Q&A with Mike Barrier

Athletic Director, Narbonne High School

By Staff

Athletic Management, 13.2, February/March 2001, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1302/qabarrier.htm

In reaching his current position as Athletic Director at Narbonne High School in Harbor City (Los Angeles), Calif., Mike Barrier followed a very different career path. A former fighter-jet pilot in the U.S. Navy, Barrier first headed to Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting. In order to pay the bills while waiting for his big break, Barrier began substitute teaching in local schools as well as coaching track and cross country at Glendale High School.

When acting didn’t pan out, Barrier went to Loyola Law School and then began a career as a Coast Guard lawyer. But, finding himself frequently stationed in the Los Angeles area, Barrier continued to substitute teach. After leaving the Coast Guard and giving up his private law practice, Barrier decided to teach full time (English as a Second Language), and he’s never looked back.

Narbonne High School consists of students from Harbor City and Lomita, on the outskirts of Los Angeles. It draws from a racially mixed, working-class population with just under half of the school Latino and the other half fairly evenly divided among Caucasian, African-American, and Asian-American students. The school is, however, grossly overcrowded, holding almost twice as many students as it was originally intended to serve.

In this interview, Barrier talks about the challenges of directing athletics at a school where the budgets are as tight as the halls are crowded. He also offers his perspective on why Narbonne student-athletes do well academically, and the national attention that the girls’ basketball team—last year’s USA Today’s number-one high school team—has brought to the school.

AM: You have been the athletic director at Narbonne for three years. Why did you decide to apply for the position?

Barrier: Four years ago, there was practically a scandal in the athletic department because there were problems with student-athlete eligibility. We won the city and state championship in girls’ basketball and then had it taken away because students had listed false residences. At the same time, there was a problem with football eligibility due to student-athletes’ poor grades.

So, the school was looking for a new athletic director. I was one of the only teachers who was passionate about going to games and I thought I’d give it a try. I got the job and I’ve really loved it.

What was it like walking into a situation like that?

I figured with my legal background I’d have an advantage in terms of understanding all the rules and regulations. I also tried to use my broad background and my passion for sports to get things on the right track. Essentially, I just dove in and started doing whatever seemed right. I made mistakes once in a while, but I learned. And I get along well with people for the most part, so it has worked out.

Did any of your former occupations help prepare you to be an athletic director?

Yes. As a pilot, self preservation forces you to develop focus. The same is true in acting. Now, when I am in the athletic office and there are a dozen phone calls to be answered and everything happens at once, I know how to maintain focus and get the job done.

How would you describe your managerial style in dealing with coaches?

I treat each coach as an individual. Then it’s a matter of trying to find out what they need and giving it to them. I do not provide tight oversight, but prefer to delegate. Obviously, they’re running the teams. I just try to get them what they need and get them to do what they’ve got to do.

Have you had to hire any new coaches in these three years? What was your method for doing so?

I’ve hired new girls’ and boys’ soccer coaches, and they’ve worked out just terrific. When we needed a new boys’ soccer coach, I called the coordinator of officials for soccer games and asked him for help. He came up with a guy who’s just a gem.

The girls’ soccer coach is sensational, also. This is his second year and he lives here in the neighborhood. His daughter plays and he is just crazy about the sport. The team is ranked in the top 10 in our area, so they’re doing very well.

Given the situation with the school being so overcrowded because of district-wide budget problems, how do you maintain an athletic budget?

Most of athletics is based on student body funds. We raise money by selling items in the student store. So, we get together at the beginning of the year with the financial manager who runs the student store and come up with a plan. We also have various kinds of drives and sell student admissions to football and basketball games.

But, a lot of the kids pay for their own stuff, too. For instance, the cheerleaders spend close to one thousand dollars on their uniforms. They buy their own and hold car washes to help the students who don’t have enough money. All athletic team uniforms are paid for out of the individual team budgets, but I bet there isn’t a single coach who doesn’t spend a lot of his or her own money.

It sounds as if you’re constantly fund-raising.

We have a pretty active booster club, but the coaches do a lot of the fund-raising on their own. For instance, our swimming coach is a sensational fund-raiser on his own. I don’t know how he’s come by these skills, but he gets large commitments of money.

Our football coach is a local businessman, not a teacher, who has a lot of contacts. At the present time, I’ve got my fingers crossed that one of his contacts will make a large corporate donation to help fund our weight room and maybe even get us lights for the football field.

I understand that there is a girl playing football at Narbonne.

Yes, we have a girl who is a linebacker on the frosh/soph football team. She is a lovely girl, and she’s big and strong. She’s a unique individual. She had two little brothers who died and she says she’s playing for both of them.

She intercepted a pass in a game against Gardenia and ran it back until she got tackled. As she ran off the field, she took off her helmet and shook out her hair, and the guys from Gardenia were overwhelmed that they got intercepted by a girl.

Your girls’ basketball program has done exceptionally well, and, as a consequence, has attracted a lot of media attention. Does that create any problems?

There was an article the day before yesterday in our local paper, The Daily Breeze, about our boys, who are doing well, 14-4 so far this season. It’s the first time they’ve done well in a number of years. In that article, the coach mentioned how sometimes the guys on other teams say to them, “Oh, you can get beat by your girls.”

We’ve also had problems with rumors that some of the girls on the team do not attend the school on legitimate grounds. We have a magnet program in math and science, and we have open enrollment, so we have to make sure that players really do live here, or are really legitimate in regards to the magnet program. We actually make surprise visits to the girls’ homes to make sure they really live at the address they’ve listed.

I found a quotation from your Head Girls’ Basketball Coach, James Anderson: “Sports, without education, is wasted.” Do you think your coaches do a good job of encouraging these girls to play basketball and maintain their education?

Yes, the staff really encourages them to do well in school. Of the five girls who graduated last year, all are at four-year universities. I’m not sure they’re all on full rides, but they are all at very good schools academically—Cal, Cal State-Long Beach, USC, Colorado, and Columbia University.

It sounds as if your athletic department is doing a very good job of teaching kids to combine athletics and academics. Is there a secret to doing this?

We just work at it as we have the opportunity. The night before last was our football banquet and Brian White, the offensive coordinator at the University of Wisconsin, was our speaker. He did an outstanding job of stressing that the main purpose of being here in school is not to be a great football player. There are many great football players who never do anything. A lot of them are sitting around watching guys on television saying, “I could have done that” or “I wish I would have done that.” He was stressing the fact that academics is really where it’s at—that the whole purpose of school at this level is to help prepare you for the next step in life, and it may or may not involve athletics.

You hear all these horror stories about coaches, but my impression is that most coaches are very much aware that the real purpose of school sports is not to prepare kids to be professional athletes. The real purpose is to prepare student-athletes for life.