Greenville coach, 54th Senate District candidate won’t 'jump ship' on former mentor Pitino
George Barber, Greenville University head basketball coach and 54th state Senate District candidate in the Republican primary, got his big break as a coach winning the 1996 NCAA national basketball championship.
At the time, he was as an assistant at the University of Kentucky under then-head coach Rick Pitino.
“When you’re associated with a national championship team, your value as a coach goes way up,” Barber told Metro East Sun.
Pitino was fired “for just cause” on Oct. 16 from the head coaching job at the University of Louisville, according to CBS Sports, amid a federal investigation in which 10 people were arrested, accused of corruption and taking bribes. Pitino has not been charged with a crime.
Despite the scandal surrounding Pitino’s firing, Barber said he would “not jump ship” on him.
“We won clean in 1996,” he said. “And he was generous and a great mentor to me. I feel terrible about what’s happened. But I’ve made mistakes in my life, too, and I will always be in the coach’s corner.”
Voters in the 54th District favor conservative candidates; they came out heavy for President Donald Trump in last year’s election. Pitino has at times been critical of the president.
Barber, on the other hand, reflects the same values of many of those in his district. He identifies himself as pro-Second Amendment, pro-life and pro-family. He says the biggest problems facing the state are jobs, high taxes and overspending. He said he will not opt into the state’s pension plan -- its unfunded liability being a big cause of the state’s fiscal woes -- if elected.
He said he was thinking of waiting longer to enter politics but decided that with an open seat available with the retirement of Kyle McCarter (R-Lebanon), the time was right.
His five kids are grown, the youngest is now 17, and friend and former Republican Dave Luechtefeld, who represented the 58th District for 21 years and was also a coach, told him it was possible to do both.
“Springfield is only about an hour and a half away,” Barber said.
Finally, he said that coaching for so many years, starting in 1999, has given him name recognition throughout the district and that the travel for campaigning is easy compared to the travel he normally does while recruiting players.
“I’m used to recruiting over five states, so campaigning in eight counties doesn’t feel that bad," he said.
The other three candidates in the race are Ben Stratemeyer of Centralia, the chairman of the Marion County Republican Party; Air Force veteran Rafael Him from New Baden; and former candidate for lieutenant governor, Jason Plummer of Edwardsville.
Petitions are due by Nov. 27; the cutoff is Dec. 4.