By Ben Robinson
Saturday night was a fitting conclusion to the unbelievable coaching career that has spanned from 1975 to 2017 for Tom Barbee — 28 of those years as the head wrestling coach at Covington High School.
So to see Buccaneer senior Lance Miller wrestle the tournament of his life at the 2017 state meet and ultimately reward Barbee the opportunity of coaching his final match on the biggest stage — the state finals — the script couldn’t have been written any better. The thought probably never entered Miller’s mind throughout the state tournament, but he was wrestling for a cause so much greater than attempting to win a state championship.
He was wrestling for all of the guys who wrestled for Barbee and the black and white — and to see Miller give a coach that has meant so much to so many people the opportunity to coach his final match in the state finals.
Sure, Miller was obviously disappointed that he came up short of a state championship by a narrow 1-0 score, but what he did for Barbee and Covington wrestling is one of the highlights of Buccaneer wrestling history and something people will never forget.
“All I thought about watching that match is this would be the last time I would see coach (Barbee) in the corner,” said Mike Stephan, a former Buccaneer wrestler and current assistant wrestling coach. “For Lance to wrestle the way he did and give coach Barbee the opportunity to coach his final match in the state finals, that means so much to so many people.”
Over his 42 years at Covington, Barbee coached football, track and wrestling — all at the high school and junior high levels. But of the sports he coached, wrestling was Tom’s baby, as he built a program from the ground up in two separate tenures, first from 1980 to 1989 and then again from 1998 to 2017.
“He’s been a huge part of Covington wrestling — making those contributions all of those years since 1975,” said current assistant wrestling coach Eric Vanderhorst. “Even when he took a break in the 90s, he was still involved in some way, whether it was officiating or helping the wrestling parents organize fundraisers.”
And Barbee’s life, Diane, has meant just as much to Covington wrestling and the other sports he’s coached over the past 42 years.
“Diane has meant a lot to his success and the success of all of the kids he’s coached,” Vanderhorst said. “She’s made a lot of sacrifices for him to be able to coach kids. He’s been coaching a long time, and the love she showed him, sacrificing time with him to allow him to do those things for 42 years, that’s immeasurable. Everything he’s accomplished, she deserves so much of the credit too.”
Barbee’s accomplishments are many, but his legacy may very well be in a wrestling building he helped erect that has taken the wrestling program to another level and ensured future generations an opportunity for success.
The wrestling building itself was built due to the hard work and leadership of Barbee. He, along with the other coaches and wrestling parents, raised the funds for the materials and even built the building by hand. Over the years, Barbee improved the building, installing a new heating and ventilation system, new mats, record boards, banners, singlets, you name it.
Barbee has also built a family type of atmosphere within the program, where he has had many of his former wrestlers coaching at all levels: Vanderhorst, Stephan, Randy Sowers, Brad Hall, Marty Finfrock, Corey Turner and many others.
“He’s been a big mentor to me,” Vanderhorst said. “He got me involved in coaching when he came back in 1998, and he’s helped me develop as a coach. He also helped get the youth program started with Brad Hall and Randy Sowers, which has paid huge dividends to our high school program.”
And he has built the program on one simple philosophy: “To develop champions in life.” He has been known to say, “I’m not here to develop kids into state champions. I’m here to develop kids into life champions — people who will be productive citizens who take care of their families.”
And Barbee has stuck to that philosophy. To him, it was never about seeing kids win state championships or becoming state placers. It has always been about getting the kids to maximize whatever potential they may have, whether it’s on the wrestling mat, in the classroom, or in the community. If a state championship or a state medal was earned through the process, that was an added bonus.
“He’s no different than any other coach in regards to wanting to win, you know, the competitive side of it,” Vanderhorst said. “He hates to lose as much as anybody, but the big picture has always been preparing kids for life. It’s more important to him to see kids who wrestled for him grow into good people.”
And the kids who wrestled at Covington for Barbee were always expected to do things his way — and his way has always been to do what is best for the team. If that meant demanding a wrestler to bump up a weight class to help the team win a dual, that’s what kids were expected to do. If they didn’t like it or refused, they simply didn’t wrestle. He wasn’t going to sacrifice what was best for the team for an individual’s personal ambitions.
“We’ve had kids or parents — mostly parents — who didn’t always agree with him, but they either did it or didn’t wrestle,” Stephan said. “Covington wrestling has always been bigger than one person.”
Expectation also went beyond the wrestling mat, as Barbee expected his wrestlers to do the right things off the mat.
“He’s always been fair,” said Randy Sowers, a former state qualifier and a long-time coach at the youth level. “He didn’t take any crap from me or my kids (who also wrestled for Barbee). He was the same with everybody. He expected you to do things the right way, whether it was on the mat or off of it, and if you didn’t do things the right way, you had to answer to him.”
A lesson Sowers found out the hard way as a young wrestler in high school.
“I remember when I got into a fight in high school, he told me not to act like that because there were consequences.” Sowers said. “He ripped into me pretty good, but the last thing he wanted to know was if I won (the fight).”
Barbee always wanted to win, but it was never a win-at-all-costs mentality at Covington. He always kept his vision of developing quality people in the forefront — a vision some didn’t totally understand.
“I grew up at Graham, where it was all about winning state championships,” Stephan said. “When I came here in junior high, I had a hard time understanding what coach Barbee was trying to accomplish because there were some kids who didn’t seem very serious about the sport — kids who didn’t want to wrestle 12 months out of the year. But soon I realized that coach Barbee was going to treat you the same whether you were a full-time wrestler or someone who maybe wrestled to stay in shape for football. We don’t have kids come from all over to wrestle here. We may have a few transfers here or there, but we mostly have kids who grow up here and are three-sport athletes.”
“Barbee’s way” obviously produced results, as he retired with 443 career dual wins — the third-most in Ohio high school wrestling history.
But Barbee has never been about numbers. As previously mentioned, he has always been about developing “life champions,” and it starts with somehow getting kids to maybe accomplish something they never thought they could.
And Barbee has many other fond memories of kids who excelled above their capabilities, which he communicated one year on a trip to watch one of his former proteges, Logan Brown, wrestle for Purdue University at the NCAA tournament.
“One of my proudest moments as a coach was when Josh Shefbuch won two matches for us that probably saved our perfect dual season,” Barbee said. “He defeated a kid from Dixie to seal a one-point win and then a week later, he came back from a deficit to beat a kid from Versailles in overtime. Shefbuch wasn’t a state-caliber kid, but he always gave us his best effort when he was on the mat.”
Shefbuch’s heroics at the time ultimately led to a perfect 29-0 dual record that season. Another one of his fond memories came under circumstances many didn’t understand at the time.
“I also had a kid who you could say was a ticking time bomb — you know, who had a short temper,” Barbee said at the time. “We were in a heated dual one time and (he) lost his cool, slammed a kid, and probably should have been tossed from the match. I had people demanding that I kick him off the team, but I couldn’t do that because I felt he needed the structure of wrestling to keep his life together. Anyway, a few years after he graduated he moved away and was doing pretty well for himself. He came back one time and came up to me and thanked me for not giving up on him. That meant a lot.”
One would think seeing Logan Brown win Covington’s first state championship in 2006 or seeing Jarred Ganger winning back-to-back titles in 2014 and 2015 would rank high on his list of proudest moments, but Barbee isn’t that way.
“I’m just as proud of the guys who went 0-2 at state as I am of the guys who won state titles,” he said. “I’m also proud of a lot of the kids who never made it to state because there were a lot of great kids who worked very hard but just couldn’t get there.”
It is the goal and a dream for every wrestler to get to state and hopefully become a state champion. But Barbee has always been about the bigger picture.
And that’s seeing the kids who wrestled for him become champions in life.