Meet Reggie Barlow, the longtime college coach now leading the D.C. Defenders

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By Amit


As D.C. Defenders Coach Reggie Barlow prepares to coach his first XFL game, he can’t help but think back to his introduction to the world of professional football: a phone call in 1996 from someone whose name carries a lot of weight in Washington.

“It extremely humbled me to hear on the other side of the phone: ‘Hey, this is Doug Williams with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Just want to let you know we’re about to draft you. [We’re] excited for you, happy for you. And come up here and represent HBCUs,’ ” Barlow said.

Williams was in his second season as a Jaguars scout, and Barlow, a standout wide receiver at Alabama State who had smooth kick- and punt-return ability and made acrobatic catches, was on his radar. Williams’s scouting report helped spur the Jaguars to select Barlow in the fourth round.

“I don’t know if I was more happy that it was Doug Williams on the phone or me being drafted,” Barlow recalled.

Barlow went on to become a Pro Bowl alternate in 1998 after leading the NFL in punt return yards and is still Jacksonville’s franchise leader in punt returns (146), punt return yardage (1,581) and punt return touchdowns (two). He played seven seasons in the league and won a Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“If Reggie Barlow was coming out today, he’d probably be a first- or second-round pick,” Williams said. “He dominated his competition as a player.”

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When Barlow’s playing career wrapped up, he volunteered at his alma mater, Lanier High in Montgomery, Ala., before getting his foot in the door at the college level as Alabama State’s quarterbacks coach in 2005. After two seasons, Barlow was promoted to head coach, a role he held through 2014. He took the helm at Virginia State in 2016, leading the Trojans to the first undefeated regular season in program history in 2017 and earning Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association coach of the year honors. In March, Virginia State announced Barlow was leaving to join the XFL.

On Feb. 19, Barlow will roam the home sideline at Audi Field for his first professional game as a head coach, leading the Defenders against the Seattle Sea Dragons nearly three years after the XFL canceled its 2020 season and suspended operations amid the coronavirus pandemic. A new ownership group, led in part by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, purchased the league’s assets out of bankruptcy that August, and the 2023 season will be the XFL’s first in its new form.

When Barlow heard from league executives asking if he would be interested in working in the XFL, he thought he was interviewing for a job as a position coach. Instead, he landed one of eight head-coaching gigs.

“All I ever wanted was an opportunity to get in front of people that make decisions and show that I’m a great communicator, show that I do have football knowledge and then also show that I can put a staff together — a good, diverse staff,” Barlow said.

When Barlow looks at the names on his Defenders staff, he is reminded of the loyalty he has developed from those who have coached and played under him. Six of the 10 coaches on his staff have worked with or played under Barlow (or both), and their loyalty developed not just from how he approaches the game but how he communicates.

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Defenders offensive coordinator Fred Kaiss recalled preparing for a scrimmage while coaching under Barlow at Alabama State. A few days ahead of time, Kaiss told Barlow he was going to leave immediately after the scrimmage to move his daughter into her college dorm as she began her freshman year.

Later, Barlow called Kaiss to his office.

“Coach, we moved the scrimmage up to early in the morning,” Kaiss recalled Barlow telling him. “That way I want you to get out of here. … That’s something you will regret the rest of your life if you’re not there on time.”

“That describes exactly who he is,” Kaiss said.

“It’s only right to allow those guys to be able to do that type of stuff,” Barlow said. “I’m the same way during the season. If you need to take your kids to school when we start [meetings], push [them] back a little bit later. Let’s do it. Let’s be a dad.”

Defenders wide receivers coach Alvance Robinson played at Alabama State when Barlow was the quarterbacks coach, and he remembers Barlow selflessly cheering him on when he was chasing his school receiving records. In October, Robinson got married. But as the big day neared, he worried it would interfere with Defenders coaches meetings. Barlow organized the staff’s schedule so the newlywed wouldn’t miss anything vital during his wedding day or honeymoon.

Defenders defensive backs coach and former Washington NFL cornerback Vernon Dean, who worked with Barlow at Virginia State, is drawn to the coach’s authentic personality.

“I’d follow him to the end of the world in this coaching profession,” Dean said.

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Barlow’s assistants laud his ability to let them be themselves and not micromanage. That type of freedom motivates them to be the best coaches they can be and strengthens their loyalty.

“I think they see that it’s not about me — it’s about the team,” Barlow said. “I’m approachable. I’m not this guy that says it has to be my way or no way. I’m going to give them a voice.”

From prioritizing family to keeping his word, Barlow regularly finds ways to fortify his relationship with those who work for him.

When he was in contention for an XFL job, he told Deion Harris, one of his former players at Virginia State who also worked under him as a graduate assistant, that he would find a role for him should he land a position. Harris doubted Barlow would remember that promise, but Barlow later called to inform Harris he had a job waiting as a quality control coach.

“It meant everything to me,” Harris said. “… He was always there to give me a second chance. … For him to do it again was just reassurance and showed me the character that he has, the loyalty.”

Starting this new phase of his career means Barlow will have to adapt to a new league, new rules and a new fan base. But he’ll still bring the familiar along. The Reggie Barlow brand, the coach explained, is “fast and furious on offense. On defense, we want to be extremely physical and combative. And special teams, we want to make sure that we’re playing that game with great detail and [fundamentals] and technique.”

Barlow believes players in college and players in the XFL share a similar desire to advance to the next level and a willingness to be coached. The biggest challenge, he said, will be adjusting to the XFL’s rules, which include three different extra point options (one-, two- and three-point attempts) and kickoffs that start with the teams five yards apart.

Part of Barlow’s evolution will involve acclimating himself to Defenders supporters. He said part of building that bond will involve contributing a cup to the “beer snake” that became synonymous with XFL games at Audi Field.

When Barlow was getting to know his new city, its passion for football instantly resonated.

“When I was getting the opportunity to be the coach and wondering which team it would be,” he said, “[I] was just so excited to be in the nation’s capital and to be leading a team that the fans embraced last time — and I know that they’ll be excited about embracing this team.”

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