Each of Bruce Barnum’s first three seasons as a head coach in the Big Sky Conference have been starkly defined.
First came the season of glory. Then came the season of tragedy. Then came the season of distractions.
“That’s been how you would sum up me as a head coach so far,” Barnum said in an interview at the Big Sky Kickoff in Spokane in July. “I learned how to be a head coach,” Barnum said. “I’ve learned you have to make tough decisions. This Mr. Nice Guy stuff will get you in trouble.”
The affable, hilarious Barnum has spent a good deal of his coaching career around the Big Sky Conference. He played inside linebacker at Eastern Washington when the Eagles first joined the league in the late 1980s. After coaching offensive line at Western Washington, Cornell, American International and the U.S. Coast guard between 1989 and 1997, Barnum first coached in the league as the offensive line coach at Idaho State.
He became the Bengals’ defensive coordinator in 2000 and served as the OC at ISU from 2001 until 2009. After a three-season stint as Cornell’s offensive coordinator, he returned as the OC at Portland State in 2010.
After five seasons operating a creative version of the ‘Pistol’ offense and producing some of the most prolific attacks in the FCS on Nigel Burton’s staff, Burton was fired and Barnum assumed interim status.As the future of the program hung in the balance – the PSU administration said the football program would have to become financially independent if it were to stay around — Barnum took over a Vikings team in disarray.
In one of the most unlikely stories in college football history, Barnum led Portland State into Pullman in his first game as a head coach and best Washington State 24-17. The Vikings went on the road the following week and beat Barney’s formerly beloved Bengals 34-14 with ISU ranked No. 23 in the country at the time.
A 19-17 loss to nationally ranked North Dakota preceded a second FBS win, this one an astounding 66-7 trouncing of North Texas that resulted in the instant firing of Dan McCarney in the locker room after the game.
The magic seemed to never end for the Vikings. PSU beat No. 16 Montana State 59-42 in Portland, road a bus for nearly 18 hours before posting a 38-35 victory at Cal Poly and then returned home to beat No. 17 Montana 35-16. A one-point win over No. 18 Southern Utah and a three point win over No. 18 Eastern Washington gave PSU eight wins in nine contests against ranked teams.
Portland State took the No. 5 seed into the FCS playoffs only to lose in the second round to No. 15 Northern Iowa.
Following the Montana State victory, Barnum signed a five-year contract extension.
Entering the 2016 season, a rash of catastrophe struck Portland State. First, rising young star outside linebacker A.J. Schlatter, a starter for the duration of his redshirt freshman season the previous fall, died from complications for a tonsillectomy.
A few weeks later, All-Big Sky offensive tackle Kyle Smith, arguably the top NFL prospect among offensive linemen in the league, was found dead of an apparent drug overdose.
A few months later, veteran defensive lineman Michael Doman, a former transfer from BYU, lost his daughter in a tragic accident.
Despite the return of dynamic quarterback Alex Kuresa, a slew of injuries, including losing the team’s three most experienced safeties to season-ending injuries before conference play began, led to an eventual 3-8 finish.
Last season, PSU competed with Nevada in a 20-6 loss to open the season, then missed a game-tying field goal at the final buzzer in a 35-32 loss to Oregon State. From that point, distraction and dysfunction defined what would end as a winless season.
“It’s been a bunch of up and downs, for sure,” All-American junior tight end Charlie Taumoepeau said. “We couldn’t really click for a full four-quarter game last year. We couldn’t finish and that was frustrating.”
Despite a defensive unit featuring eventual NFL free agent signees cornerbacks Chris Seisay and Donovan Olumba and defensive end Davond Dade, PSU struggled with fundamentals like pre-snap alignment and gave up points in bunches. Opposing offenses averaged 43 points per game against the Vikings.
“Selfishness was the missing link,” senior safety Artuz Manning said. “A lot of people had shots at going to the NFL…they all knew that. That was the issue. At the end of the day, it’s like, ‘Well, I’m doing this, you’re not doing this but I’m doing this so I’m getting paid,” but that’s not the right attitude. On our defense, when you think like that, everything else goes downhill.”
Barnum has emphasized all off-season that he was not blind to the dysfunction playing out in his locker room last season. He reassumed offensive play-calling duties and relieved defensive coordinator Malik Robertson of his post immediately after his team’s final loss of 2017.
“The communication in the locker room is fixed,” Barnum said. “It was a mess. Locker room, coaching staff, I saw it happening. But I’m learning how to be a head coach, chapter three. I’m getting used to this.”
Barnum said he addressed all the unrest during the season last year as well but his efforts were largely unsuccessful. In the off-season, he made sure the team internally established leaders in each group. Barnum then put the players to the task of fixing the locker room.
Portland State opens up Big Sky Conference play on Saturday with a game against upstart Montana State at Hillsboro Stadium outside the City of Roses. Barnum has known MSU head coach Jeff Choate for two decades dating back to Choate’s time as a high school coach in Idaho during Barnum’s time at MSU.
In 2017, Portland State lost 45-33 to Montana, 30-22 to Montana State, and 35-28 Cal Poly. This season, PSU’s results don’t tell much; the Viks lost 72-13 at Nevada and 62-14 at Oregon before beating College of Idaho of the Frontier Conference 63-14 to snap a 13-game losing streak dating back to November of 2016.
Barnum asked for a five-year plan when he first took over as Portland State’s head coach. Thus far, he has not been able to find elite talent like Patrick Onwuasor or Sadat Sulleyman or David Jones, players that helped spark the Viks to that special season in 2015. Barnum has stopped putting a high priority on the transfer ranks and it remains to be seen if he can recruit talent to one of the league’s only city schools from the prep ranks of the Northwest.
What will define Portland State’s 2018 season is yet to be determined. But the fourth chapter of Barnum’s journey begins Saturday against the Bobcats.
“I’ve got one more year with my predecessor’s people,” Barnum said. “Great kids. I asked for a five-year plan. That will be the fruition of that next season. I know we are on track. But it’s a big bite out of the elephant.
“We didn’t win one last year. But that is behind us. I know we are getting close.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.