116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Stan Wienke, a high school coach in Tuscola, Ill., could see the grief in a student and family friend’s eyes in late 1990.
“It just tears you down,” Wienke said of the then-14-year-old George Barnett in a phone call 32 years later. “You could just see facial expressions.”
Earlier that year, the young Barnett found out his father had cancer.
About two months after that, his father died at age 58.
“There’s all sorts of emotions that build up and wonderment and anger and all those things,” said Barnett, now the offensive line coach at Iowa. “But you’re also grateful for the time that you had with that person.”
More than three decades later, Barnett’s personal tragedy has left a profound impact on his philosophies on the field coaching Hawkeye offensive linemen and off the field with his family.
“It shaped everything,” Barnett said in a July episode of The Gazette’s Hawk Off the Press podcast. “It’s exactly why I am the way I am today … as a father, as a husband, as a coach.”
His high school coaches in Tuscola — a rural community in central Illinois about the size of Iowa’s Mount Vernon or Vinton — went out of their way to guide a grief-stricken Barnett.
“Watching people do something that they don’t have to do for others is pretty powerful,” Barnett said. “I felt that at 14 years old.”
They didn’t “coddle” Barnett, instead doing the “exact opposite.”
“They pushed me,” Barnett said. “They set the bar higher for me. They kept driving me.”
Barnett’s father died on a Saturday. Barnett still vividly remembers his basketball coach Jeff Butler sending him to practice on Monday.
“I’ll never forget that,” Barnett said. “I have such respect for him to do that. He just knew what I needed even though I didn’t know what I needed. I wanted to curl up in a ball, and he said I needed to be with the team. … I owe him the rest of my life.”
Wienke said it might not have been “the right way to do it” to help some students, but it’s was for Barnett.
Without those coaches, going through that grieving “would have been impossible,” Barnett said.
“I would use a chip on my shoulder the wrong way,” Barnett said. “I would have felt sorry for myself, and they did the exact opposite.”
Fast forward to his time studying at Millikin University in Decatur, Ill., and he changed his major from business to physical education so he could have that same impact on others as a coach.
“Why wouldn’t I do for others just a percentage of what those guys did for me?” Barnett asked rhetorically.
Barnett’s ambitions were simply in coaching, not college coaching. He spent five years teaching and coaching at Mattoon (Ill.) High — about a half-hour south along Interstate 57 from his hometown — and “loved every second of it.”
“I’ve never gotten into climbing the ladder,” Barnett said. “Those were never my goals. I was going to be a high school coach for the rest of my life.”
But then one opportunity led to another.
He spent 2004 at Illinois as a graduate assistant working with the offensive line. Even at that point, he still planned to return to Mattoon and “be the best damn O-line coach they’ve ever had.”
Then came more opportunities at the college level — first Indianapolis, then Grand Valley State, Illinois State, Miami (Ohio) and a brief stint at Tulane.
By the time Iowa had an opening for an offensive line coach, he had more than a decade of experience coaching the position at the FBS level.
Well before a mentor reached out to Barnett about the Iowa job in 2021, he thought Iowa could be “a really good fit for me” from what he heard about the program. Then he interviewed with Hawkeye Coach Kirk Ferentz.
“I was excited because I wanted to see if Santa Claus was really Santa Claus,” Barnett said. “I wanted to see if this job is really that good and this head coach is really that special. … It was more.”
Wienke has more familiarity with the Iowa program than the typical high school coach in central Illinois. His son John was a backup quarterback and punter with the Hawkeyes from 2008-12 and roomed with James Ferentz.
“George is going to be a diamond,” Wienke said. “Iowa is going to be a better place because of it, and it’ll work both ways. He’s going to be better because of Iowa, too.”
Barnett left a good impression on unanimous All-America center Tyler Linderbaum in their one year together.
“He’s a great fit for this program — just how he treats his players, how he operates day in and day out and his emphasis on daily improvements,” Linderbaum said in the week leading up to the 2021 Big Ten title game.
Despite the time demands of being a Power Five assistant coach, Barnett’s experiences growing up serve as a reminder of making family a priority.
Barnett had some time on a summer day this year between his son’s two baseball games — about four hours to be specific.
“There’s a lot of things that a parent could do in that four-hour window,” Barnett said.
But what to do was an easy choice for Iowa’s offensive line coach. When his son wanted to stay at the venue, so did Barnett.
“I sat there and watched him, and I just soaked it up,” Barnett said. “He was with his buddies, but I was going to be there.”
Then when Barnett had some time off, he drove his son to Tuscola — home so his son James could work with Wienke on shot put and discus. Barnett’s mother and sister still live in central Illinois, so it also was a chance to visit family.
“We practiced shot put and discus for about three hours,” Wienke said. “James was so exhausted, he was asleep in the passenger seat. And (Barnett) said he woke up and talked nothing but shot put and discus for like two hours on the ride home back to Iowa City.”
Aside from both Tuscola and the Hawkeyes wearing black and gold, Barnett is obviously working at a much different place from where his appreciation for coaching started.
But at the end of the day, Barnett is doing exactly what he wants to do.
“I want to be a coach,” Barnett said. “Those days at 14 years old 100 percent guide me today.”
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