Gary Bernardi has four Rose Bowl rings. That’s a coaching career and then some. Two rings for each hand.
He looks outside his office window in Boulder, Colo., and sees autumn leaves. “Just beautiful,” he says. “I’ve been so fortunate.”
Bernardi can now pause to enjoy the view, but you don’t coach 372 college football games without understanding what makes the leaves change colors and fall.
He was fired at USC. He took over an 0-10 high school team in Burbank, Calif. He was fired at UNLV. At 55, when the road ahead should have fewer curves, he arrived at San Jose State to coach a team that had gone 2-10.
The leaves change, the teams change, but Gary Bernard doesn’t put on those Rose Bowl rings and relax. Not even close. Now he’s coaching the offensive line at Colorado, a team coming off a 1-11 season, a pushover-to-powerhouse undertaking at which he has few peers.
“It’s a hard business,” he says. “That I’ve survived 33 years is remarkable.”
In the spring of 1980, Bernardi arrived in Tucson, a young gun, part of a new Pac-10 program with visions of grandeur. A month later the most devastating scandal in UA sports history rocked McKale Center. Head coach Tony Mason was fired.
This was the beginning of Gary Bernardi’s 33-year college coaching career. His father, a paint contractor in Orange County, Calif., an Italian immigrant whose love for football had steered his son into coaching, never had a day like that. The UA coaching staff was figuratively wiped out.
Bernardi’s coach at Fountain Valley High School, his alma mater, called and told him to come home. “You can have your old job back,” he said. But Bernardi hesitated; somebody has to be the bridge to the new Arizona staff. He nominated himself.
“I decided to gut it out,” he says now. “It turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made.”
A few weeks later, as he bunked at his mother’s house in Southern California, the phone rang at 12:45 a.m. Bernardi rubbed his eyes; it was new Arizona coach Larry Smith.
“Do you want to work for me?”
Almost every college football coach with more than 10 years in the business has a similar story of professional survival. Until recently, when elite BCS schools began paying offensive and defensive coaches as much as $500,000 a year, offering multi-year contracts, the foot soldiers were men like Gary Bernardi, part of a disposable labor force, working year to year, nothing guaranteed.
Earlier this week, Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez joked that every assistant coach “should get a 10-year contract,” which would buoy a coach’s system and benefit the players attempting to learn it.
“You don’t want to fire ’em after three years,” RichRod said.
Benardi has coached for every almost conceivable variation of head coach. Smith was an old-school, blood-and-guts middle American. UCLA’s Terry Donahue excelled as a low-key underdog in the SoCal market. UNLV’s Mike Sanford was the nation’s emerging offensive “genius” from mid-level Utah.
At Colorado, Bernardi works for Mike McIntyre, son of a coach, a Southerner whose reconstruction of woebegone San Jose State, from 1-12 his first year to 11-2, was a you’ve-gotta-see-it-to-believe it performance.
Bernardi has been in the unpredictable business so long that he preceded Dick Tomey at Arizona and followed Tomey at San Jose State. In between, you make a life for yourself, sometimes on the run.
In 1977, when Arizona was a year away from joining the Pac-10, UA coaches went to Fountain Valley High School, just down the road from Disneyland, and successfully recruited the Barons’ touted pitch-and-catch tandem, quarterback Gil Compton and receiver Tim Holmes.
It was through those recruiting contacts that Bernardi gained the confidence of Mason and his staff. It led to a part-time job, which ultimately leads to Saturday’s Arizona-CU game at Folsom Field.
“I met my wife in Tucson and we were married at the Arizona Inn,” says Bernardi. “All three of our children were born in Tucson. I recruited Brian Poli-Dixon and Mike Saffer of Sabino to UCLA.
“I sometimes think that if the USC job hadn’t come along that Larry Smith and our staff would’ve been together 20 to 25 years. But that’s college football. Something always seems to come along.”
Don’t expect Bernardi to get sentimental and weepy when Arizona shows up. He’s gone through much more than that.
Three weeks ago at Oregon’s Autzen Stadium, Bernardi coached against his son, Joe, who is a Ducks’ assistant coach. More? Bernardi’s daughter, Briana,who is Joe’s twin, is the wife of CU secondary coach Andy LaRussa.
Something seems to come along, indeed.
“My son has followed my track,” says Bernardi. “I’ve told him, ‘In this game, there’s no telling where that will lead.’ “