For the first time in over two decades Jason Barker is not spending a large number of his summer hours in the De Queen gym.
He coached De Queen girls basketball for 23 years, 16 in junior high and the last seven in senior high. Last spring Barker gave up the Lady Leopard basketball position and will instead now be the head junior high football coach and resume his former spot as head coach of girls soccer.
The timing of Barker’s decision to step down as head girls basketball coach was to many in the community a shock.
The Lady Leopards are loaded with talent. The entire starting line up plus several reserves with extensive playing time are back. In addition in a new classification system De Queen will move from being one of the smallest schools in class 5A to the middle of the enrollment pack in 4A.
“I don’t think anybody will accuse me of leaving with the cupboard bare,” Barker quipped. “I can easily see them winning the new conference.”
Relinquishing the head girls basketball position has been on his mind for some time. If it had not occurred this year, it would have almost certainly have happened next year.
“The reason that it’s happening now is that there was a place for me to move to,” the coach said. “I didn’t want to be out of coaching, but I also didn’t want to coach my daughter.” The daughter will be in the ninth grade and plays for the junior girls team.
“To be sure it was a fair deal, I’d probably be harder on her than the rest of them,” Barker explained. “This way she’s not having to worry about that, and I get to just sit up there and be a dad and watch her.”
When the football position opened up, Barker made the move. “It was the right time,” he said. “I didn’t know if there would be another spot I’d like to be in.”
Barker has become so identified with basketball, that many De Queen fans do not remember that he was a football assistant for his first six years at the school, including being defensive coordinator his sixth year. At that time he was already coaching junior girls basketball and golf as well. When the Arkansas Activities Association moved golf and tennis from the spring semester to the fall semester, he could no long coach both golf and football.
“It wasn’t feasible to keep football. I would have had to give up golf,” he said. “When I moved to senior high basketball, I had to give up golf because senior high takes a lot more off season work.”
When Barker began coaching basketball, the Leopards played several seasons in the Rock Gym before the coliseum opened. “I’d open the gym from 9 to 11 since we’ve had the new arena,” he said of his summer schedule. “For the last 16 years I’ve been in the gym till noon. This year I’ve been in the field house. It’s not less work, just changing hats.”
He admitted that he has always missed coaching football a little. “The last time I coached, we were basically running the same offense as we are now. It’s not that much to relearn, it’s just getting back to that frame of mind,” he said.
His philosophy of football is very similar to that of head senior high coach Stephen Sloan. “I’m a big believer in trying to control the tempo of the game. The junior high offense will be a mirror image of the senior high,” Barker said.
“I’ve noticed you can make a simple game way too complicated. I don’t want to complicate a simple fun game.”
There have been changes to high school football since Barker last coached it. The biggest to him is “how much technology is involved. That’s true of basketball as well, but probably more in football. We used to have to drive to meet somebody to exchange video. There were some games when people didn’t want to exchange game film,” he recalled.
“The spread stuff was just coming in. Now just about everybody does it, but it’s still blocking and tackling. If you can keep the ball and block and tackle, you’ll have a shot every night.”
The other part of Barker’s new duties will be a return to girls soccer. For the past four years his spring sport has been junior girls track. “Everybody who knows me, knows I’m a runner. I have loved my time in track, but soccer was open and they needed me to do that,” he said.
Barker was the girls soccer coach from the first season of 2008 to 2014 when Erik Smith took over. One reason Barker left soccer for track was the overlap of soccer and basketball. “It’s easier to go from basketball to track. Every year we made the post season in basketball, I missed the first couple of soccer games,” he pointed out.
“Now I’ll have a pretty good break from the end of football to the end of the semester. We’ll have January and February for pre-season practice.
“I’ve missed it. It used to be the new sport, but it’s grown. The girls program is now a major sport in the school.”
At the moment Barker knows little about the athletes he will coach other than his observations as a spectator last year. Those observations are encouraging.
“Last year’s eighth grade group was pretty decent. The seventh graders were pretty good too,” he said of football. As for soccer, “We lost several seniors, including a good defender (Maria Jimenez) who just played in the all-star game. The good news is there was a very strong freshmen class.”
For the time being he is settling in at his new desk, and helping keep the weight room open. “Right now, it’s just doing weights,” he said. “After the Fourth, we’ll get into the football stuff.”