UNLV football coaches returned to work Tuesday in preparation for the season, and not being there emotionally tore up Barney Cotton.
He’s been coaching since 1987, and as the Rebels’ offensive coordinator, he sure didn’t want to miss this season.
But Cotton is forced to follow from afar as he awaits a heart transplant while staying downstairs in his sister’s home in Omaha, Nebraska. Offensive line coach Garin Justice was elevated to coordinator Thursday after Cotton stepped down.
Cotton, 62, said Friday he hopes to return to football in some form, and that UNLV coach Tony Sanchez has left open the possibility with the Rebels. Being on a transplant list carries the uncertainty of not knowing when one will occur, and Cotton’s wait could last for a week or several months.
After that, he said there is about a nine-month rehabilitation, then he’ll have a better idea about returning to the profession.
“I always figured I was going to coach five, six, seven more years anyway,” Cotton said. “If somebody would take a chance on an old guy either in a coaching role or an analyst role, I’d love to get back into coaching.”
He was UNLV’s offensive coordinator since 2015, establishing one of the Mountain West’s top running games over that time. The Rebels averaged at least 224.3 yards rushing per game the past three seasons and at least 28.6 points for the past four years.
Cotton played at Nebraska from 1975 to 1978 before spending four seasons in the NFL. He returned to his alma mater for a season in 2003 as offensive coordinator and went back in 2008 for seven years as the associate head coach and run game coordinator.
He and his wife, Christine, went back to Lincoln, Nebraska, at the end of June to visit family, and while there, Cotton experienced trouble breathing. He was told he had congestive heart failure and would need to go on the transplant list.
“It happened really fast,” Cotton said. “From the end of May until we went on vacation, I think we all worked like 25 straight days, so this was kind of out of the blue. All of a sudden, I go from that to this.
“I had never been that short of breath before. You get a little short of breath, but you work through it and you keep working. You don’t really think anything of it, but this one was different.”
Cotton called Sanchez with the news. They decided to keep it quiet until Sanchez could figure out what to do about the staff.
“He’s the first person I called because of my loyalty and everything to Tony and UNLV,” Cotton said. “We’ve talked a number of times since, and he’s been great. He’s pulling for me, and I’m pulling for them like I’m still there every day.”
Cotton would have preferred waiting in Las Vegas for a transplant and remain involved with the Rebels in some capacity, but there are no transplant services in the valley. Another option was moving to California, but in Omaha, Cotton could be around family.
He’ll miss his football family, though, and has had some emotional calls and text messages with players.
“Some of those guys I’ve gotten really, really close with,” Cotton said. “I told a couple of them I’d cut off my arm if I could coach them the next couple years, but I’m not going to be able to. I broke down and told them, ‘We’re going to have to talk later when I get myself a little more together.’ That’s probably the hardest thing is not be about to coach guys like Armani (Rogers) and Gio (Fauolo) and so many of the other guys that I’ve created really close relationships with.”