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Undaunted by COVID-19, Barnes talks GC football renewal

New Grinnell College football coach Brent Barnes on campus in January 2020. Photo by Andrew Tucker.

Although the fate of fall NCAA sports is uncertain due to COVID-19, new football head coach Brent Barnes is looking to bring the College’s program back to the “benchmark” for the Midwest Conference after the team voted to suspend their 2019 season due to a small, injury-afflicted roster.

The athletic department announced Barnes as the replacement for Jeff Pedersen in December, though he arrived on campus in mid-January. Due to his late arrival, recruitment for the 2020 season was largely completed and out of his control. “The hay was in the barn so to speak,” Barnes said.

The Rice University alumnus is looking towards the 2021 season, which will be the first for which he is in charge of recruiting.

“It hurts not being able to show [2021] recruits the campus during the spring. We had planned and had good interest in our spring visit days when I had hoped the weather would be warmer and we were beginning spring practices,” he said.

The coach was hoping for a chance to show off the new direction of the program. Hopefully, he said, potential recruits can visit in the summer. However, it is still uncertain at what point Grinnell College will allow campus visits again for new recruits amidst already rigorous COVID-19 campus protection.

Barnes has been working since his arrival in January to reinvigorate Grinnell College football.

“Most of the changes in my first 3 months here have been behind the scenes,” said Barnes. “I have spent a lot of time of dissecting every aspect of the program to determine the best path forward. Some of that analysis is still ongoing and hasn’t shown up in anything concrete yet.”

Despite the seemingly “subtle” changes he is currently implementing, Barnes said that he anticipates big shifts in the next few years: “These changes over time will lead to a program completely different from the one that was here in 2019.”

Since 1970, Grinnell football has only had 5 seasons with records above .500. Currently, out of 237 teams in Division III football, NCAA ranks Grinnell 237. In an overall rating of all 758 football teams in the NCAA, for the fifth year in a row, Grinnell ranked last in every category: power, offensive ability, defensive ability, and strength of schedule.

Barnes sees that changing under his tenure.

“My vision for the program is to be the benchmark by which other Midwest Conference schools measure their programs in terms of recruiting, coaching and organization. I want Knox’s football staff to ask themselves, ‘What is Grinnell doing in recruiting?’ I want Monmouth’s staff to ask themselves, ‘How is Grinnell developing their players?’ I want Ripon’s staff to ask themselves, ‘What is Grinnell doing to maximize their resources to create the best football team they can?’” said Barnes.

More than simply looking to improve the athletic aspect of the team, Barnes also has a specific idea of the type of player he wants in order to create the team’s culture. “I am looking for someone committed to academics who really loves the game of football. I want someone, and his parents, who clearly understands the value of a Grinnell education as well as spend[ing] the time to polish his craft,” he said.

Although his first semester has been interrupted by a global pandemic and campus shutdown, Barnes said that his new home has made a big impression.

“I have only been here for three months, but I have never been as proud to represent an institution like Grinnell College. This is a truly special place,” he said.

Barnes said that one of his main goals as head coach is to foster a better relationship with campus as a whole.

In a message to the campus community, Barnes said, “I do want you to know, in words now and actions later, that the football program is moving in a new direction, one that reflects the Grinnellian spirit I have come to embrace. If you would like to help in this endeavor, please feel free to reach out to me by email and I’d be happy to start a conversation.”

You can reach Barnes at

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