April 16, 2015 by Kerry Eggers
As he begins what he affectionately calls "my one-year interview," new Portland State football coach Bruce Barnum won't have to borrow a page from his great-great grandfather, the legendary Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum, the 19th-century American showman who co-founded the Barnum & Bailey Circus.
(Full disclosure -- Bruce and P.T. aren't really related.)
Barnum also won't have to duplicate the feats of former PSU coach Pokey Allen -- a master showman himself.
Allen once rode an elephant and talked about shooting himself out of a cannon and bet his paycheck, all means to promote Vikings football.
Bruce Barnum says he would be willing to do those things, and more, to get butts in the stands for Portland State games next fall, because wants to make the Vikings more relevant to fans in the Portland community.
"I want to do everything I can to put Portland State football on the map," Barnum says.
But Barnum quickly notes that his improvement plan won't have to include the new coach sky-diving into Providence Park or wagering his paycheck that his team will draw 10,000 fans.
Barnum has other, more basic ideas.
"We don't have enough people in the stands," he says. "We need to put something on the field that somebody is proud of. We need a better product on the field."
Barnum was named the Viks' interim head coach after the school fired Nigel Burton on Nov. 26. Then, on Dec. 8, PSU went one step further and gave Barnum a 12-month contract to do the job.
Barnum, offensive coordinator under Burton at PSU the past five years, is getting his chance to run the show because of timing.
There has been no permanent athletic director at Portland State since Torre Chisholm resigned Oct. 31. Valerie Cleary is running the department on an interim basis. Candidates to be Chisholm's successor have been interviewed, but there is no telling when a successor will be hired.
So the powers-that-be at the Park Blocks decided to let Barnum handle the reins for a year.
"I'm jacked about it," said Barnum, 50, who has been coaching football for 27 years but has never been a head coach. "I'm running with it."
Barnum is a local guy, a graduate of Vancouver's Columbia River High who played three sports for the Chieftains, then was a middle linebacker at Eastern Washington. He knows PSU football history better than almost anybody.
"I grew up listening to (broadcaster) Ed Whelan talking about Pokey Allen," Barnum. "Mouse Davis has forgotten more football than most of us know. I played and coached against Tim Walsh. I know the blue-collar mentality he brought. I've always followed this place."
After Burton was let go, the names of many potential successors surfaced.
"How do I say this properly?" Barnum asks. "I know every name that was out there. There are a lot of guys who wanted this job for many reasons. I'm not worried about them. I know the history of this place. I love Portland State. I love Big Sky football. I hope in a year when we talk, you'll be saying I deserved this shot."
Barnum has coached in high school and at Western Washington, American International, the Coast Guard and Cornell. His longest stint was for 10 years at Idaho State, where he finished as defensive coordinator. Among his players there was a true freshman named Jared Allen, the 2011 NFL defensive player of the year now with the Chicago Bears.
PSU's interim head man loves coaching.
"My first year in college coaching, I asked, 'Do you get paid for this?'" he says.
He is thrilled for his opportunity to run the show at Portland State.
"I've thought about this for 20 years," Barnum says. "My wife thinks I'm a nut. All I do is take notes.
"I didn't know Nigel when I came here. I learned from him, good and bad. He set me up for an opportunity and brought me back to the Big Sky. I'm excited about what's going on."
Barnum says he has a "100-day plan to make this program what we need."
"My plan has already started," he says. "I know I'm the right guy for this job. Usually when they fire a head coach, players want to leave. I have guys who want to come back. That's unique."
Barnum said he is grateful to Cleary and to school President Wim Wiewel.
"They're not going to let Portland State football disappear," Barnum says. "A lot of people think I've been put in this job to keep the dam up, but the people who gave me a shot at this have faith in me. That's great to know.
"But in the end, they're going to look at the record. All people look at is the numbers. But there's so much more going on here.
"Val, Mr. Wiewel, other people here at Portland State -- they're the ones who went to bat for it. They think I have a shot. People fought for me to have a year. They heard my plan. They saw my vision."
Barnum knew little about the pistol offense until he came to Portland State. Burton, who learned the run-oriented pistol from the other side as defensive coordinator at Nevada, brought in experts the first year to help Barnum with its nuances.
After that, "Nigel let me coach the offense and left me alone,' " Barnum says. "He said, 'I'll take care of the rest, Barney.' I think it worked well. Except for the last year, I'm happy with what we did."
The Vikings finished 3-9 this fall, losing four games by a touchdown or less, a problem throughout the Burton era.
Barnum is optimistic about the immediate future, though he knows opposing Big Sky coaches will use his one-year contract against him in recruiting. Even so, he is eager to get the word out there.
"I'm going to get them excited about Portland State," he says. "This program isn't about me. (Recruits) are possibly with me for only one year, but (they should) go to Portland State because of what you can gain at the university academically. That's why you come here.
"It's not about me, but you're going to help me with my one-year interview. You're going to be part of the most fun year of college football I can make it. You're going to see a disciplined, fundamentally sound product on the football field. That's what I'm going to give you the first year. After that, the athletic director will make a decision on me."
Barnum knows the limitations. Portland State is a commuter school that resides in a state where Oregon and Oregon State are king. The agreement to play at Portland Timbers-operated Providence Park is less than ideal. He has only four fully paid assistants. The Vikings are under the FCS limit of 65 scholarships, and facilities -- though improved during the Burton era -- are only OK.
Can PSU football be successful next season?
"It has to be, or you won't be talking to me anymore," he says. "Yes, I think it can be. I do. We have 14 starters back. The recruiting side is going to help. I'm going to recruit Oregon. I have a firm grasp on every student-athlete in the state of Oregon. There is a strong foundation of players here, but I have some holes to fill. I need some guys to impact right now in certain positions.
"I have grandiose ideas, maybe, but I need to make them fit Portland State University."
With his top three quarterbacks returning, Barnum will probably continue to use the pistol.
"Offense is the third thing I'll look at when it gets to the football side," he says. "I'm looking at the other two sides (defense and special teams) right now. Mouse Davis' (run-and-shoot offense) intrigues the hell out of me, but I'm going to stick with our run game. That's what we've recruited to. If I wanted to run something different, I couldn't in a year. Our quarterbacks are all suited for that."
To balance the budget, Portland State played two "money" games last season, against Pac-12 foes Oregon State and Washington State. The Vikings will open with Washington State next season and also play FBS opponent North Texas. There's a chance they might schedule a third FBS foe.
"We need to add a game," Barnum says. "We're going through the options. If we find one, it's my understanding, we would sign that."
That would probably mean an 0-3 hole, an impediment to a potential winning record and a contract extension for Barnum. He says he can't worry about that.
"I'm just a coach," he says. "Maybe I speak from the heart too much, but I like where we're going. I've never been as excited in my life. Everybody involved in this program feels the same way.
"Nobody knows me right now. You don't know me. But I'm prepared for this seat. I'm ready as hell. But you be the judge. Look at the product we put on the field. I know in the end, you're going to like what you see. I'm not cocky; I'm confident. "I like my plan. I've been through a lot of head coaches at this level, have seen where they faltered. I've seen the good and the bad. I'm going to apply all the good, and in the end, you're going to want to keep me here."
Barnum takes a breath, then goes on.
"As a coach, I'm probably a mix of Tim Walsh and … you'll have to decide the other piece," he says. "All I know is, there's nothing better in life than what I'm doing right now.
"In one year, I could be on the street. I plan to not let that happen. Football is a great game, and it's an awful profession. But I've chosen it and, knock on wood, I've survived in it for 25 years."
The next era at Portland State has begun. It may be a short one. All I can tell you is this: Bruce Barnum won't fail for lack of enthusiasm. The man is determined to make sure a one-year interview turns into something much more long-lasting.