At a high school other than Lafayette, where Dan Barner was the athletic director in 2001, Andy Linn would have been a slam dunk to be promoted from offensive line coach to head football coach.
Linn was past 30 and, in his four seasons as an assistant coach, the Rams — long a football doormat before he manufactured the offensive lines for head coach Dan Antolik’s high-scoring offenses — had reached a state final and a state semifinal and made two other playoff appearances.
Linn, whom Barner had insisted Antolik hire to coach the lines, was sure he was ready to be a head coach and figured Barner thought so, too. Barner instead hired Paul Wheeler, who promptly led the Rams to the 2001 Group AA Division 4 state crown and coached the rest of the decade with Linn as his assistant.
It speaks volumes that Linn, who has become the winningest coach in school history since succeeding Wheeler in 2011, never held a grudge and thanked Barner for his wisdom.
“If I don’t spend those next 10 years with Paul Wheeler, I’m not the football coach I am today,” Linn said. “Dan knew what he was doing and he knew what was best for the program and what was best for me.
“Nobody likes rejection, but he told me, ‘Your time is coming.’ He was right.”
Barner, who died Dec. 31 at age 72, was right often during his 19 years as athletic director at Lafayette (1997-2016). A partial list of the numbers highlights as much: 16 athletic team state championships and 22 state runner-up finishes; 46 regional championships; and 12 Bay Rivers District all-sports championships.
In two of Barner’s final three years as Lafayette’s AD, the school won the VHSL all-sports championship in its classification, capturing the VHSL academics/activities state title one of those years. That made Lafayette one of just four schools in more than 100 years in Virginia to win state titles in both during the same year.
It was no accident, because few athletic administrators have demonstrated their commitment to academics as tangibly. Barner spearheaded the Lafayette Athletic Education Foundation, which raises money to pay athletes to tutor their peers. One parent gives $10,000 to the foundation annually.
“It’s an unbelievable program, not just because of what athletes get out of it, but also for the tutors who get to help their teammates,” Barner told the Daily Press upon his retirement in 2016.
Barner likened himself to Yankees immortal Lou Gehrig as “the luckiest man on the face of the earth” for his 45 years in education. He coached all three major high school sports (football, basketball and baseball) in Pennsylvania as a young man, then assisted the Parkhill brothers, Bruce and Barry, during their stints as men’s basketball coaches at William & Mary.
But his love was athletic administration, first for 15 years as AD at James Blair Middle and then for 19 at Lafayette. His dedication to the kids and his love for the school elicited loyalty at Lafayette uncommon in the revolving-door atmosphere of coaching nowadays. When he retired, 12 of the 22 varsity coaches at Lafayette had been there 15 years or longer and two others had been there more than eight years.
Most loyal of all were Williamsburg Fire Department Battalion Chief Eric Stone and school senior administrative assistant Jackie Henry. Neither had an official title in the athletic departments at James Blair or Lafayette, but they were his left and right hands for more than three decades.
Barner returned their loyalty with affection. When Stone told Barner that he had sold his house and was moving into an apartment for six months while his new house was being built, Barner phoned his wife, Jacqui, to say that Stone, his wife, child and Labrador retriever would be living with them for a while.
“That’s the type of person Dan Barner was, and he was all for the kids no matter which side of the tracks they were from,” Stone said. “He made sure that male and female sports were treated equally.”
So much so that Barner followed the softball team, which had lost 79 consecutive games, to a non-district road game in Newport News on a miserably cold afternoon a month before announcing his retirement. The softball team won the game to break the losing streak, and Barner treated the players and coaches to pizza afterward.
Barner occupied a large office at Lafayette because it doubled as an athletic equipment storage room. Henry said it was common to walk in there on any day and see athletes at a large table eating their lunches.
“They adored him,” she said. “He could always make you laugh no matter what the situation, and he always had that smile.
“When I lost my daddy back in 2004, Dan and Jacqui drove all the way to Huntington, West Virginia, to be there for the viewing. I just thought that was so special.
“He was a role model to a lot of people.”
Linn was one of those people. He succeeded Barner for a year as the Rams’ athletic director but, faced with the choice to keep that job or football, he chose football.
“Dan was a big-time father figure to me,” Linn said. “He would talk about how you handle being a head coach and athletic director and about how raising your kids and being a husband is involved with all of that.
“He’d say, ‘Home has got to be good or you’re not going to be any good at school.’ Conversations like that are why I pursue football the way I do, because I don’t want to disappoint Dan Barner.”
Marty O’Brien, 757-247-4963, firstname.lastname@example.org