Bishop Ireton’s new football coach, Kevin Barger, experienced two significant life milestones within a matter of a few hours Sept. 1.
After spending the better part of two decades as an assistant college football coach, Barger found himself in the role of head coach for the first time as hundreds of Ireton fans filled the bleachers behind him in the season opener against Bishop Sullivan.
Earlier in the day, in front of perhaps a few dozen, the former college history professor faced another daunting challenge: teaching his first high school world history class.
“In college, so much is on the student, and this is about facilitating learning and teaching skills,” Barger said.
Though he was talking about life in the classroom, the former Catholic University assistant coach might as well have been referring to his approach on the sidelines, too.
“It’s about building the total person,” he added.
A former two-time all-conference tackle at the University of Rochester, who has coached at three colleges, Barger finds himself in an admittedly unusual position taking over Ireton.
Most recently an assistant at Catholic University, Barger said most new coaches are brought in to turnaround a program that’s struggling. Instead, he’s taking over a team after back-to-back appearances in the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association playoffs.
Asked about the prospect of weighty expectations that come with taking over such a successful program, Barger jokingly apologized. “I’m afraid I’m a bad interview in that sense,” he said. “I’m a one week at a time guy.” As much as fans and players love rivalries, he explained his focus is squarely on getting his players as prepared as possible for the next game.
Barger also is stepping into some big shoes. He replaces Tony Verducci, the winningest coach in program history. In December, Ireton head of school Thomas Curry announced the school had replaced Verducci, stating the coach had said he intended to pursue a job outside of the Washington metropolitan region.
While Verducci said he nonetheless had hoped to return to the coaching job, he wished the players success in a recent telephone interview.
“One of the reasons I looked forward to a 10th year is we had 19 young men who started at least one game on varsity coming back and they knew what it meant to win and how to win,” he said, adding he hoped to take "another journey.”
“I wish those who return from the group every success on and off the field and will do everything I can to support them,” Verducci said.
The team’s season opener — a 41-6 defeat to Bishop Sullivan — isn’t necessarily a good barometer for the Cardinals' chances this season. Before the season, Sullivan coach Chris Scott told one Virginia Beach area television station that his team had players who were the top at their positions in the country, including recruits headed to schools like Florida State and Virginia Tech.
Ireton faces a better test at Bishop O’Connell Sept. 10. Barger said he’s expecting contributions from, among others, wide receiver Sam Smith, quarterback Chandler Wilder, defensive end Silas Sullivan and safety Michael Everett.
Barger is keenly aware of Ireton’s history. He is considering a lot of ideas and has already talked with Chip Armstrong, a teacher at the school who coached Ireton when it won a state title in 1992.
Asked about his coaching inspirations, Barger talks about his father, Harold Barger, who passed away in 2008 and coached youth football long before his own children got involved in the sport in Carmel, N.Y.
Barger said his father began coaching in the 1970s and had a lot of success over the years, which led to opportunities to take on bigger coaching jobs. Instead, he said his father wanted to stay put in the community, where he felt he could have the most impact.
Years later, Barger said he felt the pull of high school football for similar reasons.
“The nature of college is transient,” Barger said, acknowledging that it was somewhat remarkable for him to have coached at only three schools over a 15-year period. He said many coaches move to new jobs, often across the country, every two or three years. Barger said football brought him to the Washington region and he wanted to stay. “This was a really unique opportunity,” he said.