Tom Barnes has five rules to live by – so does his team

carson.lemahieu

When then-assistant coach Tom Barnes met with NMU’s first track team five years ago, he asked the girls what their goals for the season were. The girls then asked him what goals he had for the team.

He told them that his number one goal was kindness.

Since that historic first year, Barnes has become the team’s head coach and also added a new goal for the team each year (in chronological order): responsibility, perseverance, trust and determination.

Kindness
“Kindness is being respectful to other people — officials, your teammates, your opponents — if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all — things like that,” Barnes said. “We’ve stuck with that and it’s become our first goal every year and I think it sets us up to be a good group.”

Barnes said the team’s attitude of kindness is a quality that needs to be present in everything the team does. He also tries to exemplify it in his coaching style.

“I can never yell at anyone, it’s just not my style,” he said.

Senior Stephanie Boyer agreed that Barnes is a different kind of coach — a coach who silently leads and motivates his team.

“I actually did hear him raise his voice at me once, but he apologized for it,” Boyer said. “Getting apologized to by a coach is something I wasn’t expecting at all. He’s the kind of coach you just never want to let down.”

Having a team that “runs on kindness” also has a positive effect on freshman runners who might be nervous about joining a college team. Freshman Brittnee Balbierz said the respect shown to her by the team surprised her.

“When I came in, I was really nervous about how people would treat me and look at me because I’m a freshman,” Balbierz said. “But I got on the team and everyone respected me and treated me great.”

Determination
Before coming to the Wildcats, Barnes was co-owner of Barnes Bros. Inc., a roofing company, and coached track at Father Marquette Middle School. When the NMU track team started in 2003, then-head coach Sten Fjeldheim selected Barnes to be his assistant.

“I’ve known Sten for quite a long time and I’d coached in the area with youth and he insisted that I be his assistant coach,” Barnes said. “He had confidence in me that I could get the program going.”

The first team consisted of 20-some athletes — all walk-ons. During the five years that Barnes has coached at NMU, the team has grown considerably in size and talent. This season, the team has 12.6 scholarships and 42 members.

Barnes said the first year of recruiting was tough because the team wasn’t well-known in the area. Over the past five years, the team has garnered a positive reputation around the area, making the task of recruiting much less daunting.

“Our recruiting is getting better and better over the years. As more and more people recognize the program and that our team is improving, the more people begin to inquire and come here to run on the team,” Barnes said. “We’re to the point now where it’s really competitive to make the team and we are going to have tryouts.”

Barnes has set up a practice schedule that works around the class schedules of his athletes to allow them to not have to worry about which classes they will sign up for. Because of this, practices run each morning from 7 a.m. to around 2 p.m. Barnes spends so much time working with the team and recruiting that he has created a make-shift office in a track storage room underneath the Superior Dome bleachers.

“What I did was moved my stuff and made a work station down here so I can get my other work done,” Barnes said. “Running the team takes a lot of work. It’s kind of like running a business.”

Trust
With the staggered practice schedule, Barnes also has to have a sense of trust in his athletes. Assistant coach Jenny Ryan said she and Barnes truly feel they have trust in all the athletes on the team.

“Tom definitely trusts [the team],” Ryan said. “In a sport like track, you have to trust that everyone is working hard and you have to trust that they are going to act like the young adults that they are.”

Senior Callie Boik said Barnes lets everyone know how important hard work is and trusts that everyone will always try hard at practice.

“He reminds us of the value of hard work every day,” Boik said. “He doesn’t scream at us or blow a whistle in our faces. He just says, ‘This is for you and only you — if you don’t want to do it, I can’t make you do anything.'”

Responsibility
One place where Barnes has placed a lot of trust in his team is academics. His trust hasn’t been betrayed — the team was an All-American All-Academic Team last season and is headed toward repeating the honor. According to NMU Sports Information, the team earned a 3.09 GPA — the fifth highest of all teams at NMU — last fall.

All NCAA coaches say that academics are important, but Barnes’ athletes said that when he says academics matter, it has meaning.

“If you’re doing bad in the class, he would rather see you not come in, and instead get caught up in a class. He schedules our buses to leave on Fridays after everyone’s classes. He will wait until you are out of class for the bus to leave, that is how much he cares,” Boik said. “The ‘student’ really comes out in ‘student athlete’ with Tom as a coach.”

Ryan said that, as an assistant coach on the team, she backs up Barnes’ philosophy of putting grades ahead of athletics.

“The idea is that we have to help these athletes get through college,” Ryan said. “Very few of these athletes are going to go onto that next level of running, most of them are going to graduate and move into a career after college.”

The focus on academics begins before the athletes even get to NMU. Barnes said that when he recruits athletes he looks for athletes who are not only motivated and passionate about their sport but also willing to put in the time to be successful in the classroom.

“When I’m looking at recruits, I’m looking for a good student — someone who is willing to keep up their studies — because that is number one with us,” Barnes said.

“They don’t have to have a great grade point to join the team, because I think some people get better at the collegiate level than at the high school level sometimes, because here, they are going to be around a good group,” he added.

Perseverance
This year marks the end of an era for the NMU track team. At the end of the outdoor season, the last of the seniors from the first team will graduate and move forward with their lives. For Barnes, this is a bittersweet moment; he has worked with these athletes and watched them grow since they began their college careers five long years ago.

“It’s just starting to sink in,” he said. “I’m happy for them — for what they’ve accomplished — they are all going to go on and accomplish great things in the world and contribute to the communities they go to,” Barnes said. “Even right now, thinking about it chokes me up a little bit. I don’t want to see them go, but I do want to see them go.”

Barnes doesn’t let the graduation of this year’s seniors cloud his positive outlook for the future of the team. He said that in the future, the team will improve on their seventh place finish in the GLIAC Indoor Championship.

“I think we can do some great things. I’m talking about starting by getting into the top 25, and from there we can go anywhere,” Barnes said. “[The team] is ever-changing but we’re always getting better.”