Sand began to seep through the hour glass on Sept. 26, 2011.
That day, George Barlow was handed the reins of the University of New Mexico football program. The job came with a catch – the label of interim head coach. Barlow was keeping the seat warm for the next guy.
Four games into the 2011 season, the Lobos were winless and had lost 26 of 28 since 2009, when Mike Locksley was hired as the head coach. Barlow came over to New Mexico with Locksley before the 2009 season and served as defensive backs coach for two years before moving up to defensive coordinator.
The writing was on the wall. A new regime would be in place after the 2011 season.
The 43-year-old Barlow didn’t care. After 20 years as an assistant coach, he intended to cherish his time – however brief – as a college head coach.
“You kind of get a trial run at being a head coach,” Barlow said. “It was a tough situation but, at the same time, once I got adjusted and got my feet on the ground after the first game or two it was a really neat experience to go through that. You learn it is a really different deal when you are sitting in that seat.”
Eight games – and just one win later – Barlow was out.
Former Notre Dame coach Bob Davie took over, has the Lobos off to a 4-4 start and eying their first bowl since 2007. Looking back, Barlow, now the defensive backs coach and defensive recruiting coordinator at Vanderbilt, doesn’t harbor any ill-will toward his former employer. Instead, he is grateful for the opportunity.
“I took it over like it was mine. I made changes like it was mine,” he said. “I think we made some improvements, made some strides, played a lot harder, and played a lot more competitive. I just tried to make it the best experience for those kids. They had not such a great experience the last couple years. So I just tried to make it as fun as possible for those guys so they could get better and get ready for the rest of their years there. ... It was fun. It was challenging and I’m looking forward to another opportunity to actually do it on a regular basis.”
When that next chance will come is uncertain. But Barlow is making the most of his current situation.
More than halfway through his first season with the Commodores (3-4), he has quietly helped the secondary continue to build on a national reputation as one of the stingiest in the country. Heading into Saturday’s game against Massachusetts, Vanderbilt ranks third in the nation in pass defense (142.6 yards per game).
“He really wants us to be very physical,” cornerback Andre Hal said. “He is more quiet [than previous cornerbacks coach Wesley McGriff]. He is calmer. He really doesn’t get on you too much. He’ll come to your face and talk to you. I like the way he coaches me. I love him coming to me and telling me what I did wrong instead of fussing, hollering and cursing at me. I like how he is.”
This calm, carefree demeanor has assisted Barlow in stepping back into the role of assistant coach.
“He’s not an ego guy,” Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said. “He stepped into that room really well and complemented [defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, linebackers coach Brent Pry and defensive line coach Sean Spencer] and the rest of the staff. Not everybody is able to do that. There are some egos in this business. I think he has meshed really well.”
There are only 120 head coaching positions in the Football Bowl Subdivision. So when an opportunity comes open it can’t be taken for granted. Who knows if Barlow will ever get another crack?
It took the former Marshall safety a long time just to reach that point. He worked his way up the coaching ladder, serving stints and nearly every level – junior college, Division II, Football Championship Subdivision and FBS. Before he spent 10 years (1999-2008) at James Madison, an FCS powerhouse, Barlow soaked in three years with Big 12 juggernaut Oklahoma.
Those experiences helped him keep things in perspective after his removal at New Mexico and allowed him to arrive at Vanderbilt without a bitter taste in his mouth.
“That experience wasn’t the best experience but, at the same time, me going back I thought was going to make me a better assistant coach,” Barlow said. “Now that I sat in that seat and saw the responsibility and all the different ways you’re being pulled at as a head coach, I have a lot more respect for that position.
"Now going back to being just an assistant coach I know the pressures that are on [head coaches]. Now I know it’s my job to be an even better assistant coach to make his job easier. That’s what I strive to do.”