John Barton was—I have to say it now—quite possibly the worst postgame interview in the history of basketball coaching.
I covered Geneva High basketball for The Republican during the first half of the 1980s—basically the first half of Barton’s 1980-89 run as the Viking boys’ head basketball coach. Allen Mead, The Republican’s publisher since 1950, still did almost all of the weekly write-ups of Viking football in the fall. But increasingly, after I came aboard after having graduated from the U of I journalism school
in 1979, Allen (being no fool) would go to Arizona or Florida or some other warm place during lengthy stretches of the winter, leaving me to handle much of the back-page Viking hoops coverage. Even when Allen was in town, there frequently being both a Friday and Saturday game of a weekend, he would cover the Friday game and have me cover Saturday’s.
If a game I was assigned was a home game, it was a bit of a challenge because I was already early in my 32-season run as P.A. announcer for Geneva basketball, and when doing so, really couldn’t effectively take game notes. No matter: I had a very meticulous running score and other notes kept for me by Editor Dave Rogers’ son—a middle-schooler named Tom Rogers, who is now Geneva High’s 45-year-old principal. (Yes, that’s how long ago this was. Once Tom started playing for Coach Barton in 1982 or ’83, his younger brother Jim took his place beside me taking game notes.)
At any rate, whether I’d taken my own notes, or had Tom’s or Jim’s in hand, at the final buzzer I would, as sportswriters do, immediately head into the Geneva locker room to try to get some cogent quotes from Coach Barton, who had taken over the Viking basketball program from Bob Schick beginning with the 1980-81 season.
Unless it was one of those relatively rare exceptions when Geneva had blown its opponent’s doors off from the opening tip to the final buzzer and had won by 30 or so ... well, I knew the next few minutes were going to be tough.
To begin with, you’d clap Coach Barton on the back—and his suit jacket would be not just damp, but wringing wet with perspiration; he’d soaked it through. Shake his hand, same thing.
“Hey, Kurtis,” he’d say, but without a smile, and without losing the deep creases in his brow, and without losing the “thousand-yard stare” into space as re-played the entire game just concluded, in his head.
I’d open with the obvious to try to get a response: “Plainfield really raised their game against us tonight, didn’t they, Coach?”
I might get sort of a “Yeah,” or I might just get sort of a grunt. But not more than that. And it wouldn’t get any better—because he wasn’t listening to my question; he couldn’t yet. To him at that moment, I probably sounded like the squawking trumpet that represented all the adult voices in the “Peanuts” animated TV specials.
What was reeling through his head, at that moment, was something like this:
"Why couldn’t Fish have put in that easy layup?/That would have tied it and knocked the wind out them!/Dang I should have warned him they were going to box him out!/Should have had them work it to Seidel to muscle it in!/Or kick it out to Wallner for the baseline jumper!/Course if we can’t hit our free throws we’re not going to have any chance against Batavia tomorrow night ... "
It got to the point that I’d sort of structure a likely statement that he might make—“Pease really started hitting from the perimeter, didn’t he, and you had everybody shovel it to him as long as he had the hot hand, right?” If he said “yeah,” I’d use it and attribute it to him—as a paraphrase, not as an exact quote. You did what you had to do with Coach Barton, postgame.
The sweat would still be pouring down his balding head, 15 minutes after the final horn, and he didn’t look well. Frankly, he often didn’t look well.
Thirty years on, I think John Barton never really learned the long-term coach’s necessary self-preservation skill—how to detach. To throw yourself into preparation, to work your butt off before and during the game ... but afterward, when there’s nothing more you can do—to let it go. I don’t think John Barton knew how to do that.
He didn’t emote in words—but it was so obvious, to anyone who paid attention, how incredibly passionate he was, how much he cared, about every young man on his team.
(Actually, Jerry Auchstetter was not much better at “detaching” than Barton. A little, maybe, but not much. Fortunately, Jerry’s football teams very frequently DID crush opponents from the opening kick to the final horn, which perhaps made postgame a bit easier a bit more often. But there’s a reason that both men stepped down as the head coach in their respective sports before their 50th birthdays. In Barton’s case, he wasn’t quite 48; his blood-pressure numbers were telling him to stop.)
It wasn’t just the young men (and later young women) on the teams he coached that he cared passionately about—it was the kids in all of his PE classes, as well. John Barton went out of his way to find something positive to say about the effort put forth by EVERY kid—even an overweight, nearsighted, flatfooted kid such as yours truly.
One time in first-hour PE as a freshman, January 1972, I happened to swish a jumpshot of sorts, from far out on the baseline. (Even the blind squirrel occasionally finds a nut.)
In his booming baritone, Barton, with a huge smile, bellowed: “Kurtis!! You look like Dave Bing on that shot!” Now, rest assured that I did NOT at all resemble the Detroit Pistons’ 1971-72 leading scorer on that shot. Then, and certainly now, I had, and have, the jumpshot of a confirmed dork. But for the next 20 minutes, and the rest of that semester, I felt good about playing basketball. John Barton had seen to it.
Nearly 40 years after that freshman PE class, in January 2011, I had the honor of reading his resume over the PA in the new, much larger Geneva High gym as John Barton was inducted into the Viking Athletic Hall of Fame. He’d already had cancer surgery the summer before, and was hurting, but he was there and he walked out under his own power. Thank God we didn’t wait until it was posthumous.
John Barton was a sweet and beautiful man. And many, many hundreds of Genevans, now from their early 60s down to their mid-30s, are better
off for having had him in their lives.
COMING WEDNESDAY: A remembrance of John Barton