Breakfast with Barny: Kicking off spring football at Portland State
We've been to spring practices. We've seen spring games. Thursday, Portland State showed The I-5 something we hadn't seen before: What happens before the lights turn on.
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At 8 a.m. on Wednesday the Portland State Vikings became the first Division I football team in Oregon to begin spring practices. For head coach Bruce Barnum and his staff, that means arriving at their office in downtown Portland just before 6 a.m.
On Thursday, Barnum allowed The I-5 Corridor to hang around the office as the Vikings got ready.
This is their story.
Most mornings Barnum checks traffic, picks a bridge and drives south from his home in Vancouver, Wash. He’s been doing this for 12 years now at PSU — seven as head coach — and getting to the building on time isn’t an issue. It’s just on this specific day, he wanted to be early.
“I pull up my phone and it’s clear sailing, and about a quarter-mile away from the bridge some guy is broken down,” Barnum says, “And I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to be late for Alger.’”
He wasn’t. I am — a sports writer isn’t used to finding an open gas station at 5:45 in the morning, OK?
Practice starts in about 90 minutes and the football offices are beginning to come alive. A half-eaten box of Voodoo Doughnuts is open next to a Keurig machine. Nearby, a set of saloon-style doors leading to a few cubicles swing open and out walks John Brock, the team’s flex linebackers coach/recruiting coordinator hired just before the 2021 season.
“[Defensive line coach Mark Rhea] and I showed up two weeks before camp started and they stuck us in here,” he says. “Mark wanted a little bit of privacy, so we found these really cool doors. We bought them first, then about nine weeks into the season they finally came and anchored them in.
“And it gives a little privacy, but now everybody that walks in wants to come on through the doors with the ‘Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’ whistle behind it.”
I walk through. A whistle would be nice.
“That story took two minutes, he doesn’t have all morning.”
As Barnum leads us down the hallway toward his office, he remembers something.
“That last time you were here, someone took my fence.”
Barnum has the calculator out on his phone. Portland State has nonconference games scheduled out as far as 2027. After subtracting 1964, he learns he’ll be 63 years old.
He punches in a few more numbers.
“I’ll be 58 this spring,” he says.
He tells a story about longtime friend John Bridges, a college teammate at Eastern Washington University. Barnum is a day older than Bridges and “one year he calls me up to say happy birthday, and I thought we were turning 42. And he’s like, ‘Barnum, you dumbass, you’re 41. Do the math.’
“So here we are in the middle of spring ball and I’m feeling like the luckiest man in the world, because I’m supposed to be 58 right now.”
His office has one window next to the desk. A photo of the coach and his son after a 2015 upset of Washington State hangs on the wall behind Barnum, and a 2018 shot of Cody Williams nailing a 52-yard field goal to beat Montana in Missoula is framed on the wall by the door1 — two highs from a tenure with the Vikings that’s faced major headwinds.
We’re not going to rehash all of PSU’s issues here, but part of every morning in 2022 Portland involves sending someone down to make sure the side door by the field entrance is completely closed. The driers blow hot air down there and it can attract a non-student crowd seeking warmth.
“The last guy out the door to practice doesn’t always care if it shuts,” Barnum cautions.
“Has that happened?” I ask.
“Oh boy. Oh boy. That’s why we do what we do, but the (PSU) president probably doesn’t want me to get into that one.”
Linebackers coach John Ely walks into Barnum’s office with a question.
“Hey, when you get a FedEx that’s in letter-form and you don’t know who it’s from, is that worrisome?”
Barnum’s phone rings. It’s Central Michigan coach Jim McElwain, who knows somebody who might be a candidate for Portland State’s vacant athletic director position. It’s been open since July, with Valerie Cleary leaving the role to become the AD at the Multnomah Athletic Club, which overlooks the Vikings' former home of Providence Park before the football team was permanently relocated 15 miles west to Hillsboro Stadium in 2019.
Barnum’s been told they're supposed to hire someone by mid-March, but he has his doubts. The school is in a pinch financially and every penny the athletic department uses is under a microscope.
Still, the Vikings went 4-4 in Big Sky Conference play in 2021, the team’s best record since making the playoffs in 2015.
“I had 14 surgeries during the season,” Barnum says. “Shoulders. Some foot shit I’ve never heard of. Then six more surgeries after the season. We were just where we wanted to be as a team, too.”
He’s lost some star power this spring — they’ll be replacing four-year starting quarterback Davis Alexander — but Barnum feels like the chemistry of this roster is as good as he’s ever had here. He’ll take stability where he can get it.
“I’ll call him after practice,” Barnum says to conclude the call with McElwain.
Ely returns, holding a sheet of paper.
“Follow up: It’s a resume. Linebacker,” he says. “Wants to play for the Vikings.”
“Hey, he paid the 15 bucks,” Barnum replies. “He got your attention. At least call the kid.
“The most unique one I ever got, I was at Idaho State and a kid sent a poster that big (he points to the wall). His dad was a car salesman and they sent those out to 100 schools. We had it up in the office for two weeks.”
Barnum has a few things to go over for a post-practice meeting, so he’s sent me downstairs with newly-hired assistant Jared Hilbers to, as Barnum instructed, “give Alger a little taste of us.”
We walk past the nutrition room where players are coming in and out with bagels, through the training room — which opened about an hour ago — and into the weight room. It’s been renovated since Hilbers was first recruited by the Vikings. From Beaverton, Hilbers finished up his college career in 2019 as Washington’s starting right tackle.
“[PSU] kind of gave up once the Pac-12 offers came,” Hilbers says. “I went to junior day and Barny called me out in front of the whole group. I didn’t even think he knew who I was. I wasn't expecting it, and that thought actually came into my head when I was thinking about places to coach. I’m from here — let’s go see what this dude is all about.
“He’s a great boss. He’s a very funny guy. Bit of an odd guy.”
It’s quiet now upstairs with coaches in their morning meetings. Barnum likes his assistants to run these on their own — he’s got six new faces on staff for 2022 and they could use the spring for cohesion just as much as the players.
I’m back with Barnum, the sun is now up and he points to an oak chair in the corner of his office. He got it while coaching at Cornell and it broke at one point during a move. He just got it fixed.
“I sit in it all the time, it reminds me to not get comfortable,” he says, before admitting that the chair is, indeed, quite comfortable. “I was going to make the switch before you got here, but yesterday was a bit upside down.”
Yesterday was Day 1 of practice and it was chaotic, he says, with a medical situation he can’t go into. They’re just too short-staffed with too many people wearing too many hats.
“This meeting at 10 o’clock today is critical for us” he says of a face-to-face with PSU’s athletic fiscal officer Kati Falger and interim athletic director Linda Williams.
On the printer rests a couple of sheets with the five points he’s planning to present in the meeting.
Briefly, Barnum wants:
Cost of attendance help.
A commitment to provide better nutrition for his players.
A push to cover summer school expenses.
Better scheduling to improve at-large playoff-bid potential.
The ability to expand his staff to levels comparable to other programs in the conference.
“If we want to be successful, this is what we need,” Barnum says. “Today, I just need one. Don’t even give me four of them, because then I want six.”
The scheduling thing eats at him a bit. Because of their financial situation, the Vikings generally offer themselves up on a platter twice a season for FBS opponents in money games. It earns PSU a few dollars, but often puts the Vikings in a hole out of the gates.
“I’ll be the worst coach around here when it’s all said and done because of the two money games. I start out 0-2 every year. But the school has been good about that. They understand it.”
“You know, Herbert will never say this, but I was the first one to offer him. He was in our office with his mom. He didn’t have anything yet and he’s this big, tall and lanky kid. I had just got the job and I offered him. I didn’t think I was going to get him, but then he gets to Oregon and blows up. He had a gun. I don’t care what you say, Oregon swept in late and they thought they were taking a gamble on him.”
Barnum respects hard throwing right-handers. His sons Cooper and Brody both pitch for Washington State.
“Brody says Cooper is better. Cooper says Brody is better,” Barnum says.
Alexander pops in. Only Neil Lomax produced more total offense and passing yards in Vikings history, and the quarterback signed last week with the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL. He’s helping out Barnum this spring.
“That kid was playing the whole season with a broken elbow,” Barnum says before diving into a Week 2 game where the Vikings brought a lead into the second half against national runner-up Montana State.
“We threw a pick in the fourth quarter. It’s third-and-4, ball hits the receiver, it pops up and the corner snags it. That play showed my youth a bit, because my defense went out there and MSU drove right down the field. I didn’t lose my team, but we had a good come-to-Jesus meeting. That’s when we established the leadership council. That thing is going well now.”
We’re making our way outside, walking through the double doors and stoping by a few stairs next to the practice field. It’s a bit overcast, but the Vikings will be the last to complain. They don’t have an indoor practice facility and there’s supposed to be rain this weekend. College teams only get 15 of these spring practices, so Barnum and his staff also dabble in meteorology when it comes to scheduling. Players are out on the field stretching, while a few cameras take shots of senior defensive tackle VJ Malo, who just signed an NIL deal. The team is still in shorts today. They’ll move onto shells next week, slowly taking on more as they build toward a March 6 spring game under the lights at Hillsboro Stadium.
A horn blows and music starts playing. It’s 8 a.m. and Barnum has a team to coach.
“Hey,” he says before taking the field, “do you need gas money to get home?”
— Tyson Alger
The photo of the win over Montana features multiple bags of Dot’s Pretzels photoshopped going through the uprights. Barnum came across the brand in 2018 when driving through the Midwest to pick up a boat. He liked them, called the number on the bag and now the Vikings can swim in pretzels if they want to. In November, Hershey bought Dot’s for $1.2 billion, Barnum tells me, with a “B.”