Bruce Barnum knew things needed to change. He had no idea if his drastic measures would pay off.
Portland State has long harbored a roster filled with talent. But the Vikings were not able to put any of it together after Tim Walsh left in 2006. Under Jerry Glanville and Nigel Burton, signing class after signing class of highly touted players committed only to struggle to find any cohesiveness as Vikings. Last November, the school fired Burton and the future of football in the City of Roses seemed cloudy at best.
Barnum, Burton’s offensive coordinator for five seasons beginning in 2010, took over as the interim head coach in November. Portland State did not have an athletic director; Mark Rountree was hired December 10, 2014 . Barnum went to work right away trying to craft the mentality of his team.
“It started right away with little things just as far as how we punished them, how we acted,” Barnum said. “No jewelry, I took jewelry off. I probably went a little too old school for some programs. I bought an away uniform and a home uniform, one each. My 13-year-old Cooper Barnum designed the helmet. It was cool so I threw that on their heads. After they came back from Christmas Break we addressed three things in their life. They are going to call home and talk once a week to people they love or that love them. They are going to go to school and be excellent in that. And then they are going to be a football player.
“A lot of different pieces went into that puzzle. From staff to how we act to how our kids act. We wanted to see them respecting the game on the field. No penalties. I can show you the list but it would look like Santa’s list. We chipped away at the culture and obviously winning helped.”
Barnum’s tactics have paid off as the wins have come in bunches in 2015 for Portland State. On Saturday, 9-2 PSU will host the first playoff game in school history as Northern Iowa comes to town. The Vikings are the No. 6 seed in the FCS playoffs after a regular season that included two FBS wins and five victories over ranked FCS teams. Barnum earned Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year honors.
“This is a very special moment for us, especially being our first playoff game in about 20 years,” Portland State senior running back David Jones said. “It’s a great moment for us to soak in but we obviously can’t fall short of our ultimate goal, which is to win a national championship.”
Portland State made its first and only FCS playoff appearance in 2000. The Vikings lost 49-14 at No. 3 seed Delaware.
External expectations were almost non-existent entering the season. The Vikings were picked to finish 12th in the 13-team Big Sky Conference by the media. Despite more than 60 returning lettermen, the outlook appeared grim for a team with an interim head coach that won just 21 games over the last five seasons. But the winning started right away.
“One of our big shock jock radio guys, John Canzano, he grew up with a guy I coached with and they had a bet. Canzano had us winning three max. My buddy had us winning eight,” Barnum said. “I heard a lot of, ‘If you win four, you are doing a helluva job. If you win five football games with that schedule, you’ll be coach of the year in the Big Sky.’”
In a driving rain in Pullman, Washington, junior college transfer quarterback Alex Kuresa engineered a go-ahead drive with two minutes to play to boost PSU to a 24-17 win over FBS Washington State. The Cougars finished the season 8-4, making a few appearances in the Top 25 late in the season including a 45-38 win over Oregon.
That first game, Barnum wore an all black jacket without any Viking logos or Nike swooshes. The players noticed, so when the engraved version of the jacket arrived, the Vikings did not want the man they call Barny to change his look.
“Our Nike order came in a little late. The coaches’ stuff didn’t get printed. We had beat Washington State in an unlabeled jacket,” Barnum said. “Everybody is asking, ok, let’s get our logos on this. Some of my coaches and players are superstitious and they said no way. Leave it how it is. So we rode it out. I’ll probably wait until playoffs until next year. Then I’ll have logos on my underwear.”
PSU won three straight to start the season before losing 19-17 to North Dakota in Hillsboro, Oregon. The Vikings responded, exploding for a 66-7 win over North Texas. The margin of victory was the most by a FCS team over an FBS squad ever.
“We beat a couple of FBS schools and all of a sudden, the attention wasn’t just in the Northwest. It came from the South, the Midwest, the coaches, the attention from the media,” Barnum said. “The coaches and the student athletes grabbed on to that momentum. The leadership of our guys got us to the last game of the regular season against Eastern Washington. We were playing for something in November. That hasn’t happened here in many moons.”
Portland State has talent to be sure — Kuresa was named the Big Sky’s Newcomer of the Year — but it’s been a collective effort that has helped PSU put together its most successful Division I season. Senior safety Patrick Onwuasor, the FCS leader in interceptions, was the only first-team All-Big Sky selection from the Vikings. Jones, junior cornerback Xavier Coleman junior left tackle Kyle Smith, senior defensive tackle Sadat Sulleyman and sophomore defensive end Davond Dade all earned second-team All-Big Sky honors. Senior right tackle Mike Davis, junior offensive guard Cam Keizur, junior kicker Jonathan Gonzalez, senior defensive tackle Daniel Fusi and senior cornerback Aaron Sibley were third-team all-conference selections. All will say the change in attitude ushered in by Barnum’s staff has solidified the cohesiveness of the team and been a catalyst for the success.
The Vikings have used an opportunistic, physical defense and a powerful run-heavy offense to explode onto the national scene. Portland State enters Saturday on the brink of history with the potential for its first post-season win since joining Division I in 1996.
“The run, the games, winning became contagious with this group,” Barnum said. “Even when we lost, I liked how we responded. It’s easy when you are winning everyone says but I actually think it’s harder, more stressful. If we would’ve been losing, everyone would’ve expected it. I think it did prepare us because of the quality of football opponents we ran up against and we somehow came up more on the W than the L side.
“All of a sudden, you are with the big boys. The good thing is, I don’t think they know who Portland State is. We will see if we can make a run.”
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