Barnett's split from NU still rings false

But Fitzgerald takes high road on predecessor's clumsy departure 15 years ago

Pat Fitzgerald would have preferred to spend the week answering questions about his Northwestern Wildcats opening Big Ten play against Ohio State on Saturday night in Evanston.

He did, for the most part, but some of us had questions about things unrelated to defending against Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller.

The price of success is the attention it draws, and the eyes of the nation will be on Ryan Field this weekend.

Gary Barnett is among those in town, broadcasting the game on national radio. Fitzgerald navigated his way through pointed questions about how his former coach bailed on the program after performing the unimaginable feat of making Northwestern football relevant.

As I expected, Fitz took the high road on Barnett's clumsy departure 15 years ago. The former All-America linebacker, a Barnett recruit out of Sandburg High School, expressed gratitude for Barnett's role in his life and suggested the coach "saw things in us that we didn't see in ourselves."

Loyalty is a fine quality. Unfortunately, it's not one Barnett possessed shortly after resurrecting a moribund program and taking it to back-to-back New Year's Day bowl games after the '95 and '96 seasons, Fitzgerald's junior and senior years.

I must make it clear I believe the magic act Barnett pulled off in Evanston is one of the most remarkable sports achievements witnessed in these parts. Conversations about NU football in the '80s — if you could find somebody to engage you in one — invariably began like this: "Why are they still in the Big Ten?"

Barnett surrounded himself with an excellent staff and collected enough quality athletes to overcome enormous obstacles, including an administration that sometimes appeared to view success as an inconvenience. NU's ascent to the top rung of the conference in '95 galvanized this town.

The coach deserves the credit. As Fitzgerald stated, "He created a terrific vision for our program."

High Hopes. Expect Victory. Those corny phrases weren't cliches in Evanston. They were a lifestyle.

It didn't take long, however, before Barnett's wanderlust tore it down.

Silly for me or anybody to begrudge another for bettering his lot in life, especially in the nomadic world of college coaches. They earn those big contracts and Barnett clearly deserved consideration at legitimate football factories after pumping life into a perennial doormat with antiquated facilities.

But Barnett took his eyes off the prize long before he bolted for Colorado. While visions of pacing the sideline in South Bend, Austin or Athens danced through his head, he lost interest in recruiting. Mention that requisite component of the job to Fitzgerald and his eyes widen almost as much as they do when you discuss kick coverages.

Recruiting is the foundation of every successful college program. It's even more critical at a school like Northwestern, where athletes actually are expected to attend class. Barnett dropped the ball.

In his final season, Barnett's Wildcats went 3-9 and winless in the Big Ten. Then, it was off to Boulder for his "dream job."

The late Randy Walker came in to clean up the mess. Six weeks after Walker took the job, he told me he didn't have a Division I football team in his weight room.

In his first year, Walker's Cats muscled out only one conference win. It wasn't because he was a lousy coach. In fact, Walker's Miami (Ohio) team was the only one to trip up Northwestern in the '95 regular season.

Walker righted the ship in 2000 with an eight-win season. Since then, the expectations grew from annual bowl games to bowl victories, finally accomplished this year when NU beat Mississippi State 34-20 in the Gator Bowl.

On his decision to take the Colorado job, Barnett admitted to the Tribune's Teddy Greenstein this week "to this minute, I don't know if I did it the right way or wrong way. … I had less than 24 hours to make a decision."

During those hours while speculation on his departure grew, Barnett was emailing his players: "I'm taking the Purple back to Pasadena." The following day, he was standing at the lectern in Boulder.

What's unclear about right way or wrong way? A guy preaching "we instead of I" and using a word like "family" so liberally vanishes in the night and he's not sure?

I hope Fitzgerald was paying attention to his mentor's actions. I'd hate to see the local-boy-made-good selling snake oil should he decide to tackle that next challenge on a bigger stage.

It's unbecoming for anybody in a program that historically walks the walk on those cornball locker room poster boards.

Special contributor Dan McNeil hosts "The McNeil and Spiegel Show" weekdays from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. on WSCR-AM 670.

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