Editor’s note: To read more about current and former student athletes, visit the Virginia Athletic Foundation’s All In For Excellence website.
For the University of Virginia’s Class of 1997, its 20th reunion is less than a year away. Has it really been two decades since Ronde Barber dazzled as an All-Atlantic Coast Conference cornerback for UVA’s football team?
“It is very hard to believe,” Barber said during a recent visit to the McCue Center. “I wake up and I feel like I’m 25 still. But reality is what it is. I’m 41. When my reunion comes around, I’ll be 42.”
After graduating from the University in ’97, Barber spent 16 years in the NFL, all with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and was named to the NFL’s all-decade team for the 2000s. He still lives in the Tampa area with his wife, Claudia, and their two children, but last week found the family back in Charlottesville. One daughter was attending a lacrosse camp, the other a technology camp.
“I’m an old dad now,” Barber said, smiling, “with 13-, 14-year-old kids in camp.”
A graduate of Cave Spring High School in Roanoke, Ronde was one of the “Barbers of C-ville,” along with his twin, Tiki, during their time at UVA. Ronde made the All-ACC first team three times, and Tiki, a game-breaking tailback who would play for 10 seasons in the NFL, made it twice.
The Barbers also distinguished themselves in the classroom at UVA. Both graduated from the prestigious McIntire School of Commerce.
“It was easy for Tiki,” Ronde said, laughing. “Tiki was valedictorian of our high school.”
Tiki, who originally planned to study engineering at UVA, changed course after arriving in Charlottesville. He applied to the Commerce School and was accepted during his second year. Ronde had to take a different route.
“I actually got deferred to Comm School,” he said. “My first semester on Grounds wasn’t my greatest academic semester. So I spent the next two semesters making up for it. When I got deferred, I knew that I was going to have to have a great spring semester second year, and I did.”
Barber’s concentration in the Commerce School was marketing. Juggling his athletic and academic obligations, he admits, wasn’t always easy.
“There was a lot of group work in the Comm School,” Barber said, “but it was also something I was really interested in and really wanted to succeed in, and I found a way to do it.”
Now a TV analyst on Fox’s NFL broadcasts, Barber said his transition to the job went smoothly, in part because of his UVA experience.
His four years at Virginia “helped me be a good networker,” Barber said, “and I think that’s one of the biggest assets that you learn in a place like this, because you run into so many people in different walks of life that have come here, and it’s a relationship that’s never-ending. Once a UVA grad, always a UVA grad. You can go and say, ‘Wahoowa!’ to [any other alum].”
During his long NFL playing career, Barber said, he wasn’t always able to apply the lessons he learned at UVA.
“But I think if you look [at the] big picture, these four years – your formative years, really, when you’re 18 to 21, whatever your age group is – these are the most important years of your life, really,” he said. “These are going to be the years that determine how you interact with people – and if you’re an athlete, how you interact with your teammates, and if you’re a student leader, how you get along with people in important positions. I was a trustee of my class; I was in a couple societies. So those experiences, those type of working-together experiences, that’s who I am.”
Barber enjoys his work with Fox, though it’s not quite as fulfilling as playing, he said.
“There’s an adrenaline and a camaraderie that you get with 52 other guys working for a singular goal, and nothing makes up for that,” Barber said. “TV doesn’t make up for that, even though it’s a competitive atmosphere. … Fox is just a way for me to stay involved in the game.
“When I was nearing the end of my career, they actually recruited me to come do what I’m doing. I didn’t know that I wanted to do that, but I did a practice game when I was still playing, on one of my bye weeks, and I said, ‘I could do this.’ ”
The ACC Rookie of the Year in 1994, Barber played for head coach George Welsh at UVA. He and his brother were not the only strong students in the football program. Their teammates included Tom Burns, Charles Way, Patrick Jeffers, Mike Frederick and Jon Harris.
“There was a certain type of athlete that we wanted, and it showed up in the type of people that we had,” Barber said. “The players were great, obviously. We had some good teams back then. But the type of player that was coming here then, I think, really reflected the type of program we were running. … There was a big emphasis on [academics], and we all thrived in it.”
The Wahoos thrived on the field, too. In 1994, when Barber was a redshirt freshman, they finished 9-4 after beating TCU in the Independence Bowl. The ’Hoos were co-ACC champions in ’95 and went 7-5 in ’96.
Winning seasons were the norm during Welsh’s tenure as the Cavaliers’ head coach. Since 2005, however, Virginia has finished with a winning record only twice: in 2007 (9-4) and 2011 (8-5). To revive the program, UVA changed coaches after the 2015 season, hiring Bronco Mendenhall away from BYU, where he posted a 99-43 record.
Barber has yet to meet Mendenhall, but has spoken to several of Virginia’s new assistant coaches.
“I like the direction [of the program],” Barber said. “I’m encouraged by what I’m hearing, and I expect good things.”
Mendenhall wants former players such as Barber to stay connected to the team, and some 250 football alumni returned to Charlottesville in April to meet the new staff and watch the Cavaliers practice.
“I think that’s a good thing,” Barber said. “You should want your alumni [involved] – not only the hugely successful ones, but the ones that helped build the program. There’s meat and potatoes [in] every successful organization, and the more of those guys you can get in and relay what it was like when we were here, and some of the building blocks that made us successful, there’s no reason that can’t translate to this new age of player.”
The Barber twins have co-written several children’s books together, and they’ve also given generously to their alma mater. In 2006, they made a $1 million gift to the University, some of which went to the Virginia Athletics Foundation.
NFL obligations have made it difficult for Ronde to get back to UVA regularly, he said, but he and his wife own property near the Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport. Who knows? Maybe they’ll live here one day.
“We love it,” Barber said. “When you’re a student here, you’re so busy and encapsulated with what’s going on in Grounds and in school, and as an athlete, I didn’t realize how beautiful it is, the surrounding area.”