“Even though it didn't go the way I thought I was going to go it went exactly the way God thought it was going to go.”
After leaving Michigan State University for a seven-year career in the NFL between 1989-1996, defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett never saw himself back in East Lansing other than to visit and reminisce on old times. Flash forward nearly 30 years, and Barnett is beginning his third stint as a Spartan.
“My wife and I would always think that we would ‘leave state at state,' that’s our college years and we would probably never live here.” Barnett said. “The next thing you know we’re back, after many, many, many, many years and we enjoyed ourselves here.”
His second stint at Michigan State was as the defensive backs coach, from 2007-17, and Barnett eventually became the defensive coordinator. The Cincinnati native was seen by many as the heir apparent to Mark Dantonio.
That time never came, as Barnett took a new job down in Tallahassee to become the defensive coordinator at Florida State under Willie Taggart. Things never quite materialized for the Seminoles in his two years, and he was let go when newly-appointed head coach Mike Norvell took over.
Just a couple months later however, Barnett received a call from MSU coach Mel Tucker asking if he wanted to be a defensive backs coach once again.
“'Absolutely,' I said, 'when do you need me here?'” Barnett told Tucker. “He said, ‘As soon as you can get here,’ and I said, ‘Alright no problem.’”
Barnett joins a staff filled to the seams with experience, as Barnett, Mike Tressel, Ross Els, and Scottie Hazelton all have experience as a defensive coordinator at Power Five schools. That brain power will end up meshing together as Barnett and Tressel will be coaching the defensive backs and safeties together.
“We were together for 14 straight years, so we know one another, and we feed off one another and our strengths and weaknesses work well off one another,” Barnett said. “(Tressel is) like a brother to me.”
“I remember telling (former defensive coordinator and current Pittsburgh coach) Pat (Narduzzi) and Mike, ‘Y'all know we’re connected for life man, we're like brothers now’, along with (defensive tackles) coach (Ron) Burton, for that matter, and we had coached together for so long, so it's very it's been a smooth transition.”
Of course, the leader of that transition on the defensive side of the football is Hazelton. Hazelton unlike the rest of the defensive staff, has no connection to Tucker or the Michigan State program prior to arriving in East Lansing.
“I don’t want to get in coach Tucker’s head, but I think (bringing in Hazelton) was on purpose, a little bit in that, just learning a new way to do things.” Barnet said. “Learning that along with what coach Tucker brings to the table and what he’s done in his past, and we have a lot of defensive minds on the staff, and hopefully it will translate onto the field."
Barnett inherits a defensive backs group that loses its number one guy in Josiah Scott, as he departed a year early for the NFL Draft. The way Barnett sees it though, is as a fresh, clean start for everyone.
“I did tell the kids when I met with them when I first got back here, that whatever has been said, the slate is clean," Barnett said. “Your slate is clean, so you gotta prove me wrong and I’m going to believe what I see. Those guys I think have the potential to be really good football players, that’s why we recruited them here.”
One of the guys expected to play a major role in the secondary is converted wide receiver Julian Barnett.
“There is no relation — that we know of anyway, in case you guys were wondering,” Barnett said jokingly.
Julian, when brought to Michigan State, was looked at as guy who could play both wide receiver or cornerback going forward, but was listed as a cornerback in the offseason roster. As a four-star recruit just last year, Harlon Barnett thinks Julian can bring a lot to the table.
“I think he can be an excellent cornerback,” Harlon Barnett said. “He's long, he's big and can run, and that's what he was recruited to do anyhow, so I know he's happy to be back on that side of the ball, and I expect big things from Julian.”
However, a lot of that scouting and practice time has been put on hold because of the COVID-19 crisis. Because of that, a lot of the workouts and things that are being asked of the players have to be done by honor system.
“That’s a tough one because they can always say they are doing something or send a quick clip or something,” Harlon Barnett said. “It's really ... about trust and accountability. You know when you got a really good team if guys come back here all in shape, ready to go.
“They say they've been working, we give them things to do and talk to them about doing certain things, but it's all about trust and honesty.”
Whenever the Spartans do take the field this season, Harlon Barnett will be rearing to go for his third stint with the green and white.