Chad Barnhardt, QB/1997-98
Barnhardt took a chance on a new South Florida program, transferring from South Carolina and beating out Lance Hoeltke during the spring and fall practices in 1997 to become the Bulls' first starting quarterback. Flip through the USF record books, and he owns virtually every "first time" passing record. First quarterback, first touchdown pass (to Jermaine Clemons), first winning quarterback, first 300-yard passing game... all his.
During his two years at USF, Barnhardt threw for 4,138 yards and 27 touchdowns. His best season was 1998, when he completed 59% of his passes and threw 17 touchdowns against only nine interceptions. Barnhardt's 156.1 efficiency rating that season is still the highest for a single season by any Bulls quarterback. And he probably would have had even bigger numbers except for two things - he separated his shoulder in a win over Charleston Southern, and the Bulls were so damn good at running the ball that year. They ran the ball 57% of the time in 1998 and gained over 5 yards per carry. Plus the Bulls had several blowout wins, limiting his time on the field and tilting the play-calling balance further towards the run.
Sure, Chad Barnhardt wasn't a dual threat like Matt Grothe. He didn't have a laser rocket arm like B.J. Daniels. And he didn't have the escapability of Marquel Blackwell. So why is he on the list? I'll explain why after the jump.
I really don't know if a first-year college football team is anything like an expansion team in the NFL, but I would guess so. If any program is ultimately going to be successful, it needs to start with leadership and credibility. Getting Chad Barnhardt to transfer from an SEC school to play at this startup program - that's credibility. Then having Barnhardt be the strong presence the team needed and someone who also happened to be very good at playing his position - that's leadership.
A lot of times new programs decide that the first class is going to grow up all together, like an expansion team that builds up through the draft and doesn't fill out the team with a lot of veterans. Most likely, you end up with a freshman quarterback, and you get your head kicked in for a year or two while he makes his learning mistakes. That didn't happen with USF, and it might have saved us several years on our growth timeline. There was no reason to take the expansion team route - thanks to Barnhardt and some other key transfers, the Bulls were successful right away and people embraced them in record numbers.
I remember the game against Liberty in 1998, when I was in my second semester at USF. It was a road game, and so even though Tampa got about 78 inches of rain that weekend, a bunch of us got together at someone's apartment to watch the game on TV and/or get hammered. (I did the former, avoided the latter, and discovered in the process that binge drinking is really not that much fun to be around if you never participate.)
The last 10 minutes of the game pretty much stopped down the party, as everyone piled into the living room and dining area to watch. First, the Flames scored a touchdown to take a 14-13 lead. No problem - the Bulls came right back with a 90-yard drive, including three passes by Barnhardt for first downs. Otis Dixon ran for a score and the Bulls picked up a two-point conversion to go ahead 21-14. Then Liberty answered with another touchdown, tying the game at 21 with 3:33 to go. What I remember most, and I think some of the people in the room felt it too, was this thought: "That's okay, we're going to win. We have Chad Barnhardt."
And we were right. The Bulls went 53 yards in nine plays, including a key 30-yard pass from Barnhardt to Rj Anderson, who made a great move after catching the ball at the sideline and put the Bulls in field-goal range. Bill Gramatica drilled a 44-yard field goal on the final play, and the room erupted with celebration as people started doing things with each other that would never be allowed at Liberty University. You know, really dirty stuff like hugging and high-fives.
Even in the very early days of football, with really no history to back up what I was feeling, I had faith in the team and Barnhardt in particular. That game, our first taste of the late-game heroics that would come to be a staple of our football team, repaid the faith. We could do this list again five or 10 or 15 years from now, and even though I'm sure there will be many more talented and (hopefully) decorated players between now and then, I might still find a place on my list for Barnhardt. Not only because he was a big part of USF football's foundation, but because like the T-shirts said back then: You never forget your first time.