COLTS NECK — The reference points are different for Darian Barnes than they are for virtually any other first-year high school head coach: an end-zone view of the Miami Dolphins running a play in 2005 on his computer as the chaos of summer camp swirled around him.
Barnes is the fullback on the screen, part of his two seasons for the Dolphins under head coach Nick Saban, with a coaching staff that included Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan.
Then there was the Super Bowl he won as a rookie in 2002 playing for Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay, and the season playing for Bill Parcells in Dallas, where the assistant head coach was Sean Payton, who he later played for in New Orleans. And Eric Mangini with the Jets, and on and on.
So what Barnes is preaching at Colts Neck High School is an offense, and an overall mentality, that’s been shaped by some of the game’s greatest coaches.
“I don’t consciously think about it, but after I say something or make a decision I think, ‘Oh, that sounds like this person,’ ” he said. “Some of the systems mechanics we do are similar to Gruden and Sean, just because I thought they were just outstanding offensive minds.”
The question now is whether what Barnes learned during his seven-year NFL career can be distilled into something a 17-year-old can not only learn, but execute in a pressurized environment on a Friday night or a Saturday afternoon.
“I’ve talked to Jon Gruden a few times about what I’m trying to do, and he laughed and said, ‘Well, good luck with that. If you can do it, fantastic.’ I said, ‘I’m either going to be very successful or I’m going to get fired.’ ” Barnes said.
In reality, Barnes’ coaching roots are actually much closer to home. At home, actually, in Toms River with his father, Donald, who served as the head coach at first Pleasantville High School, and then at Lakewood.
“His stuff is more intricate than mine because it’s from the NFL, but we will sit and discuss things,” Donald Barnes said. “I never tell him what to do. That’s not my place. But I watched their practice the other day just to see how he interacted with the team and coaches just to see if he’s heading down the right path, and I think he’s doing a good job in the early stages of his career.”
It was during his two training camps with the New Orleans Saints in the mid-1970s that Donald Barnes met Jason Garrett’s father, Jim, the long-time coach and scout who was on the Saints’ staff back then.
And it was Jim Garrett who would ultimately take Darian Barnes under his wing, working him out in the yard of his Monmouth Beach home over the years.
“It was Jim Garrett who probably gave me the best football education from toddler to even now,” Barnes said. “I still talk to him, just trying to get all that information into one tiny package in my mind. ”
So after a college career that saw him finish at Hampton after playing two seasons at Rutgers, Barnes was able to find a spot in 2002 with the Giants in training camp. And while he got released before the start of the regular season, he was signed the next day by Tampa Bay.
“In some ways Darian owes his NFL career to Jim Garrett,” Donald Barnes said. “He was in Darian’s corner, just like he’s always been in mine. From a football standpoint, he turned Darian into an athlete that looked good to an NFL coach, polished him up.”
“I’m sure the players will really think a lot of him,” Jim Garrett said. “I have great memories of him in my back yard. He’s just a great guy and a great human being.”
Barnes does actually have some experience turning programs around at this level, with the Cougars coming off a 1-9 campaign.
As a junior at Toms River North in 1996, the Mariners finished 2-7.Toms River North, led by Barnes, won the NJSIAA South Group IV championship the next season.
“We kind of all made a commitment that we were going to work and do things differently and we were fortunate enough to come together and win a state championship,” he said. “We went 9-2 that next year. We lost to Brick and Toms River South by a point.”
Now, one of the commitments Barnes is asking his players to make is in the classroom. They spend more time in front of a white board than they do a tackling dummy these days, as Barnes seeks to impart the intricacies of what he learned at the highest level.
“Players have to understand that it’s something I want to give to them,” he said. “I had to become a student of the game to improve.
“You have to always be learning, whether it’s football, whether it’s school, or life. Always be learning, always be growing. If we can get to that level collectively — if we can collectively get to a level where we’re on the field together, and we can see what’s happening as a unit on offense, defense and special teams and know what’s happening, it can negate any athletic prowess a team may have that we don’t.”
And if Barnes is able to get his players to buy in, there will be some pretty impressive fingerprints on the Cougars’ turnaround.
Staff writer Stephen Edelson is an Asbury Park Press columnist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org