In February, my wife and I were in Tampa with friends when I got a text from my dad that read, “Call me.” I stepped outside and called him. He told me he had bad news: My high school baseball coach had tragically passed away. The news was devastating. I hadn’t talked to my coach in years, but it felt like I lost someone I had just heard from earlier that day. Because, though we hadn’t actually spoken with each other, his words had never stopped speaking to me. That’s the thing about coaches and teachers. The very best ones have this way of transcending time and space to whisper words from the past in your ear and make them come out of your mouth, often without you even realizing where it came from until afterwards. R-Jay Barsh, head coach of Southeastern University’s Men’s Basketball program, is one of those coaches.
All three share in common a conviction that what they’re doing is about far greater things than basketball.
In just his seventh season as a head coach, Barsh already has an impressive knack for producing coaches and teachers. Three Barsh products in particular–Dwayne Johnson, Joe Little, and Jordan Talley–all played for him at SEU and were a part of the school’s historic run to the NAIA National Tournament “Fab Four” in 2014. Now, all three are teaching and coaching in Polk County. Barsh’s influence on his young protégés is unmistakable. Dwayne is meticulous in his work ethic and demands the best from his players. Joe is a consummate encourager and always sees the best in a kid. Jordan pours out every ounce of passion and heart he has for his players. And all three share in common a conviction that what they’re doing is about far greater things than basketball. So where did they learn all of this from? R-Jay Barsh, of course.
Dwayne Johnson, a teacher at Head of the Class Learning Center and men’s basketball head coach at Lakeland High, has a commanding presence, as if the gravity in the room shifts when he walks in. “Dwayne is going to push his guys; he’s gonna be very aggressive,” says Barsh. Like his former coach, Johnson is never going to demand more from his players than he demands from himself and his staff. “Dwayne’s mindset is always, ‘Nobody’s gonna sweat with you more than me.’” says Joe Little, Johnson’s assistant coach and a math teacher at Southwest Middle. Little laughs as he tells me, “Yeah, our guys love that Wayne can still give them a bucket.”
Coach Barsh taught me a lot of stuff on the court but it was all this stuff he taught me off the court that I’m now trying to instill in my players. Dwayne Johnson
For Johnson, however, what he loves is helping his players develop skills off the court. “I’m trying to give my players the type of leadership that I didn’t get at that age. I’m trying to help them understand real life-skills like even the importance of good credit,” laughs Johnson. “Coach Barsh taught me a lot of stuff on the court but it was all this stuff he taught me off the court that I’m now trying to instill in my players.”
Johnson picked up something else from his time at SEU: the aforementioned Joe Little. “Dwayne needs a ‘Joe’ because Joe brings balance to Dwayne,” says Barsh, “He brings a holistic approach to the team. He’ll take all the things Dwayne is saying and package them in a way a player can understand.” Little’s ability to coach alongside Johnson is an extension of who he is. Like Barsh, he has a welcoming presence and a million-dollar smile. He’s the type of person students love to have in their world because he doesn’t come off as too big or too cool for their world. Little understands, “as a coach you instantly have equity with a player, but with your students you walk in with none. You have to earn that.” Earning trust with students is important to Little because for him – like Johnson and Talley – the court and the classroom are, “avenues into a student’s life to teach them so much more than math or how to shoot a jumper.” When I asked where he learned this perspective, Little simply says “Coach Barsh. No doubt.”
Then there’s Jordan Talley, the Lake Gibson basketball head coach and Intensive Reading teacher. Jordan was quick to note that he’s just as passionate about his role as a teacher as he is about his role as a basketball coach. “The way people perceive it is, ‘Oh, you’re a basketball coach. You must not care about teaching.’ And I have no problem letting people know that I am a teacher,” he says emphatically. “I take pride in being a teacher every morning when I wake up and go through my lesson plans.” Talley takes his job so seriously because he’s aware of how important teachers and coaches are to their students.
It was my best moment as a coach: being able to be there for my player in his darkest hour and knowing exactly what to do. Not because I’m so wise, but because I went through a similar situation and I had people in my life like Barsh who had been there for me.Jordan Talley
When one of his players lost his grandmother, Jordan was the person he called. “It was my best moment as a coach: being able to be there for my player in his darkest hour and knowing exactly what to do. Not because I’m so wise, but because I went through a similar situation and I had people in my life like Barsh who had been there for me.”
That’s the kind of legacy R-Jay is working to leave. And though Barsh’s “Coaching Tree” is still young, judging by the fruit of Johnson, Little, and Talley, its roots are already beginning to run deep.