” said Barnett, whose teams were 29-19 in conference games, including 14-2 over the 2001 and 2002 seasons, the fourth-best two-year record in conference history.

These days, he is an analyst on Colorado football radio broadcasts and on Fox Sports TV. So, what was secret to his success?

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“What I learned was, 1, you have to have good people under you. You can’t do it by yourself. And, 2, you’ve got to love kids,” said Barnett, dad to Clayton and Courtney and a father figure to many. “I used to know college coaches who had never taught in high school who never had an appreciation for what they went through. I just really loved teaching kids.”

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January Enshrinement-FB

Missouri Sports Hall of Fame’s 2018 Enshrinement Ceremonies presented by Killian Construction

When: Sunday, January 28

Morning reception: 11 a.m., presented by Meek’s The Builder’s Choice, at the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, 3861 E. Stan Musial Drive in Springfield.

Afternoon festivities: 4 p.m. reception, 5 p.m. dinner & ceremony at University Plaza Hotel & Convention Center, Springfield

Class of 2018: Mike Garrett (Kansas City Chiefs), Lee Smith (St. Louis Cardinals), Howard Richards (University of Missouri football), Jim Otis (St. Louis Football Cardinals & Kansas City Chiefs), Martin Mac Donald (Conservationist, Outdoorsman, Runner), football coach Gary Barnett (Northwestern University & University of Colorado), softball coach Holly Hesse (Missouri State University), Doug Elgin (Missouri Valley Conference Commissioner), Dr. Brian Mahaffey (Missouri State University, St. Louis Cardinals), shot putter Christian Cantwell (Eldon High School/University of Missouri/Olympics), basketball standout Kerensa Barr Cassis (West Plains High School/Mizzou), Dan Lucy (KOLR 10 TV Sports Director), Rockhurst High School football coach Tony Severino, basketball coach Steve Tappmeyer (Northwest Missouri State University, UMSL), Rick Grayson (PGA teaching professional), Learfield, the Lamar High School Football Program, Springfield-Greene County Park Board, Independent Printing – John Q. Hammons Founders Award, Rick Todd of Herschend Family Entertainment – President’s Award.

Sponsorship opportunities: Tables of 10 are $1,500 and include an autographed poster (a rendering by renowned artist Dayne Dudley), recognition in the printed program and at the table. Individual tickets are $150. Numerous other sponsorships are available, including congratulatory ads, trading cards and 20-month calendars.

Call the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame: 417-889-3100