PORTLAND – The season had so many improbable triumphs – the kind that coach Bruce Barnum and his Portland State football players will talk about for years.
But only in the moments after it ended did Barnum allow himself a moment of reflection.
In September, nobody expected Portland State to be playing Saturday’s FCS playoff game at Providence Park, which Northern Iowa won 29-17.
But that was before an opening week upset at Washington State.
That was before Portland State’s players so rallied around their first-time interim head coach and his no-nonsense Barny Ball style that Barnum was made full-time coach midseason.
That was before a team picked to finish last in the Big Sky won nine games, its most as a Division I program.
So shortly after Saturday’s game, the Vancouver native was asked what he’ll remember most about the season.
“Now I’m finally thinking about that because I’m so locked in during the season,” Barnum said. “I want these guys to be successful and I love that part of college football. Now you’re talking banquet talk.”
That’s going to be a fun banquet, so Barnum offered a sneak preview.
“I’ll remember Portland State noticing their football team,” he continued. “I’ll remember the East Coast and the rest of the nation being in contact because we beat Washington State.”
Barnum also recalled receiving a hand-written letter from university president Wim Wiewel.
“He thanked me for how this team portrayed Portland State in a positive light,” Barnum said.
That’s a far cry from before this season, when rumors swirled that a university administration never known for fully supporting its football team was considering shuttering a program that had just one winning season in the past 10 years.
Barnum’s acumen and affability turned out to be just what the team needed.
And the players, who weren’t blue-chip prospects but proudly wore blue collars, were exactly what their coach needed.
Barnum’s success shows not only the power of a coach, but of a culture. The Barney Ball mantra was never just a slogan. Rather it became a football philosophy that united a team.
There were no complaints about long bus rides to road games. That bus-storming tour played into the no-frills underdog attitude that courses through Barney Ball.
The players bought in when nobody would buy stock in the Vikings.
The players believed in the program’s potential when recent history offered no reason to.
And now those players have put Portland State football on the map.
After Saturday’s loss, which saw Northern Iowa have two players rush for 200-plus yards and mount a fearsome pass rush, Barnum started to look ahead.
After seeing how Northern Iowa’s physicality won out, Barnum talked about the need to recruit more athletes who have both size and speed.
A football coach’s job is always looking ahead. There’s always a new athlete to recruit or a new gameplan to devise.
But Portland State’s season was worth looking back upon, even for a moment.
A home loss on a rainy night wasn’t a storybook ending. But because it came in a December playoff game, Portland State should be excited for the next chapter.
Micah Rice is The Columbian’s Sports Editor. Reach him at 360-735-4548, Micah.Rice@Columbian.com or on Twitter @col_mrice .