Thank you for being one of our most loyal readers. Please consider supporting community journalism by subscribing.
New jobs bring on a challenge to learn on the fly. So how has new North Johnston football coach Michael Barnett gotten up to speed in the five months since he began his first head coaching gig?
“I’ve asked a lot of questions, talked to people who have coached here before, the other guys I know who have coached around the state,” Barnett said Wednesday under clear blue skies with sparse clouds. “The stuff you don’t even think about, like ordering laundry detergent, when to wash uniforms, stuff like that.”
Barnett, who was introduced as head coach on Feb. 4, has already learned unconventional lessons he never expected through the transition from assistant coach on staff at North Johnston and Goldsboro High to his new role. His players are learning plenty about him, too.
“It’s been great,” Barnett said. “The kids have been energetic, they’ve been very coachable, they’ve worked hard. And the coaching staff has just been phenomenal to work with. It’s been a great first couple of months.”
NJ quarterback Camden Aycock said one of the first things he noticed about his new coach was that he has a stark contrast in styles to Jon Riba, who
resigned at the end of last season after a three-year stint as head coach.
“Riba was more outspoken and loud, he’s just kind of quiet and laid back, but when he’s mad you know he’s mad,” Aycock said. “Everybody knows what their position is, what job they need to do, and it’s not just one guy running the show. It’s everybody working together as a team to get the job done.”
This summer, the even-keeled head coach has started leaving his mark on the program. Under the July heat, his relaxed demeanor shines through as he stands silently on the sidelines in a bucket hat and red T-shirt. While four dozen or so of his players ran wind sprints to wrap up summer workouts, he watched with a careful eye, but showed no signs of playing the role of drill seargant, and scarcely said a word.
Relying on his assistant coaches to run drills on the field, Barnett patrolled the weight room, where his Panther players have been lifting this summer to prepare for the grueling season ahead.
The hot days of summer have become routine for Barnett, who spent 16 years as an assistant coach at various programs before a long, winding journey brought him to Kenly. While the community spectacles of Friday nights are coming, and he’s certainly excited for that part, Barnett said that won’t be his favorite part of the job.
“Everybody sees Friday nights, but that’s not the important stuff,” Barnett said. “The important stuff is Monday through Thursday and it’s the offseason, kids come to you with real life questions. Like, ‘Hey, coach, What about this? What about that.’ ‘Hey, will you be my reference for this job?’ Stuff like that. That’s the real excitement. Friday is fun, but it’s kind of like the cherry on top of the ice cream.”
His players have echoed that his presence for the Panthers has already extended beyond the gridiron.
“Last year when he came, he was quiet-ish, but he really wanted to get along with the players and get to know them personally,” Aycock said. “He really cares about all of the players and tries to get them where they need to be and that’s to get a job after high school, or college or go play football in college because that’s where I want to be.”
To get to this point, Barnett said some years ago he finally realized he wanted to chase after his dream of coaching, after a period of time when he admitted he “kept putting it off.” After playing at Northeast Guilford High for Daniel Barrow, he always knew he was interested in pursuing it himself.
When then-Hobbton head coach Steve Mallard asked him to join his staff, he was hesitant, but said yes anyway. Since then, it has felt like the right decision.
“I fell in love with it,” Barnett said. “I’ve always enjoyed the game, always liked being around the game, always enjoyed the mentality of it, the chess part of it and I finally got a chance to do it and fell in love with it.”
After working his way up the ladder, Barnett has his work cut out for him as the leader of a Panther program that has struggled in recent years. In 2018, the Panthers finished with a 3-8 record that ended on a four-game losing streak, then catapulted the program into uncertainty with a coaching change.
Without a winning season since 2016, Barnett hopes a rebound can come through transitioning his team to a simpler defensive scheme and changing the offense from pass-heavy to run-dominant. Aycock trusts his plan.
“He knows his stuff, and he’s a pretty good coach, in my opinion,” Aycock said. “He’s the right man for the job.”
So far, that transition has taken an adjustment in summer workouts, given how different the new system can be to the devotion to airing out the ball that was in place before.
“Last year, and since my freshman year, we’ve been running the spread and passing a lot when I was in shotgun,” Aycock said. “Now we’re under center and running the ball down your throat, pounding it and we’ll do some pop plays here and there. It’s been different, but I’ve been learning a lot. Been trying my best to learn and still trying to learn it, but I’m getting there.”
Even so, players are confident the kinks being worked out in the preseason is pointing the Panthers in the right direction.
“He’s doing a good job coaching,” senior lineman Ethan Durham said. “He knows what he’s doing.”
Given the Panthers — and every other program in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association — are still weeks away from putting the pads on, Barnett said his team is focused on the “basics” for now. That means on Mondays and Wednesdays, the Panthers have been honing in on the new defensive scheme, while Tuesdays and Thursday have been all about learning the offense.
At this point in the preparation, Barnett said he and his program aren’t quite ready for the season-opener against Red Springs yet. For now, they’ll take it one day at a time and start to build toward Barnett’s ultimate goal.
“I’m big on tradition,” Barnett said. “This community has a great tradition, it’s a wonderful community, and I want to build a program that kids are proud to say they’re from here, regardless of the record. That’s what we’re trying to do here, build young men. Win some football games, great, but that’s our number one goal — to build young men.”