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Porto: A Prairie Philosopher

07/15/10 5:55PM By Brian Porto
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(HOST) Commentator Brian Porto's reading list this summer includes a book about one of the best coaches around - a man who seems to be one part drill sargeant and one part prairie philosopher.   

(PORTO) Summer may seem an odd time to think about high school football.   But after reading Our Boys, a book written by Joe Drape of the New York Times, I will forever associate high school football with summer.   Our Boys showed me that every championship won on a muddy field in November is the sweet fruit of long hours spent training in suffocating summer heat.

Nobody communicates the importance of preparation better than Roger Barta,   head football coach at Smith Center High School in western Kansas, whose team is the focus of Our Boys.   Barta's teams won 79 consecutive games and five straight state championships before their streak ended in 2009.   In the more than 30 years that Barta has coached at Smith Center, his teams have won 276 games and lost just 58, a winning percentage of .825.   The players who graduated from Smith Center in 2008 not only won 51 straight games and three consecutive state championships, but outscored their opponents over four years by a total of 704-0.

Smith Center, with a population of 1,931, seems an unlikely place for great athletic achievements.   It is located in Smith County, Kansas's fifth poorest, where the greatest export, other than wheat, is young people and residents over the age of 85 are a higher percentage of the population than in any other county in the United States.   In the fall of 2008, when Joe Drape was researching his book, Smith Center High School had only 165 students, and 70 percent of the boys were on the football team.

Despite these unfavorable numbers, Coach Barta has succeeded spectacularly.   His emphasis on preparation was reflected in the team's motto for the summer of 2008: "Championships aren't won on the field; they are only played there."   His penchant for repetition is evident in practice sessions, during which the players rehearse his "old-school" running plays endlessly.   But preparation and repetition cannot account for the almost unparalleled success that Smith Center has enjoyed.  

Instead, as Joe Drape makes clear, Coach Barta succeeds because his players know that he cares deeply about them and because he teaches them to care about and trust each other.   During the 2008 season, he told his players, "I want all you guys to know that I love each and every one of you, and my heart would break if anything happened to one of you."   Coach Barta also succeeds because he teaches his players to think not about winning or losing, but instead, "about getting a little better each day, about being the best you can be, about being a team."

Every high school football coach in Vermont and New Hampshire should read Our Boys to absorb Coach Barta's wisdom.   Any coach who does will be able to prepare his players for much more than their next game.
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