In his ninth season as the Head Coach at Eureka College, Kurt Barth has led the Red Devils to nearly as great of success as when he was a player, and clearly has proven to have found the right formula to make the team into one of the best in the UMAC.
Introducing Kurt Barth
There are many things that California is known for, but how it got itself on the map is that it was once a hot bed for those who were looking to get rich panning for gold. It was that quest that led to the state’s motto, “Eureka,” as literally tens of thousands of people headed west looking to find their path to riches in the mountains of the Golden State.
Eureka, Illinois is a long way from California, and this wasn’t even its original name. This city was originally called Walnut Grove, but another city in the state had the name as well and so they were forced to change it, opting on Eureka around 1855, but no one seems to be exactly sure why this name was chosen.
It is in that same year that a group of Kentucky abolitionists opened the first college in the state of Illinois that offered an education to both men and women, and they chose to do so in Eureka, believing that they, too, had found the city they were looking for to start their vision for an institution dedicated to providing an outstanding education based on values.
Eureka College has been an exceptional institution of learning, but that has not been the case with their football program. The Red Devils struggled for many years, and found themselves at the bottom of the Illinois-Badger Conference and later the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. From 1999-2008, Eureka had a combined record of 19-81, including going 0-10 in 2006.
However, 2009 became a game changer for the Red Devils. Not only did they join a new conference, becoming a member of the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference (UMAC), but they also hired a new Head Football Coach, Kurt Barth, and the school has been pleased at the results ever since they found the right man for the job.
Wanting to Stay in the Game
Kurt Barth had been acquainted with Eureka College long before he decided to become its head coach in 2009. He starred for the Red Devils during his collegiate days, eventually earning himself Hall of Fame honors from the school. Barth was a three-time All-American receiver for Eureka and was ranked in the top 10 in NCAA history several categories, including career touchdowns (51), touchdowns in a season (18), and receiving yards per game during a career (110.5). More importantly, the Red Devils were 27-13 during his time at Eureka, including a 9-1 record in 1995 and a trip to the NAIA playoffs in 1994 and 1995.
After graduating, Coach Barth remained on the school, taking a job as an assistant. He loved the idea of coaching, as it gave him the opportunity to remain in the game that he so loves, while also being able to help mentor young men through his role as a coach.
“It’s the next best thing to playing. I think that’s what pulled me to get into the profession, just to stay involved with the game and then, as you get a little older and go through it, you understand the bigger calling is to help mentor student athletes and to help them grow and develop into good people and good men as they leave the institution. My initial reason was that I wanted to stay in the game, but you get realize that the bigger calling is to impact a few lives and you understand that you can make a difference and that makes it all more worthwhile.”
After a short time on the Red Devils staff, the Coach decided to set aside his whistle and put on the cleats one last time, deciding to play arena football for the Duluth-Superior Lumberjacks. He spent a season there, earning Pro Bowl honors in 2000, before moving to the Peoria Pirates where he would become the Most Valuable Player of the Arena Football 2 League.
While playing indoor football Kurt Barth remained in coaching, returning to his high school alma mater, Fieldcrest, to serve as the team’s defensive and special teams coordinator. In 2005, he became the head coach at Eureka High School where he served for four seasons. During that time the Hornets made it to the IHSA 4A state playoffs, and he had two players that were given All-State First-Team honors.
Returning to His Roots
In 2008, Eureka College was looking for a new head coach after coming off a 3-5 season. It was the 10th straight season where the Red Devils had three wins or less, including in 2006 when the team went 0-10.
The school decided to turn to a coach who was at the college when it had arguably its most successful time as football program. They decided that the ideal person was Kurt Barth.
In December, 2008, Coach Barth was named as the new head football coach for the Red Devils. It was not only a great opportunity for the school to bring in somebody who was committed to his alma mater, but was a great opportunity for the coach as well.
“I’m an alum, so just being at my alma mater was one of the draws to come back. I grew up about 30 miles away from Eureka so I was very familiar with it and that was one of the reasons why I chose to attend Eureka. As I got out into coaching and the opportunity arose for me to come back here as a coach I jumped on it. It’s been a good thing for me and my family.”
While excited about the opportunity to return to coach at the place where he tore up the gridiron, Coach Barth had no illusions about what this job would entail. The program was struggling more than just on the field and there was going to have to be some very big changes to the culture of the team if success was going to materialize.
“I inherited 29 guys on the roster when I got here and we had to build on that. It was a challenge to get the players to buy into what we were going to accomplish here, but they have and now we have 89 players this fall.”
One area where he wanted to make a dramatic impact right away was in the assistant coaches that were hired. Coach Barth didn’t just want coaches who understood the Xs and Os of the game, but also people that were former players and alumni from Eureka College. He knew that their investment in seeing the program grow would be greater if they felt an even stronger sense of loyalty to the Red Devils.
“We are all alums from Eureka College, which doesn’t raise the stakes any, but makes it mean a little bit more to everyone on the staff. We’ve all had our hand in the program, we’ve all been here as student athletes and now as coaches so it means just a little bit more to get things back on track. I think that was probably the big thing with developing the staff, putting together the staff the way we did to make it mean something to everybody involved and I think that’s been helpful. Just year in and year out our kids have done a great job of staying the course and trying to advance and get better each and every day, and I think part of that is that they know our whole staff is invested in this school.”
Always the Educator
If you ask the coaches who have been doing this for 10 or 15 years, one of the biggest areas of change for them is that players are much different today than they were at a decade ago primarily in one area – they want to understand why they are doing something. Gone are the days where a coach barked orders and the players obeyed without hesitation. Now, a coach must make it clear why practice is a certain way, what the benefits of a drill are, and how a play is going to make the team more successful on Saturday. To some, this is an annoyance, but to Kurt Barth it gives him the opportunity to do what he does best – teach.
“That’s critical in terms of if you’re going to get kids to buy in and to stay a part of the program. The explaining of, ‘Hey, this is why we do things, this is how we do them’ for some kids that has helped us to be able to keep those kids around. By being upfront and explaining the whole process to them has helped us to maintain and retain a lot of our students as opposed to guys just hanging around a year and then taking off. We teach the game of football but, more importantly, how to be a good student, how to be a good productive citizen, and how to be an outstanding young man has helped and that’s all part of the program as well”
A major part of the program is to build strong relationships between himself and the players. Coach Barth wants to see his team succeed on the field, but it is off the field where he is driven to help his team to be the greatest success. These young men are much more than players to him, and he cherishes the relationships he is building with each athlete, trainer, and even parents.
“We’re upfront that we’re here to help them develop on and off the field. I think the relationships that our staff built with our team members is the main draw for wanting to be in our program. We have an open door policy and I’m as involved in every player in our program as they want me to be. If they want to talk outside of football about family issues or anything like that, my door is open and we’re here to help. We don’t get caught up in you’re a football player and that’s the only time we have time to talk to them. We develop relationships and that’s the main thing we want in our program. We want players to enjoy their overall experience here, that they become better young man when they leave here and that we want them to come back when their alums.”
It is the relationships that mean so much to Coach Barth. That is because he greatly cherishes the front row seat he has to see his players mature into young men that are about to go into the world and make it a whole lot better place than how it was when they left Eureka.
“Seeing the growth of a guy as they come in, from freshman to senior year, guys come in and you see that there little squirrely, a little immature, not quite understanding what is going on around them, but by the time you get them to their sophomore or junior year things are progressing and by their senior year they’re talking to you about where they’re going to work, plans for after graduation and all that. It’s an enjoyable part to see them grow and to see them as they have their goals before they are leaving.”
Hoping to Turn the Tide
There is no doubt that the biggest complaint related to the so called “millennials” is that they are not willing to put in the hard work. They want what they want, they want it now, and they don’t want to have to work to get it. They are the generation of “safe spaces,” political correctness on steroids, and needing days off because they are upset their candidate did not win.
Sadly, many colleges and universities are not only allowing this kind of thinking, but are outright catering to it. Not for Coach Kurt Barth. He knows that the only way that a young man is going to get ahead is if he is willing to work his butt off and to be disciplined enough to keep pushing forward when he has been insulted, obstacles are in his path, or things look like failure is imminent.
“We look to instill discipline, a hard-working approach that they’re going to need when they get out into the workforce, whether they go on into the workforce or they go on to grad school. We hope that we have developed them so that they are able to go out and be successful when they leave. The other piece we want is that we want a relationship with them. We want them to come back and tell us the good things that are going on two, three, five years from now; to still be involved in our program. If there is one thing that I really choose to instill in them it’s the discipline and hard work because that’s what it’s going to take to keep moving forward.”
The Red Devils Have Found Great Success
They say that the proof is in the pudding and few can argue with the success that Head Football Coach Kurt Barth has had at Eureka College. Since his arrival the Red Devils have won 38 games, making him the winningest coach in school history. The 23-17 record from 2013-2016, which includes two 8-2 seasons, was the second best four year period at the school, only eclipsed by the period when Coach Barth was a player at Eureka.
Clearly, great things are happening with the Eureka College football program and that is thanks to the vision and commitment that Head Coach Kurt Barth has instilled in his players and his staff. These young men are learning valuable lessons that are going to make them incredible fathers, husbands, employees, executives, and neighbors and, thanks to Coach Barth, not too many years from now when the nation is looking for some young men to guide our country into being greater than ever, they are going to look to Eureka College and say, “Look, we found them!”
By Robert Pannier