The562’s coverage of Long Beach Poly athletics in the 2022-23 school year is sponsored by Poly alum Jayon Brown and PlayFair Sports Management.
It was a difficult couple of weeks to be Stephen Barbee.
Sure, the fifth-year Long Beach Poly football coach’s team was winning, picking up big victories over Serra and Mission Viejo. And yes, those wins earned the Jackrabbits a top-five ranking in the state on CalPreps for the first time in a decade. And for most coaches, winning consecutive Coach of the Week honors from the Los Angeles Chargers and Rams would be not just good, but great.
Most coaches aren’t like Barbee, though. Instead of reveling in the honor or boasting about it on social media, he asked Poly boys’ athletic director Rob Shock if his players could attend the award presentation in his place.
“He doesn’t like it when the attention is on him, it’s always about the kids for him,” said Shock.
When congratulated for the honor, Barbee pointed to the fact that both awards came with a $1,000 donation to the Jackrabbits football program, money that will help him keep things cost-free for his team, a pledge he’s been able to fulfill so far in his tenure at the school.
This habit of deflecting praise onto his staff and players is becoming more and more practiced as the Jackrabbits have more and more success. Last year they won the CIF-SS Division 4 championship and this year they’re on track for a Division 1 playoff placement, while also being just two wins shy of tracking down first-place in the all-time California history wins list for a program.
“He puts all the credit onto us,” said senior defensive back Daylen Austin. “I definitely appreciate that–he never takes any credit. And if we lose a game, you hear him take all the blame. He gives us all the credit and takes all the blame, we all notice that.”
It’s something that his coaches have noticed too. Daniel Singh, Poly’s assistant head coach and linebackers coach praised the same quality.
“He puts the players and program ahead of himself so much that even when he is being awarded or celebrated directly, he will deflect to everyone and anyone else but himself,” he said.
When Barbee was hired at Poly five years ago he arrived at the school in a white dress shirt, gold tie, and a green sweater, which remained his outfit on gamedays for the first season he was with the Jackrabbits. When he did his introductions and first interviews, plenty of people who saw that outfit expressed reservations about the “culture fit” of Barbee and Poly.
Shock did his best to calm those reservations, as did Poly legends Don Norford and Willie McGinest, who were on the interview panel.
“It was obvious how much he cares about the kids,” said Norford. “And that’s what I care about.”
It wasn’t just that he cared about the kids–it was also how little he cared about his own accolades or image. The school’s football program is notoriously high-ego–when the job opened up, Poly heard from dozens of alums who felt they should be the next head coach, including some with no coaching experience.
Being able to maintain relationships and bring those alums, administrators, and community back into the program has been one of Barbee’s superpowers, and it’s happened specifically because of his no-ego personality. When he meets alums, he listens to their stories and expresses his appreciation and admiration–and he makes sure that those in the program know where he stands.
“We all know that he has our back no matter what, that he’d fight for us no matter what,” said Singh. “The coach Barbee you see in the media and the one that we get are so different.”
His approach quickly won over people in the community and brought in a wave of Poly alums to serve as his assistant coaches. Assistant coach and alum Marcus Falanai also said it wasn’t a coincidence that the Polynesian talent pipeline quickly re-opened at Poly once Barbee arrived, as the program blossomed from having just one Polynesian player on the roster to more than 50 across the program today.
“The previous coach had said he wanted to run the program like a business, and I wasn’t a fan of that,” said Falanai. “Coach Barbee the first thing he said was that he understood this program is a family. He told me about how he wanted to model the program that way, and there was a sincerity in him talking about the community and the kids here, not just about football. The kids and the community were the priority–and that’s my priority too. So I told him I’d come coach with him and I’d be here till the m———-g wheels fall off.”
Falanai said the fact that Barbee hosted team barbeques and potlucks to make sure the kids were fed showed him that the family-first approach wasn’t just talk. That approach doesn’t mean he’s soft, either. Austin said he remembered hearing from his older brother that Barbee was benching two top recruits during his first year with the team because they’d missed practice.
“I think that opened a lot of people’s eyes that there was going to be discipline at Poly again,” he said.
As Barbee has found his way forward, balancing the tightrope act of being a players’ coach who also believes in discipline and sacrifice, he’s also become more comfortable around his team and in Long Beach. The sweater, shirt, and tie disappeared after the first season; he put them on before the first game of his second season and quickly took them off again.
“It wasn’t comfortable,” he said. “It wasn’t who I am.”
Who he is, is the perfect man for the moment for a proud Poly program that was teetering five years ago. The Jackrabbits’ numbers and rankings are up as they enter Moore League play this week looking to win another league title, and secure Poly’s first undefeated regular season since 2008. The Jackrabbits will host Lakewood at Veterans Memorial Stadium at 7 p.m. on Friday.