Baetz: Barta included everyone in Smith Center Program

By: John Baetz, Kansas Pregame Publisher
November 15, 2012 - 10:42 AM

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I consider myself very fortunate to have spent the years from 1989 through 1992 as a member of the Smith Center football program where I played for legendary coach Roger Barta. Barta announced his retirement last week, bringing to an end one of the most successful coaching careers not just in Kansas, but the country.

Upon hearing of the announcement, immediately my thoughts turned to my time as a player and the lessons learned from one of the most influential men in my life. His long-time assistant, Dennis Hutchinson, who actually has a longer tenure at Smith Center by two years than Coach Barta, also announced he would join his old friend in retirement, as was expected. Together, these two men helped shape the person I have become, not just by teaching the game of football, but by translating the lessons of the game into a blueprint for a successful life.

Over the years, many people have asked me what it was that made Coach Barta so special. How was it that he was able to win all those games (323) and state championships (8) over 35 years as the head coach of a small town football team in one of the fastest shrinking counties in the United States? There are many, many reasons, but most often I would tell people that he was able to get the best out of his players, all while rarely raising his voice.

Barta with Curtis Baetz in 1981

Many people associate great coaching with the fierce style of Nick Saban, Bear Bryant or Woody Hayes, but Coach Barta rarely used yelling as a tool to motivate players. Only when it was absolutely necessary would he raise his voice.

I remember the exact moment he assured me that I could be a good football player. It was in the early fall of 1989, my freshman year in high school.

My class had a lackluster eighth-grade football season, winning only two games. I know many of you will think it's ridiculous that I can remember how many games we won in junior high, or even high school for that matter, but when you grow up in Smith Center winning becomes an expectation embraced by an entire community. One of my earliest memories was watching my much older brother hoist a state championship trophy over his head and I recognized at that moment, in November of 1982, that playing winning football should be one of my priorities.

So, two wins in eighth grade left the members of my class wondering if we were fit to wear the red, white, and green (hardly a trace of green remains) of the Smith Center Redmen. We wondered if we could be the class that posted the rare losing season, or if the performance was just an anomaly for a team that had yet to receive the instruction of Coach Barta and his band of dedicated assistants.

Barta with Dennis Hutchinson

Just the ascent to the next level as a freshman provided newfound confidence, but coupled with an excellent class of senior leaders, including players like Tim Wilson (a recent Smith Center football assistant), Chad Higgins (the current Superintendent of Schools at Moundridge) and Cory Frieling (now a dedicated farmer and family man in Smith County), among others, my freshman year of football was a thrilling experience that ended with a loss to Hesston in the state semifinals.

But is was Coach Barta, with two easy sentences, who reassured me I had what it took to be part of the Smith Center tradition.

"You know buddy, I don't think you guys will be too bad," Barta said. "I don't know why you didn't win more games last year."

We were practicing for a rare Smith Center freshman game and I was standing by myself during a break when Coach Barta came up and gave me a pat on the back while uttering those words. With his usual slow drawl and easy-going style I immediately felt like my class belonged to the program -- like we could be the next state champions.

We weren't.

We enjoyed winning seasons but missed the playoffs my sophomore through senior years with three straight close losses to Plainville in ultra-tough districts featuring other Mid-Continent League powers. But I still felt like we were … are part of the tradition.

It's impossible to sum up the reason for Coach Barta's success in just one word, but I think the word that comes closest is inclusion. It didn't matter if you were Brooks Barta, Mark Simoneau or Braden Wilson, or if you were a team manager, a scout team player, or a parent, you felt as though you contributed to the overall success of the program. It wasn't that he made you feel included, he actually included you.

One of Coach Barta's favorite sayings goes something like, "One of you is the best player on the team and one of you is the worst, but everyone of you is capable of being your best."

This past weekend I enjoyed spending some time with my older brother Curtis - the same former Smith Center player I saw win a state title in 1982 - and much of the conversation surrounded Coach Barta's retirement. We fondly reminisced on Coach Barta's development of the program over the years and exchanged hilarious and motivational stories of both Roger and Dennis coaching us during our time as Redmen.

I reminded Curtis that one of the things I'm most proud of is a story another former player relayed to me that Coach Barta had once said he felt my brother and I loved Smith Center football as much as any two players that ever put on the uniform. We silently acknowledged that was something pretty special.


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