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Bruce Barnum, national coach of the year

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Award wraps up dream season for Vikings' first-year football coach ......


COURTESY: PORTLAND STATE UNIVERSITY - Portland State football coach Bruce Barnum was happy to have an entourage of fellow Vikings on hand as he accepted his honor as the top FCS coach of 2015.The season of rich rewards for Bruce Barnum and Portland State football ended last Friday night at the FCS National Awards banquet, in Frisco, Texas, where the Vikings' first-year coach was honored as the national coach of the year.

Cinderella can come in jumbo packages, and Barnum -- who is closer to 300 pounds than he'd like -- will add a glass slipper to his trophy case after taking Portland State to a dream season.

The Vikings went 9-3, knocked off FBS opponents Washington State and North Texas, beat both Montana and Montana State for the first time in a season since 1999, made it to the FCS playoffs for the first time since 2000 and finished with a No. 10 national ranking.

So the man who began the season as an interim head coach and turned "Barney Ball" into a catch phrase in the Portland sports community wound up at the podium, looking out at his peers as the fairest one in all the land.

The best thing about the FCS banquet, Barnum says, were the people who attended. They included eight of his assistant coaches, PSU administrators Mark Rountree, Matt Billings and Mike Lund and a crew of family that included wife Shawna, sons Brody and Cooper, his parents, an uncle and a cousin. Also there was PSU safety Patrick Onwuasor, who was runner-up in voting for FBS player of the year.

"That was the highlight," Barnum says. "It was a first-class operation they put on. It was overwhelming, honestly. But the thing I liked most was to have everybody there."

Since Barnum and his coaches stayed to attend the American Football Coaches Convention Sunday through Tuesday in San Antonio, they flew to Austin -- a halfway point between Frisco (30 miles from Dallas) and San Antonio -- to save money. Barnum's acceptance speech was penned on his cell phone during the three-hour drive from Austin to Frisco.

The coaches piled into two vans for the drive, with Barnum riding shotgun alongside his driver, tight ends/offensive tackles coach Matt Leunen.

"Everybody else is sleeping, and finally (Leunen) looks at me and says, 'What are you doing?'" Barnum says. "I said, 'I'm typing my speech. I just finished.'"

The next evening, Barnum extended his many thank yous, including deputy athletic director Billings, associate athletic director Lund and athletic director Rountree, who removed the interim label and delivered a five-year contract in November.

"He gave me a fair evaluation, and I lucked out," Barnum says. "But Portland State lucked out in getting him. Mark is a muddy guy. He's out there cooking at the tailgate parties. He's not an ivory tower guy. That's what Portland State needs."

Barnum's only regret about the banquet, he says, is that the coach of the year trophy no longer carries the name of Eddie Robinson, the late, great Grambling coach who won 408 games in his 55 seasons at the historically black school.

"Six of Eddie's family members were at the banquet," Barnum says. "I told the story of when Eddie and I met at a coaches' convention when I was a pup in my mid-20's. We happened to register together, struck up a conversation and sat down for a half-hour and talked, just the two of us. He treated me like a normal guy. To me, he was a hero. He was Nick Saban."

Barnum and Robinson kept in contact until Robinson's death in 2007.

"I have the first letter he wrote to me framed and displayed in the trophy room at my house," Barnum told those attending the banquet. "He made me think it was possible to have a career in coaching. To win the award that used to be named for him -- what a circle of life. One of his granddaughters came up afterward crying and hugged me. She thanked me for recognizing her grandfather and showing her a part of him that she didn't know."

On Saturday, Barnum and his coaches watched North Dakota State romp past Jacksonville State 37-10 to win its fifth straight FCS national championship. Barnum scored a couple of sideline tickets that he rotated between his coaches throughout the game.

"I wanted them to see it, to experience it first-hand," Barnum says. "It was like, 'This is where we need to be some day.'"

On Sunday, the group drove five hours to San Antonio for the annual AFCA convention, which includes clinics and plenty of networking for coaches on the move, or looking to be. Barnum found it in his budget to subsidize his coaches' trip.

"It was both my 'thank you' to them, and something for their professional development," Barnum says. "I need to get these guys jobs, and we need to get better. I was also touching base with (coaches) who might be part of Portland State's future."

Will Barnum lose anyone from his 2015 staff?

"As of this minute, no," he says. "I know some guys are being talked to. I try to treat my coaches right and make it hard for them to leave. If it's equal money, or just a little more, I'll bet you they don't leave. I make sure they enjoy their jobs as much as I can."

Barnum looks back at the revived interest in Portland State football, which drew crowds in excess of 8,000 for Montana State and Northern Iowa and more than 11,000 for Montana this fall.

"Thanks to 'Vik Nation,' or whatever the hell they are," Barnum, 51, says with a laugh. "Before our playoff game, I walked halfway across the field (at Providence Park), looked around and thought, 'You know what? We're getting there.' We're not where we need to be, but we're becoming -- what do you guys call it? -- relevant. People are starting to notice Portland State can be an exciting brand of football."

Barnum has to be the only coach in the country to dig into his own pocket to pay for post-game libations after home victories. The PSU coach figures he wrote checks totaling about $1,600 for celebrations at the Kingston Bar & Grill following wins over Western Oregon, Montana State, Montana and Southern Utah. The Kingston called it "Beers with Barney."

"Before the season, I thought, 'I have to do something to get another 10 people to watch this team play,'" Barnum says. "After we won the first home game (against Western Oregon), I was dressing in the coaches room, and one of the guys said, 'When are you heading to the Kingston?' I said, 'I don't know if I'm going.' He said, 'Barney, you're buying beers there.'"

Barnum showed up at the Kingston and coughed up $250 for the beer tab to owner Gary Jondahl. For the last three victories, Barnum handed out "Barney Ball" cups and upped the ante to $500, though some people passed the hat and collected $150 for the cause after the Montana game.

"The last couple of games, I'd walk into the Kingston and the crowd would be chanting, 'Barney Ball!'" Barnum says, laughing again. "I had Montana State fans taking selfies with me. It was kind of expensive, and I asked my wife what she thought, but she said, 'It's worth it. You have to keep doing it.' So next year, I'll start it out at $500."

Pretty generous for a coach commanding an annual salary in the low six figures. By comparison, it would be like Oregon's Mark Helfrich -- who makes $3.15 million -- proffering about $50,000 to quench Duck fans' thirst.

Barnum and his staff are working hard on the recruiting trail in anticipation of the Feb. 6 letter-of-intent signing. The Vikings can take about 18 recruits. Barnum says he will sign a talented group.

"Things have changed in recruiting for us," he says. "Our success is paying off. We're not going to sign everybody we want, but I like how we are being received."

The Vikings look to add primarily to the defensive side.

"That's what's going to win a championship for us," he says. "Safeties, linebackers and D-ends are my priority right now. If there's an extra scholarship, defense is where it's going."

Portland State has only four verbal commitments, but the FCS recruiting time line is much different than that of its FBS brethren.

'Mostly, I'm waiting for the kids who think they're going FBS, who think they're going to Oregon, Oregon State, Washington and Washington State," Barnum says. "I'm not panicking."

What's left for a Barney encore? Plenty, the coach says.

"We've never won the Big Sky," he says.

Unmentioned is a stab at the national championship. But Barnum notes he would like to schedule North Dakota State for a regular-season game in the near future.

"We're going to have come up with some hashtag," he says, "to fire up the flat-landers in North Dakota by saying, 'We're chasing the Bison.'"

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