By Jay Price
A stranger, seeing him for the ﬁrst time toward the end, when he was a smaller version of himself, might not have guessed it.
But Staten Island lost a giant yesterday.
But Barrett’s enduring legacy is the army of kids … now middle-aged men … who played for him, or coached with him, and were changed forever by the experience.
“I’ve been around a lot of impressive people. and a lot of different philosophies,” Kevin Coyle, who worked his way through the college coaching ranks to a long career in the National Football League, told the Advance in 2013, when he was defensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins. “But no one in my life made more of an impression.
“I became a coach because I wanted to be him.” - Kevin Coyle
Barrett’s coaching style was the anthesis of “social distancing,” the self-defense mechanism forced on us by the coronavirus pandemic.
His modus operandi was to jump into players’ lives, and stay there.
He was, to borrow one of his favorite words, relentless about that sort of thing.
“You have to love ‘em,” he once told a friend who was thinking about going into the business.
“You have to love ‘em … and they have to know you love ‘em. “And once they know that, you can do anything with ‘em.” - Dennis Barrett
Dennis Michael Barrett was born and raised in New Rochelle, where his father was a cop. The family lived in public housing, and money was tight. When the weather was warm and neighbors were grilling outside, he and his brothers learned to linger on the periphery, waiting to be asked if they might like a hot dog or a burger. Chances were it might be their best meal of the day.
Sports gave him purpose. He was an all-district wrestler and a 5-5, 150- pound quarterback at New Rochelle High School, where the football team lost one game his junior year. The next year, with Barrett completing 60 of 78 passes and directing an offense that scored 36 points a game, they didn’t lose any. The Huguenots were the top team in the state, and Barrett was voted All-County and All-State. Plus, he found a calling.
He watched his high school coach, Lou Amonson, turning boys into men, and it seemed like a worthwhile thing for a man to do.
Recruited to the University of Cincinnatti, Barrett suffered a back injury that ended his college career almost before it started. But all that meant was he got a head start on his life’s work.
He stayed at Cincinnatti for a brief stint as a graduate assistant, the equivalent of a master’s degree in coaching, before jumping at the chance to have his own team at Farrell.
“The only thing I knew about Staten Island,” he said, “was that it had a ferry."
In those days, Barrett was a light bundle of muscle and energy, whose very being radiated purpose.
Even the way he said “football” … hard emphasis on the ﬁrst syllable …signaled intensity.
He was an ahead-of-his-time high school coach, running cutting-edge offenses and bringing a college coach’s faculty to scouting and in-game adjustments. When all that failed, he willed his teams to a higher level, the way he did the day John D’Amato ran through a glass door at the conclusion of one of Barrett’s halftime talks.
D’Amato, who played at Ohio State and UMass and became a prominent Staten Island lawyer, wasn’t an outlier. One time or another, those locker-room talks made the hair stand up on the back of the neck of veteran trainers, priests, athletic directors, team doctors, and jaded sportswriters, and the occasional admiral or lieutenant commander.
“He made you feel important,” John O’Leary said.
“He gave you the courage to do things you didn’t know you were capable of doing.” - John O'Leary
And when they lost, which was almost never, the coach told ‘em he loved ‘em.
When Barrett went back to Cincinnatti, it was to play the No. 1 high school team in the country, Moeller Catholic, in front of 27,000 fans at ancient Nippert Stadium.
By then, the biggest college coaches in the country were paying attention.
Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler came to visit. Joe Paterno. Paul Dietzel, who won a national championship at Louisiana State, created a fuss when he arrived by helicopter.
Barrett’s boys went off to play at Ohio State, Michigan, Notre Dame, and the Ivies and came home to be doctors, lawyers, cops, CEOs and coaches. A lot of coaches. Barrett was the best man at their weddings, godfather to their kids, their North Star in times of crisis.
It wasn’t always a smooth ride. Barrett's Kings Point teams were often over-scheduled, but Coast Guard, always the game that mattered most at Kings Point, wasn’t his toughest opponent. Called out by family and friends, he kicked the drinking habit that brought his father low, and threw himself into the roles of speaker, counselor, and Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor with the same passion he brought to football. In the hands of a sober Barrett, AA became one more way to save the world, one drunk at a time.
Retirement should’ve been a victory lap. Barrett, the first chairman of the Staten Island Sports Hall of Fame, was inducted in 1999, after the waiting period he helped impose on committee members. When some of the old guard organized a 70th birthday celebration, 300 of his former players showed up. Just this year, an Islandwide football award recognizing academic achievement, leadership, and community service, was launched in his name.
He leaves behind a daughter, Denyse Barrett Flynn; brothers Arthur and Kevin, and a sister, Faith; a grandson, Kerry Cosgriff; and a great-granddaughter, Clara Cosgriff.
And his boys. Just this spring Mike Marino, the center on Barrett’s first team at Monsignor Farrell and a physical therapist who put his own life on hold to help manage the coach’s care, stumbled on a 50-year-old letter from the freshman football coach at Brown, welcoming him to the university, and to a new world of possibilities.
In tears, Marino brought the letter to read to his wife.
“I wouldn’t be where I am without Dennis Barrett” - Mike Marino
“It all starts with him,” Mike said.
The last few years were rough on both families. Barrett battled a smorgasbord of medical issues, any one of which, by itself, might’ve worn out a less stubborn man, one who hadn’t beaten Coast Guard six years in a row ... and booze, too.
It mattered little if they were related by blood or by football. If they spent any time around Barrett in his prime, he left an impression.
That’s how it was that October afternoon in 1987 when an undermanned Kings Point team went toe-to-toe with the best club in Wagner College history, stretching the eventual national champions to their limit before falling just short at the final whistle.
One of Walt Hameline’s assistants watched, with equal parts relief and wonder, as Barrett’s Mariners left the field.
“I don’t know how they did that,” he said, before catching himself.
“No, wait ... that’s not true. I do know how they did it.
“They were inspired.”
Video Tribute to Coach Barrett
This video was produced and shown at Coach Barrett's 70th birthday party. The video is narrated by Jay Price.
Read What Football Means to Me, written by Dennis Barrett in 1960 following his senior year of high school. Click below.