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How tragedy inspired Iowa OL coach George Barnett to become a football coach


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New Iowa offensive line coach George Barnett started off as a business major at Division III Millikin in Decatur, Illinois. That lasted for about a year, maybe a little more.

Until one day Barnett looked at himself in the mirror and didn't like what he saw.

"'What are you doing?'" Barnett remembers asking himself. "'Why wouldn’t you be a coach? Why wouldn’t you be a coach and have the same effect on your own kids that these people did on you?'"

Barnett's father had died several years earlier, during his freshman year of high school. Coaches, Barnett said, became father figures in his life. They helped get him from point A to point B. They motivated him and pushed him to grow as a young man.

They made him want to be a coach, too, even if he didn't realize it at the time. He switched his major from business to education to help him reach that goal.

"As I grew through my high school years, looking back, you realize how much coaches help raise you, to be honest with you. It’s a powerful situation," Barnett told reporters Wednesday during his first media availability since getting hired in March. "Pushing you hard even though you’re lost and trying to find answers as a 14-year-old kid who lost his dad. Those experiences shaped me. I just didn’t realize it.

"My 'Why?' is watching kids develop and watching kids become something they weren’t quite sure they could become."

That's a major reason Barnett made the difficult choice to leave Tulane when his mentor, former Illinois coach Harry Hiestand, called to tell him that Iowa needed a new offensive line coach just a few months after Barnett joined Tulane's staff.

Iowa had always been "one of those jobs" during Barnett's entire career, he said, from his three seasons at Illinois State to his seven at Miami of Ohio, that he couldn't pass up. To Barnett, Kirk Ferentz-led Iowa is a place where he can coach at an elite level, but also a place where he won't lose sight of why he got into coaching: to be the type of role model and helping hand he needed when he was younger.

"When I say I’ve always thought of Iowa," Barnett said, "it’s because of what happened to me in high school."

Familiar face returns to Iowa City

Barnett wasn't the only new coach addressing the media for the first time Wednesday.

Running backs coach Ladell Betts also spoke to reporters. Betts rushed for 3,686 yards and 25 touchdowns under Hayden Fry and Kirk Ferentz at Iowa from 1998-2001. He was a second-round draft pick in 2002, and he played in the NFL until 2010.

He has been nostalgic in his return to Iowa City — which he said looks a whole lot different than when he was there about 20 years ago.

"Familiar face, familiar name. Just a little bit older and a little less hair on top of my head these days," Betts said. "But it feels good to be back."

Betts has never coached in college before. He spent the past eight years in various high school coaching positions in Florida, including the 2019-20 season as head coach at Pine Crest in Boca Raton. He said he thinks his biggest learning curve will be on the recruiting trail, not on the field.

"At the end of the day, it’s football," Betts said. "Football doesn’t change. It’s hitting, tackling, running, catching, passing the football. It doesn’t change no matter what level you’re at. Just a little more detailed at this level."

Betts is well aware he has another potential NFL running back on his depth chart in junior Tyler Goodson. He plans to help him, and the rest of Iowa's running backs room, hone in on the abilities that will separate them from the pack — and help Goodson elevate his stock in NFL evaluators' eyes.

"The truth is there’s running backs all over the country that know how to run. But can you do the other things?" Betts said. "What can do you to elevate your game and separate yourself from everybody else than can run the ball? And that’s going to come down to, 'Can you catch the ball? Can you pass block?'"

Matthew Bain covers recruiting and pretty much anything else under the sports sun for the Des Moines Register and USA TODAY Network.  Contact him at mbain@dmreg.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.