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A Family Thing

Los Alamitos thrives with coach's son at quarterback

October 21, 2003|Ben Bolch | Times Staff Writer

Jimmy Barnes spotted his target streaking down the sideline 20 yards away, cocked his arm, then unleashed the football with howitzer force, sailing it far over the intended receiver's head and well beyond a horde of players standing out of bounds.

"Inbounds! Inbounds! You've got to keep it inbounds!" his coach barked.

On the next drive, Barnes noticed a receiver breaking free just beyond the line of scrimmage and hurriedly flung the ball his way, only to watch it float past the target for another incompletion.

"Hold it!" his coach yelled. "Don't just take it and throw it!"

Life as Los Alamitos High's quarterback, Barnes has discovered, offers no mulligans -- especially when you're under the eye of Coach John Barnes. Dad. Even though the top-ranked Griffins (6-0) were well on their way to a comfortable victory, the elder Barnes was not about to let his quarterback lose focus.

Perhaps that's why, 25 years after taking over the Los Alamitos program, John Barnes is the winningest coach in Orange County history.

And perhaps that's one reason why son Jimmy is the big man on campus and only the fourth junior quarterback to start at Los Alamitos since his father became coach.

Anyone who presumes Jimmy has assumed such a critical role because his dad is the coach is sadly mistaken. Jimmy was selected the top quarterback last summer at a prestigious camp at Notre Dame and recently completed a school-record 28 passes during the Griffins' 37-7 victory over La Habra.

"My dad's philosophy is, the best guy plays," said Jimmy's older brother, Brian, who didn't make the Los Alamitos varsity as an offensive lineman until his senior year. "Jimmy has proven this year that he's the best guy."

It has been a meteoric rise for a kid who expressed a desire to play quarterback almost as soon as he could speak -- but didn't play the game until he was a freshman in high school. Ironically, it was John Barnes who wanted to ensure that his son's life wasn't all football all the time.

That's why he insisted that Jimmy stay away from youth football, so he could develop his own love for the game without having it rammed down his throat.

That's why he made sure Jimmy stayed away from his childhood passion, Los Alamitos football, on Halloween to go trick-or-treating with his mother, Anita, like all the other kids.

And that's why he rarely talks football off the field or on the 17-mile commute with Jimmy from their Placentia home to school.

"I can truly separate player and son to a degree, not perfectly," John said as he sat on a worn leather couch in the school's football office. "But when the game's on, it's about Los Al football and our quarterback doing what he's got to do to win."

Jimmy, strong-armed but somewhat slow of foot at 6 feet 5 and 220 pounds, said he feels no added pressure to play well.

"He's my coach and he expects me to perform well, just like my teammates and everyone else," Jimmy said. "I just know I have to get the job done."

Setting a school record against La Habra in only his fourth varsity game was pretty impressive, considering the Griffins have produced Division I quarterbacks such as Kevin Feterik (Brigham Young), Todd Gragnano (Nebraska) and Tim Carey (Hawaii).

John Barnes showed after the game that he could be as quick with praise as criticism. When his son stepped off the team bus, the elder Barnes made a beeline for him and said, "Man, you played great. I'm really proud of you."

"That's when the father thing sets in," John Barnes said recently. Then he paused and turned toward his son, seated nearby. "At practice, I don't think I'm a dad much, do you?"

"Not at all," Jimmy responded without cracking a smile.

Said Los Alamitos senior center Jon McDaniel: "On the field, it's player-coach, the same as everybody else. Coach Barnes is great about not picking him out or giving him favors. He's just one of the guys."

The coach had years of practice to figure out the father-son, coach-player dynamic; he coached both of his sons and daughter Karen in youth sports and coached Brian at Los Alamitos during the 1996 season.

"He's in a lot tougher situation," Brian, 24, said of his younger brother. "At least I got to go with the offensive linemen and not see him all practice. I think it is a lot different situation for him playing quarterback in such a high-profile program where the quarterback is kind of the star. Playing offensive line, nobody but your mom and the coaches know who's playing."

John Barnes, a former high school and college quarterback, is also the Griffins' quarterback coach, meaning he spends extra time counseling Jimmy at practice and during Sunday film sessions at home.

On the rare occasions when John can't leave his criticisms on the field, Jimmy's mother springs to his defense.

"If I come and complain quietly to her that he hasn't done this or that at practice, she just kind of says, 'Hey, get off it. Be his dad and quit being his coach,' " John said. "It's great. We need that buffer."

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