PHOTO (Michigan State): Harlon Barnett addressing the media on Tuesday upon being named Michigan State’s acting head coach.
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NOTE: Five years ago, during the ACC football media days, I wrote a story for the Detroit Free Press on Michigan State alumnus Harlon Barnett’s lateral move to Florida State upon leaving MSU’s staff under Mark Dantonio. The move didn’t work out under then-Florida State head coach Willie Taggart, but this is a good time to look back at reasons for Barnett’s move now that he has been named the Spartans’ acting head coach. Note the quotes from Syracuse’s Dino Babers, one of only 12 Black head coaches in the 2018 season, on the need for Barnett to make such a move if he wanted to be a head coach someday. Also, note the quotes of respect for Barnett from Taggart and Pitt coach Pat Narduzzzi, who worked with Barnett at Michigan State, and from then FSU defensive end Brian Burns, who is now with the Carolina Panthers.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Harlon Barnett made essentially a lateral move. He left Michigan State in January after 11 years under Mark Dantonio to become Florida State’s defensive coordinator under new head coach Willie Taggart.
Yes, Barnett more than doubled his Michigan State salary of $452,570 as associate head coach/co-defensive coordinator (with Mike Tressel) to $980,000 as defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach in Tallahassee. And he traded his snow boots for flip-flops.
But Syracuse head coach Dino Babers says if Barnett, 51, wants to become a head coach, there is savviness behind the move beyond the money and sunshine.
Babers points to his crossing the country as an assistant coach, including offensive coordinator stints at Arizona and Texas A&M, before he landed his first job as a head coach at Eastern Illinois. With success, he jumped to Bowling Green in Ohio and then to his Power 5 position leading the Orange.
“I moved to different conferences because I didn’t want someone to say, ‘Well, he’s never coached in this league or this part of the country so let’s hire somebody else,’ ” Babers explained on Thursday at the ACC Kickoff. “That opened doors for me to become a head coach. No one could say, ‘He’s a West Coast guy.’ No, I’ve been in the Midwest; I’ve recruited in Florida.
“I think (Barnett) can be better with this move. I think he’s one of the next guys up with an opportunity to be a head coach. I know he’ll do a great job at Florida State.”
Babers didn’t say it, but as one of only 12 black head coaches among 130 Division I colleges (10.83 percent) in 2018, he didn’t have to. More bullet points on Barnett’s resume can only help his case, especially as an African-American.
But for now, Barnett’s challenge is installing Michigan State’s style of defense on a Seminoles roster that returns only four starters from 2017’s 7-6 season.
When Taggart left Oregon after one year to take what he considered his dream job in his home state, Oregon co-offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal was promoted to head coach and defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt remained with the Ducks.
As Taggart began his search for a defensive coordinator, he thought back to 2013, his first season as South Florida’s head coach. The Bulls traveled to Spartan Stadium and lost, 21-6, but the final score was deceiving. Two Michigan State touchdowns were scored by defensive end Shilique Calhoun on a fumble return and an interception return.
“We all know Michigan State has had stout defenses over the years,” Taggart said. “I didn’t have a relationship with him, but I knew people that knew him. For me, on top of getting someone with a great defensive mind that will help our defense, we’re also getting a great mentor and person. He’s a guy that can help our players grow not just as football players but as young men.”
Florida State’s players say Barnett fit in quickly with more than game plans and play calls.
“Coach Barnett is a cool dude,” said junior defensive end Brian Burns, who represented the Seminoles in Charlotte. “I know a genuine person when I see one. The first conversation I had him wasn’t about football. It was about life and being a future husband and future father. It’s important to have that connection with your coach.”
“Harlon Barnett is a tremendous football coach, person, and a guy that is like a brother to me,” Narduzzi said. “We worked together for 11 years. I probably spent more time in a staff room with Harlon than I did my own brothers growing up.
“He’s going to be a tremendous coach for them. He’ll have no problem transitioning. I think the kids will play their tails off for him because he’s real. What you see is what you get out of Harlon Barnett.”
Whatever reasons factored into the move, Florida’s climate was, at the very least, a nice bonus. Burns laughed when asked if Barnett enjoyed his first winter in Florida.
“He was talking … I can’t say what he said,” Burns decided. “But it was funny — know that.”
Tom Shanahan is an author, award-winning writer and historian focused on college football integration. He is the author of “Raye of Light” and an upcoming second book, “The Right Thing to Do.” His story on the 1962 Rose Bowl and segregation was awarded first place by the Football Writers Association of America. Visit his website, TomShanahan.Report.
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RAYE OF LIGHT
Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the 1ntegration of College Football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans
Foreword by Tony Dungy