As impressive as those are, they are nothing compared to the hundreds of lives Coach Barta changed in his 35-years as an educator in north central Kansas. His biggest achievements are measured by the doctors and lawyers, teachers and farmers and Moms and Dads he had a hand in raising as a math teacher and coach.
It was 2007 and the Redmen were in the midst of that record winning streak. We were sitting in the Smith Center locker room, a cherished place for a couple of generations of Smith Center young people and, on Wednesday, the place Coach Barta told this year’s team that they would be his last.
“None of this is really about football,” he told me then. “We’re going to get scored on eventually, and lose a game, and that doesn’t mean anything. What I hope we’re doing is sending kids into life who know that every day means something.”
I believed him. The following year I moved with my wife, Mary, and son, Jack, then 3, to Smith Center. I was there to write a book. I was there to learn how to become a better parent. It was the most rewarding experience I have ever had.
Football is a team game, and Smith Center is a team town. Coach Barta is the first to tell you that his program would not have been as successful as it is if the mothers and fathers, grandmothers and granddads had not invested everything they had into the young people of Smith Center.
Love, patience and hard work are not just slogans there, but a way of life. On the first day of my first practice, Coach Barta told his team everything they needed to know about finding success on the football field and far beyond.
“Someone here is the best football player on the team, and someone is the worst,” he said. “It’s time to forget about that. Let’s respect each other. When we respect each other, we’ll like each other. When we like each other, we’ll love each other. That’s when, together, we’ll become champions.”
It is simple, elegant and taught here in my New York apartment as well as the homes of former Redmen in all corners of the country. What made Coach Barta so successful was he was an educator first; someone who led young people to find themselves instead of pushing them to be what he wanted them to be.
“Just get a little bit better each day,” was his mantra. It’s now mine and Jack’s as well.
My guess is that he’s not going to miss Friday nights as much as he will Monday through Thursday afternoons. He and his old friend and chief assistant Dennis Hutchinson (Big Hutch) presided over raucous conversations about everything and anything except football before practice each day in the coach’s office.
His other assistants Mike Rogers, Brock Hutchinson (Little Hutch), Tim Wilson and Darren Sasse all played for him and the stories always revolved on what was going on within their families and in their classrooms.
Likewise, before they took the practice field, Coach Barta and his staff would talk to the team about treating their homecoming dates with respect and telling their parents that they loved them.
Jay Overmiller, a local farmer, and Mitch Holthus, the voice of the Kansas City Chiefs, are my age and can still recite the passed on wisdom of 30 years ago by chapter and verse. When the Redmen took the field, practices were long and hard hitting but the smiles through the facemasks and the banter between coaches made it clear everyone was having fun.
No one took themselves or the game of football too seriously. Twice a week, up to 45-minutes a practice, the Redmen would run passing plays despite the fact they rarely threw more than 12 passes a season.
When I asked him, how many passing plays he had, he smiled: “More than I need.”
There is little doubt Coach Barta is going to be in the Kansas state record books for a long time. But he’s going to be in the hearts of the students he taught and the players that he coached for a whole lot longer.
Joe Drape is the author of "Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains with the Smith Center Redmen" and "Soldiers First: Duty, Honor, Country & Football at West Point". Learn more at joedrape.com