There was no sales pitch needed for Harlon Barnett.
When Mel Tucker called Barnett and asked if he’d be interested in returning to Michigan State to coach the defensive backs, Barnett’s response was, "When do you need me there?"
Just like that, the long-time Spartan was on his way back to East Lansing.
“I got a call from Coach Tucker and it wasn't a very long call,” Barnett recalled during a conference call Wednesday. “And he was like, ‘I’d like you to come up here and be our secondary coach. How do you feel about that?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’ Then I said, ‘When do you need me here?’ ‘As soon as you can get here.’ I said, ‘All right, no problem.’”
That conversation happened on a Friday. It was Valentine’s Day, in fact. By the next morning Barnett was on his way to campus and was at Breslin Center that night as Michigan State played Maryland in basketball, sitting with fellow assistant coaches Mike Tressel and Ron Burton.
“It was awesome just to get the call from Coach Tucker,” Barnett said. “First of all, it was awesome to be able to come back home, so to speak, and be back actually wearing the green and white. So I'm excited. My family's excited and we're happy to be back.”
The official announcement came a few days later. After spending the previous two seasons as the defensive coordinator at Florida State, Barnett once again was a Spartan.
It’s been quite a run at Michigan State for Barnett. A three-year starter under George Perles and a Sporting News All-American as a senior, the Cincinnati native first set foot on campus as a high school prospect back in 1985. After a seven-year NFL career, Barnett was soon embarking on a coaching career, and in 2007, he was back at Michigan State as the defensive backs coach for Mark Dantonio.
After the 2014 season, defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi left to take the head coaching job at Pittsburgh and Dantonio promoted Barnett and Tressel, then the linebackers coach, to co-defensive coordinators. The Spartans continued to put dominant defenses on the field and reached the College Football Playoffs in 2015.
After the 2017 season, Barnett made the move to Florida State to run a defense on his own. Things did not go well as head coach Willie Taggart was fired before the end of the 2019 and Barnett was left without a job.
“I always tell people this, even though it didn’t go the way I thought it was gonna go, it went exactly the way God thought it was going to go,” Barnett said of his time with the Seminoles. “Like my pastor down there said, ‘God never says oops.’ I didn’t know that was gonna happen but He knew it was going to happen.”
Which means Barnett’s path back to Michigan State was never in doubt, either. As soon as Tucker was named to replace Dantonio, Barnett’s name started to surface as a coach who Tucker might hire, either as a coordinator or position coach.
Tucker first opted to keep Tressel and defensive line coach Ron Burton on board, two coaches Barnett knows well. He and Tressel were part of Dantonio’s first staff at Cincinnati in 2004 and followed Dantonio to Michigan State. In 2013, Burton joined the staff.
The staff was coming together. Burton was sticking with the guys up front while Tressel moved back to the secondary with Barnett, taking over safeties while Barnett will focus on the cornerbacks.
“That was kind of why we actually set it up this way, because of (our) relationship and working together,” Barnett said of Tressel. “We worked together for 14 straight years, so we know one another, we feed off one another. I think our strengths and weaknesses work well off one another, and there's no ego there. So Mike is like a brother to me. I remember saying that to those guys as we were together for so long. It was the Rose Bowl year in 2013 and I remember telling Pat and Mike and them, ‘Y'all know we are connected for life, man. We're like brothers now,’ along with Coach Burton, for that matter. We had coached together for so long.
“So it's been a smooth transition. I think it's gonna be great, and we're both motivated guys being coordinators before, so we're looking to make the secondary extremely successful with guys playing their butts off.”
There are some new faces for Barnett, but the roster isn’t completely new, either. He was able to spend some time with early enrollee Angelo Grose and redshirt freshman Tate Hallock — two players he didn’t really know — before everyone was sent home and he’s either coached or recruited plenty of the guys in the back end.
That includes sophomore Julian Barnett, who is moving back to cornerback after playing wide receiver last season, and incoming freshman Darius Snow.
“I was talking to Darius quite a bit when I was down at Florida State,” Barnett said. “He and I would talk all the time, so I felt like I knew him pretty well.
“(Julian) was being recruited as a corner anyway, so Julian and I know knew each other pretty well and I think he can be an excellent cornerback. He’s long, he’s big, he can run and that's what he was recruited to do. I know he's happy to be back on that side of the ball, and I expect big things from Julian.”
Regardless of relationships, Barnett made it clear to his players that this is a fresh start. He believes there’s plenty of talent in the room and hopes to continue to produce top-level players. There’s a track record, to be sure. Cornerback Darqueze Dennard was the Jim Thorpe winner and a first-round pick in 2013 followed by first-round pick Trae Waynes in 2014.
With his focus now just on corners, Barnett is confident the Spartans will continue to be a top defense.
“I'm excited about it because corners are a very unique position,” Barnett said. “I tell the guys, for us to be a great defense, you’ve got to have two great corners. Most times if you have two great corners on the defense at any level — high school, college, pro — your defense has a chance to be really, really good.
"When you can lock down the edges there is so much other stuff that you're able to do with the other nine guys on the field.”