At first glance, it may seem as if Niagara University’s soccer coach has more in common with his players than his coaching colleagues.
At 28, second-year coach Eric Barnes is not much older than the seniors on his team. Most of the space in his compact office appears to be taken up by supplies for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. In the summer, he and Assistant Coach Miguel Rodrigues, 27, play in the Buffalo District Soccer League’s Championship Division, where their players could certainly compete against them.
And perhaps the kicker: Barnes tries to have his team’s road trips include a stop at Chipotle whenever possible (his order: a burrito bowl, tortilla on the side).
Yet it would be wrong to equate Barnes’ youthful looks with a lack of experience. Far from it.
Barnes graduated from George Mason University in 2007, completing his undergraduate degree in just three years while playing goalkeeper for the soccer team. With two years of NCAA eligibility remaining, he enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh Law School and joined the soccer team there.
After exhausting his eligibility, he hooked on with both a general litigation firm in Pittsburgh and the local professional team, the Riverhounds, working during the day and practicing at night.
Barnes earned his law degree in 2010, took the Pennsylvania and New Jersey bar exams and the multi-state exam in the same week and became licensed to practice law in both states. He was then hired as a part-time associate at Allegheny Attorneys at Law and also became an assistant soccer coach at Pitt.
In 2012, Barnes decided to leave Pitt and his law job for a full-time assistant coaching position at Niagara. After the team won the MAAC championship that season, coach Chase Brooks left for a job at Duquesne. Barnes had an offer to follow Brooks (and return to Pittsburgh), but he was offered the head coaching position at Niagara and took it. The team went 5-12-1 in his first season.
Barnes is also a Grade 6 United States Soccer Federation referee, eligible to do games as high as Division I, though he isn’t allowed to officiate other men’s Division I games or Division I women’s games involving any teams in Niagara’s conference. (He’ll call SUNY Buffalo State vs. D’Youville this year).
In addition, Barnes works with the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, effectively coaching coaches on how to coach goalkeepers.
What was that again about being too young?
“When I interviewed here, they asked what’s going to be the biggest issue being so young. I’m young, but I’ve always done everything sooner,” Barnes said. “I graduated early, went through law school, practiced law for a couple years when I was playing, came up here. So this is the next step. It’s a little sooner than I thought it would be, but I’m thankful for the opportunity.”
The Buffalo News sat down with Barnes before a recent practice and discussed a variety of issues:
What’s a piece of advice for recruits, something they should be doing or not doing?
Don’t have your parents send us the email. You’re the one that’s coming to play for us. I would love to talk to your parents, I’m going to talk to your parents – that’s an important part of the recruiting process – but I need to know you want to come play for me, not that your mom wants you to come play for me.
When you get in that situation and the kid’s not necessarily happy being there, that’s when you get into a transfer situation. When the kid’s interested and actually looked up some stuff about your school, those are ones that are more likely to be at the top of the list of responses.
We’ll get 20 to 30 emails a day from kids all over the country and the world. Or if the kid sends (the email) to like 30 coaches at the same time, it’s like, ‘Oh I know it’s not for me.’
So they don’t get as high of a priority. We’ll still try to get to those, but the priority’s always going to the kid who knows a little about the school, ‘I’m really interested, I’ve been on the website, here’s my major.’ When a kid emails me and he’s like ‘I’m really interested in your engineering program,’ I’m like, ‘We don’t have engineering here.’ At the end of the day, the most important thing is making sure the school has your major. That’s another mistake kids will make. Just make sure they have what you want to major in. Do your homework.
That’s great. How about on the field? What’s something a player can do to get noticed, even if you’re there to watch someone else?
Every coach is a little bit different. What we’re looking for is their decision-making on the ball and what they’re doing off the ball. If the ball gets turned over and they’re in a position they should be getting back to defend, and they’re just standing there watching it … it’s just the decisions they’re making. If they’re on the ball and someone’s coming at them, are they dribbling out of that pressure every time or are they going to turn away and pass out of the pressure? It’s little things we want to emphasize in our program, the kids we’re recruiting are able to do.
At the end of the day, we’re trying to find top-level soccer players that might be a little undersized or might have something a little off that everyone else is passing them up for whatever reason. Those are the guys that are going to be super successful here. It comes down to work rate, too. If you’ve got the technical side but you’re the laziest kid, we can’t have that at this level.
How has being a ref helped you as a coach?
When I yell at them, they know I’m not yelling because I’m angry at them … I yell with a purpose. If they miss something, it’s not ‘you made a bad call,’ it’s ‘why didn’t you do the five yards of running to get the angle to see that?’ It’s the little nuanced things I would know as a referee.
I try to get all my players to ref so they know what the ref is going through trying to make the calls, and it helps you read the game more … Refereeing, you’re trying to be near the play but out of the way, so you have to really know what the teams are trying to do and stay out of the way.
Did you enjoy practicing law?
Actually I really liked doing it. That’s kind of the fallback plan. Everyone’s like, ‘Why do you want to coach if you could make all this money?’ It depends what type of law you do, how much money you actually make, but obviously I would be making more money. But I wanted to coach, that was the thing. I was coaching at Pitt. The second assistant position there is similar here where it was a part-time position, and they created the full-time position here at Niagara the first year I came up. It was kind of take the chance, move out of state, pursue coaching as a full-time job and see if I can make it work for a career.
My friends (in corporate law) all make over $100,000, but they had to bill like 2,000 hours a year, and if you know anything about billable hours, you’re not billing every hour you working, so they’re putting in 2,500 to 3,000 hours a year. They have really nice houses but they’re not seeing their house. They’re only in them when they go to bed. So what do you need a nice house for?
Be honest, were your parents mad you left law?
They actually were really supportive because they knew how much I liked coaching … When I had the job offer at Niagara, they were like ‘Hey, that’s your shot, it’s the full-time job, you’ll have the benefits. Take it, see what happens.’ My boss was actually really helpful at the law firm. He said, ‘If you ever want to come back we’d love to have you.’
Niagara opens the season Friday at Syracuse University.