Jerry Glanville and Nigel Burton each came to the City of Roses accompanied by fanfare. Each failed to build upon the foundation left by Tim Walsh at Portland State.
During 14 seasons at Portland State, Walsh helped the Vikings transition from perennial Division II power into Big Sky contender. Between 1999 and 2006, PSU finished second in the league standings four times and in the top four every season but one.
In 2007, Walsh left PSU for a job as the offensive coordinator of the United States Military Academy. After two seasons coaching the triple option at Army, Stan Brock, Walsh and the entire staff were fired. Walsh’s newfound offensive scheme helped lead him back to Cal Poly. He has been the head coach for the Mustangs ever since 2009.
Meanwhile in Portland, the Vikings tried to make a splash by hiring Glanville to follow in a long line of successful coaches to lead the Vikings. From Don Read to Mouse Davis to Pokey Allen, PSU has long been a coaching cradle. So when Glanville, a coach known as the “man in black” who coached the Houston Oilers and the Atlanta Falcons in the last 1980s and early 1990s, came to Portland State, lofty expectations followed.
Glanville was as famous for his personality displayed as an analyst for the NFL and NASCAR as he was his coaching prowess. He took over a Portland State squad fresh off a 7-4 season that included six Big Sky wins and held a No. 13 preseason ranking entering the 2007 season. But under Glanville, PSU floundered, winning just three games in his first season and nine games in his three seasons overall. One Big Sky win in 2009 prompted Glanville’s exit from the West Coast.
Enter Burton, a former University of Washington assistant who broke into the coaching ranks as Walsh’s defensive backs coach at PSU in 2001. By 2008, many thought Burton was among the rising minority coaches in the country after coordinator Chris Ault’s defense at Nevada in 2008 and 2009.
Year 1 under Burton netted just one conference win and two wins overall. The embarrassing debut campaign reached a peak with a 35-30 home loss to Northern Colorado, just the fourth league victory by the Bears in four years playing in the Big Sky.
Burton’s second season showed signs of righting the ship. The Vikings lost on a failed two-point conversion 38-36 to defending league champion and No. 3 Montana State at home. The following week, PSU lost by a touchdown to perennial power Montana in Missoula. The Vikings ripped off four straight wins down the stretch to enter its season finale with a 7-3 record and a chance for a playoff berth. A 48-33 loss to Weber State kept PSU out of the playoffs but the future seemed bright.
PSU’s next three seasons resulted in just 12 total wins, including just seven against Big Sky opponents. Following a 3-9 campaign in 2014, Burton was fired. For an off-season, the future at Portland State looked as bleak as any future in all of college football.
In the months leading up to the 2015 season, the Portland State administration issued an ultimatum. The school declared the football team needed to become “self-sustaining” as quickly as possible or be faced with termination, a tall task for a team that plays in a stadium shared with a Major League Soccer team that outdraws the Vikings threefold. New athletic director Mark Rountree promoted Bruce Barnum to head coach of the football team, but placed an interim tag on him, essentially giving Burton’s longtime offensive coordinator a yearlong tryout while the school explored the financial feasibility of football and athletics in general.
Fast forward a full year and the tale of the 2015 Vikings seems like a movie script. Barnum instilled discipline, toughness and an identity to a team that has long been home to formidable talent — seven former Vikings are currently on NFL rosters, more than any team in the Big Sky aside from the Montana Grizzlies. Barnum wasted no time finding himself a leader, inserting junior college transfer Alex Kuresa in as his starting quarterback despite having a roster that had three other players who had started under center for PSU at some point in their careers.
With the blueprint spread out, Barnum and the Vikings smashed through their season like a juggernaut. Portland State entered the year picked at the bottom of the Big Sky by both the coaches and the media. PSU refused to believe it from the start, walking into Martin Stadium in Pullman and upsetting Washington State 24-17 to open the season. The following week, PSU went to Holt Arena and Khalil Dawon’s 100-yard kickoff return in the first quarter sparked the Vikings to a 34-14 victory over the then-No. 23 Bengals of Idaho State.
The hits kept coming, from a 66-7 win at FBS North Texas, the largest margin of victory every by an FCS school over an FBS, to wins over Montana and Montana State for the first time in one season in school history to a 24-23 win over eventual Big Sky Conference champions Southern Utah to a 34-31 win over rival Eastern Washington to deny the Eagles a playoff bid.
All the while, Barnum did things in an unorthodox, endearing fashion. Following home games, Barnum would open up a tab at a local bar downtown for fans to come have a beer after each victory, an idea he got from Mouse Davis. The tabs began with Barnum paying for the first $250 in drinks. By the time the Grizzlies were set to come to PDX, Barnum decided to double his generosity.
“We had to kick it up,” Barnum said. “After we beat the Griz, no one was going to believe it we hadn’t beat that team in so long. For those games, we decided to make it $500. Bottom line is it was successful. I was getting selfies with some Bobcats and some Griz fans. That was new. But everybody had a good time and my wife didn’t find out the cost until the end of the season, so that went well too.”
PSU’s 9-2 record resulted in the No. 6 seed in the FCS playoffs, the only Big Sky team to receive a ranking and a bye. The Vikings qualified for the post season for the second time in school history and hosted the school’s first-ever playoff game at Providence Park. Barnum was named the FCS Coach of the Year.
“They took a program that was literally looking for any reason to close the doors permanently, took a head coach who was willing to do whatever it took to keep the program afloat and they have that season?” Idaho State head coach Mike Kramer said. “Awesome. Those are the stories you can’t write. They don’t exist. The unexisted is the best part of the Big Sky. You can’t find a story like that anywhere else in college football.”
Following the win over Montana State, Roundtree announced Barnum would receive a five-year contract extension.
“The thing he’s brought back since I was there for 14 years is he brought some personality back to it,” Walsh said in the off-season. “He’s given them an identity and the players have bought into it. From a guy who was there for 14 years and to see what had happened to it for seven or eight straight years, it was great to see them have a resurgence.”
“They say football is a game of inches and we say with Coach Barnum, that’s that extra inch we need,” Kuresa said. “We really want to go fight for him, go to battle for him and somebody who says I need a little more out of you, we will find it for him.”
With PSU’s season-opener a week away, the Vikings are facing the pressure of repeating a historic season. The excitement around the program is rising, evidence in the nearly 9,000 season tickets the school has already sold for the upcoming campaign.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” Barnum said. “The kids put together a heck of a season, put some people in the seats, got some people noticing Portland State football. That was fun. Now we are trying to follow it up. Season ticket sales are up through the roof, higher than they’ve been since the Pokey Allen and Mouse Davis days. Everyone wants to hear about Portland State football now. That’s neat.
“Last year was the first step to what I want to get going, to get back to the program that it was under Pokey Allen and Tim Walsh. There was some good years at Portland State and they’ve gone awry for awhile.”
The Vikings must replace free safety Patrick Onwuasor, a finalist for FCS Defensive Player of the Year after leading college football with nine interceptions, as well as defensive lineman Sadat Sulleyman, cornerback Aaron Sibley, middle linebacker Jeremy Lutali and outside linebacker AJ Schlatter. Sulleyman is now with the Denver Broncos, Onwuasor with the Baltimore Ravens and Sibley got a shot before being released by the Atlanta Falcons. Schlatter, a standout as a redshirt freshman in 2015, died in January after complications from throat surgery.
Offensively, the Vikings will build around Kuresa, the Big Sky Newcomer of the Year last season, along with an offensive line that returns its interior. The offense must replace graduated Mike Davis and deceased Kyle Smith, an All-Big Sky left tackle who died of a drug overdose in the spring. PSU will also look for a new No. 1 running back to replace David Jones, a first-team All-Big Sky selection last season.
The pieces to build are there. Kuresa is one of the most dynamic and competitive leaders in the league. Chad Bach and Cam Keizur are two of the most physical interior offensive linemen in the conference. The running back room still includes Steven Long, Nate Tago and Mitchell Thompson while the wide receivers are deep with skill and athleticism, including Darnell Adams, Josh Kraght and utility player Paris Penn.
“Our success will come from not associating ourselves with last year,” Kuresa said. “I’m getting asked over and over how are we going to be the 2015 Vikings? We don’t want to be the 2015 Portland State Vikings. They were 9-3. They lost in the second round. I don’t care to be those guys. We want to be the 2016 Portland State Vikings. We see the potential for a team with a very high ceiling and we expect to get back to where we were last year and go further than that.”
Defensively, the Vikings will build around All-America cornerback Xavier Coleman, defensive linemen Michael Doman, Davon Dade and Savali Talalemotu and nickel back Beau Duronslet. Coleman, a senior who led the Big Sky with 18 passes defended including five interceptions last fall, is confident PSU can continue its resurgence.
“No one on the team is settling for a 9-3 and a first-round (second-round due to bye) loss,” Coleman said. “We want that Big Sky ring. We had a chance to take Northern Colorado out and North Dakota (PSU’s two Big Sky losses last season), which would’ve solidified a ring. We want to have a better record than that and go deep into the playoffs. We want that Big Sky championship and we want to get on the road to the national championship.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez or noted. All Rights Reserved.