In 2019, Bruce Barnum will begin his fifth season as the Portland State Football Head Coach and 10th year in the program with reloaded expectations.
Barnum has seen the highs and lows of the profession, taking his team to the NCAA Playoffs and earning National Coach of the Year honors in 2015, and dealing with the challenge of a winless 2017. But his youthful team of 2018 showed the promise of the future by improving by four wins, including a thrilling road victory over nationally-ranked Montana last October.
A group of young offensive skill position players have matured. And a revamped defense showed great improvement, cutting points allowed in 2018 by 16 and total yards allowed by more than 120. From that roster, some 50 letterwinners will return in 2019.
BARNYBALL COMES TO THE PARK BLOCKS
2015 was a remarkable year for Viking Football Coach Bruce Barnum. He went from interim Head Coach to FCS National Coach of the Year in just a few months. It was a meteoric rise founded on more than two decades of hard work as an assistant coach at the collegiate level.
Barnum led his Viking team on a remarkable journey in 2015 - the best-ever season at the Division I level for PSU - while making a remarkable journey of his own in his first season as a head football coach.
The Vikings’ offensive coordinator for five seasons, Barnum was named interim Head Coach on Nov. 26, 2014. Within a week, he was given a one-year contract to run the program and no guarantees for the future. All Barnum did was take a 3-9 team that was an after-thought in the Big Sky Conference, as well as the city of Portland, and turn it into one of the best teams in the nation. He accomplished the task with virtually the same roster as 2014, save one key addition; quarterback Alex Kuresa.
Barnum guided PSU to a 9-3 record in 2015 - its best record ever at the Division I level. The Vikings beat two FBS programs in the same season for the first time in their history, including a first-ever win over a Pac-12 team. PSU went 5-1 against nationally-ranked teams and was ranked as high as fifth in the nation at the end of the season.
The Vikings made their first appearance in the NCAA Division I playoffs in 15 years, just their second ever, and hosted a Division I playoff game for the first time. PSU lost to Northern Iowa of the powerhouse Missouri Valley Conference, 29-17, but that didn’t diminish a magical fall on the Park Blocks for the Viking team.
Most of all, using his “BarnyBall” style of tough, hard-nosed fundamental football sprinkled with remarkable team chemistry and unity, Barnum made Portland State football relevant again in the city of Portland, in the Big Sky Conference and on the national scene.
On Nov. 25, Barnum became the first Viking football coach ever selected as Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year. One week later has was named FCS Coach of the Year in a vote of media members from around the nation.
2015 included victories over Washington State, North Texas, Montana, Montana State and others that nobody saw coming. Barnum led a program turnaround that was a six-game improvement over the previous season. He was also given a five-year contract after working under an interim tag the first five weeks of the year.
Unfortunately, 2016 was altogether different. It began with tragedy as Portland State lost not one, but two players to untimely deaths in the off-season, AJ Schlatter and Kyle Smith. Those two were important talents, but more than that they were on-field brothers to the teammates left behind. Portland State forged ahead, but found themselves to be the hard-luck team in the Big Sky Conference once the season began. PSU was extremely competitive, however the ranks thinned quickly as some 29 players lost 131 games to injuries. Five of their six league losses came after the Vikings had a chance to tie or score the go-ahead touchdown in the closing moments or overtime of games.
After a challenging 2017 season that saw the Vikings go winless, they turned the corner in 2018. PSU improved by four games, including a landmark win at nationally-ranked Montana - the first Big Sky win ever by the Vikings in Missoula. Barnum’s squad was a youthful group that included 38 freshmen and sophomores competing among the 71 total players that saw field time. In total, there were 54 freshmen and sophomores on a 90-man roster that had only 12 seniors.
FROM INTERIM HEAD COACH TO A FIVE-YEAR DEAL
Barnum was named Portland State’s full-time head coach on Oct. 14, 2015. It came only five games into a season that turned out to be historic for PSU.
“It is my privilege to announce that Portland State has signed Bruce Barnum to a multi-year contract,” said Mark Rountree, then PSU’s Director of Athletics. “Coach Barnum has proven he can lead our team to compete at the highest levels, and is committed to developing student-athletes to be successful for the rest of their lives.
“The search committee recognized his strong commitment to integrity and the holistic success of students, which is why he was the unanimous choice for the job. Bruce exemplifies Portland State’s identity of being fearless and determined, and I know he will have a huge impact on our campus and our community.”
“Coach Barnum has made a huge difference in our athletics program in a very short time. His commitment to our student-athletes and Portland State is outstanding and we look forward to continued success,” said then-PSU President Wim Wiewel.
When he was first named interim Head Coach - despite the short term - Barnum was more than happy to take it, fulfilling his long-held desire to be a head coach. It was an unusual situation, no doubt. But one that Barnum, a native of nearby Vancouver, WA, relished.
“I look at it like I have a 12-month interview,” Barnum said at the time. “This is a great opportunity to show what I can do as a Head Coach.” And take advantage he did....
Barnum is the 14th head coach in the 72-year history of Portland State football and the fourth in PSU’s 22-year history in the Big Sky Conference.
His background of nearly three decades in coaching, including 15 years as a coordinator, has shown excellent results.
When Barnum came to Portland State in 2010, he brought versatility and resiliency as the team’s offensive coordinator.
With a background based in strong passing games, he took the Pistol Offense, which is run-oriented, and created a dynamic attack for the Vikings. The result has been an offense that improved four straight seasons in total yards and total points and become one of the top producers in the nation annually.
PSU averaged 355.2 yards per game of offense in 2009, the year before Barnum took over. That number grew over four seasons from 396.5 to 432.7 to 438.7 to 540.5. On the scoreboard, PSU averaged 21.1 prior to Barnum’s arrival. In the next four seasons it improved to 23.4, 32.9, 34.8 and 34.9 in 2013.
In those four years, Barnum improved the Portland State offense by 185 yards and nearly 14 points per game.
In 2011, Barnum led PSU’s offense to the most yards and most points by a Viking team in a decade. Portland State averaged 247.8 rushing yards, 184.9 passing yards, 432.7 total yards and 32.9 points per game. The Vikings were eighth in the nation in rushing, 15th in total offense and 18th in scoring. PSU’s numbers were up nearly 40 yards and more than nine points per game over the previous season.
Even more impressive, Barnum’s offense accomplished all that after losing the nation’s top rusher, Cory McCaffrey, to injury after playing in only five games. His quarterback, Connor Kavanaugh, set new Portland State and Big Sky Conference records for rushing in a season (1,060) and a career (1,965).
Of course, he bettered that in 2012. The offense was as balanced as you could hope for at 216.5 yards on the ground, 222.2 yards through the air, 438.7 total yards and 34.8 points per game overall. Nationally, PSU was 16th in rushing, 16th in total offense and 11th in scoring. PSU had its most yards of total offense in 11 years, best rushing average in 11 years (5.3 yards per game), most points per game in 13 years, and remarkably, allowed only seven sacks all season as the Vikings attempted 343 passes.
Considering Portland State had a new backfield with freshman quarterback Kieran McDonagh and top rusher DJ Adams, a junior transfer, the production was outstanding. McDonagh ended up as the most productive freshman quarterback in Portland State history (2,187 passing yards, 406 rushing yards, 23 total touchdowns). Adams (967 yards, 12 touchdowns) teamed with McDonagh and returners Shaq Richard (524 yards) and Justin Lilley (178 yards) for a dynamic rushing attack. McDonagh finished eighth in the voting for the Jerry Rice National Freshman of the Year Award.
In 2013, numerous Vikings’ offensive numbers were broken. The Vikings set new school records for total offense (6,486 yards), offense per game (540.5), rushing offense (3,330 yards), rushing offense per game (277.5) and rushing touchdowns (36) and maintained balance on the attack with 263.0 yards per game through the air, leading the nation in yards per completion (16.7). Portland State ranked third in the nation in total offense (first in the Big Sky) and third in rushing offense (second in the Big Sky). And, for the third time in four years, the Viking offense broke the school record for rushing.
In addition, the Viking offense featured two of the top players in the Big Sky Conference in running back DJ Adams (1,600 yards, 19 TDs) and wide receiver Kasey Closs (63 receptions, 1,167 yards, 8 TDs).
Portland State rushed for more than 2,000 yards as a team for the sixth straight year in 2015 (3,007). It was the second time the team rushed for more than 3,000 yards under Barnum. In 2016, PSU totaled 2,680 yards on the ground.
PSU has rushed for more than 200 yards per game in all seven seasons Barnum has been at PSU. The top six rushing seasons in school history have come in the last six seasons (3,330 in 2013; 3,007 in 2015; 2,726 in 2011; 2,680 in 2016; 2,500 in 2014; 2,382 in 2012).
Portland State led the Big Sky Conference in rushing two years in a row (2010 and 2011). With the addition of triple-option offense Cal Poly to the league, the Vikings were second in rushing in four of the next five years.
During his tenure, Barnum’s offensive line has also been brilliant. In 2014, PSU led the Big Sky Conference with the fewest sacks allowed on the season (10) despite throwing 423 passes.
Barnum came to the Viking program with more than two decades of coaching experience, including time in the Big Sky Conference, and most recently at Cornell University. He has vast recruiting experience in the west from nearly a decade at Idaho State and as a western US recruiter for Cornell.
Most recently, Barnum was the offensive coordinator at Cornell, running a spread offense with the Big Red program from 2007-09. In 2008, five members of the Cornell offense earned All-Ivy League honors as the Big Red led the league in passing yards and ranked second in total offense. In 2007, Cornell scored the second-most points for the program in 58 years.
Familiar with the Big Sky Conference as a 1987 graduate and player at Eastern Washington, Barnum coached at Idaho State from 1998-2006. He was the offensive coordinator for the Bengals for six seasons.
Barnum had many successes with the ISU offense, averaging 30 points per game in 2001 and 2002. The Bengals were Big Sky Conference co-Champions with Montana in 2002. In 2003, the Bengal offense scored 394 points - second-most in school history - and ranked sixth in the nation in passing, 20th in scoring and 21st in total offense. In 2004, the Bengals threw for 3,611 yards - third-most in school history. In 2005, the team rushed for over 1,700 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Interestingly, Barnum also served on the defensive side of the ball at Idaho State. He was the ISU defensive coordinator in 2000, and worked with the defensive line in 1999 and 2000.
Barnum began his career as a high school coach at Columbia River HS in Vancouver and Central Valley HS in Spokane. He moved on to be offensive line coach at Western Washington in 1989-90. Barnum’s first experience at Cornell came during the 1991 and 1992 seasons, working as an assistant offensive line coach and offensive coordinator for the freshman team.
Barnum was an offensive line coach and run game coordinator at American International in 1993. He served as offensive line coach and assistant head coach at the United States Coast Guard Academy from 1994-97. That team won a Freedom Conference Championship, advancing to the NCAA III playoffs.