Zac Barton, the Yin to Sean Lewis’ Yang

Associate Head Coach Zac Barton at practice. (Credit: SDSU Athletics)

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Sean Lewis addressing the team. Zac Barton allows Lewis to be at his best. (Don De Mars/EVT)

SDSU head coach Sean Lewis met special teams coordinator Zac Barton when both were Graduate Assistants at the University of Nebraska-Omaha (UNO) in 2010. Lewis worked with the tight ends on the offensive side of the ball and Barton with the defensive line.

They had a Thursday tradition back at UNO similar to two friends meeting at a coffee shop. Among Lewis’ first acts as head coach at Kent State and SDSU was bringing Barton to his staff.

“Obviously, (Lewis is) a phenomenal football coach, but more importantly, he’s a phenomenal human being,” Barton said on the upcoming episode of The SDSU Podcast. “He does things the right way. He’s a great husband. He’s a great father. It’s a no-brainer working for him because of the type of person he is.”

Despite cutting their teeth together in the profession, their partnership could be seen as odd because of how different their personalities are. Barton described Lewis as an offensive-minded optimist who always expects great outcomes from his work.

In contrast, Barton is more of an old-school defensive-minded coach who anguishes over what could go wrong.

Far from conflicting, however, their contrasting styles complement each other. Except for last season, Barton has worked under Lewis since 2018. He is an expert on Lewis’ expectations and knows what frustrates his boss.

Lewis is an enigma. He works with an infectious energy and manages aspects of his team that many head coaches do not. On special teams, Barton said Lewis is like a position coach overseeing one group on each kick team, like the gunners on punt coverage or the tight ends and fullbacks on kickoff returns.

Lewis creates great player buy-in by attending every special teams meeting. As the associate head coach, Barton organically supports Lewis by freeing him to go Aztec Fast.

“I offset Lew very well,” Barton explained. “… I try to help as much as I can and try to keep as much things off his plate as humanly possible while not overstepping my bounds, which is a fine line. I know how he likes things done, and I know his hot buttons, and I try to alleviate that as much as I possibly can while making sure I’m staying in my lane.”

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Sean Lewis’ Coaching Tree

If Lewis is as special as Aztec Nation hopes he is, in the coming years his assistants will earn opportunities for promotions. Barton’s ambition is to be a head coach, and it’s more than just his associate head coach title that suggests he is ready for that next step.

Every head football coach is unique. Their comfort in their skin makes them special. Barton admitted that early in his career, he tried to emulate others. The perfectionist tendencies of his Type A personality turned inward, and he tried to be someone else. Now, he is unapologetically himself.

“Where I’ve gotten better is I’ve stopped trying (to copy others), I’m just going to be me,” Barton said. “What you get is what you get, and I’m going to be me, and I’m going to stop worrying about the rest of it.”

Who Barton is at this point in his career is a terrific mix of influence. His father, the true coach Barton, led Loudoun Valley High School in Purcellville, Virginia, beginning in the 1970s until his retirement following his son’s junior season in 1999. He won so much that the local paper described him as more popular than the mayor.

Zac Barton (center) with Mike Barton (right). (Credit: X @CoachZacBarton)

Growing up, Barton spent as much time at Valley as he did at home. He inherited his dad’s booming voice and a matter-of-fact approach to coaching. Combined with his obsessiveness, it can wear players out, especially in this day and age.

Working with Lewis, a master motivator, and gaining the perspective that only time can give has softened Barton’s edge. He understands the relational aspect of coaching today better than at any previous time.

“I told Lew when I got back with him – because when we were at Kent, we were always worried about the next thing, getting to a bowl game, getting to the next thing – I want to actually try to enjoy some aspect of this, this time around,” Barton said, “You know, how lucky we are to be here. How lucky we are to be back together. And really try to enjoy this process instead of making it such an emotional grind day-to-day.”

Barton also shows head coaching potential because he is unthreatened by quality coaches around him. Tight ends coach is his third title, but during practice, senior offensive analyst Ryan Lindley leads that group. Rather than looking over his shoulder, Barton celebrates it.

“A guy of (Lindley’s) caliber that’s called an offense, played in the NFL, coached in the NFL, keeping him here was a coup,” Barton said. “We’re so much better with coach Lindley than without … I don’t know what we’d do without him, to be honest with you.”

Barton’s Coaching Philosophy

Lindley’s presence does not mean Barton is not involved with the tight ends. The staff is looking for the type of player Lewis has never had in his offense. Tight ends in previous years have either been elite pass catchers or terrific blockers. Barton wants someone to do both.

Sean Lewis coaching tight end Gabe Garretson with Ryan Lindley looking on. (Don De Mars/EVT)

He singled out USC transfer Jude Wolfe and sophomore Logan Tanner as players he believes can get the job done. Wolfe and Tanner are not just competing with each other. Barton emphasized that if they prove to be two of the team’s best skill position players, Lewis will utilize two tight end sets. In practice on Tuesday, the Aztecs were in 12 personnel frequently.

As the special teams coordinator, he is working with players from every position. His oversight fitting of an associate head coach is the entire roster. Barton said for the first time in his career, he is not facing a rebuild in the third phase of the game. He inherited an elite group from Doug Deakin and needs to find ways to at least keep it at that level.

“I think I connected with the kids and figured out a way to communicate in a way that they understood, and then, they could translate it,” Barton replied when asked what a great year coaching in 2024 would look like. “I think that would be it. If we get to a point where these guys understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it and then can execute it, and I put them in a position to do that.”

Aside from wins and losses, arguably the best way to evaluate a coach is by the quality of his assistants and the impact he’s had on their development. Zac Barton’s loyalty speaks as loud as anything Sean Lewis has done at SDSU.

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