When Rick Barnes was fired at Texas and immediately recycled by Tennessee, the scouting report said great record, terrific recruiter, class act.
So, how come he was sent packing? The Longhorns spent $1.75 million to get rid of Rick. His record and recruiting exploits were past tense.
This was a classic case of what have you done for us lately. Best of times were years removed. Fans were focused on football but some radio guy conducted a basketball poll. Ho-hum was the basic answer but the bottom line said 75 percent thought Texas needed a new coach.
Barnes was 60. When he wasn’t looking, maybe the game had left him in the dust. He had money in the bank and a lifetime achievement award. He was a “Legend of Coaching” as bestowed by the John Wooden committee for success, high standards, student development and linkage to other Wooden attributes. He was an elite in the profession – missing only a few national championships.
I recall wondering if Tennessee was Rick Barnes’ retirement plan.
He got a six-year contract with a living wage, $2.2 million plus a bunch of incentives and bonus possibilities. I didn’t think the university was at risk – $50,000 for an NCAA tournament appearance, $100,000 for the Sweet 16, $250,000 for the Final Four, $500,000 for a national championship.
Barnes could just coast along. Our expectations were not high enough to disturb naps.
The coach did not dive into five-star recruiting competition. It appeared the Vols took what they could get without too much sweat or strain. Barnes certainly wasn’t flying around the country in pursuit of superior talent. He was generally home for dinner.
Without going too far out on a limb, I did think maybe the coach could coach. He taught fundamentals. He was persistent in practice. He helped some young people improve on defense. It appeared he had a plan.
When the better-informed media said this Tennessee team was next to worst in the Southeastern Conference, I flinched. I thought, because of Barnes, the Vols might play better than they are. I do believe I saw that Sunday.
North Carolina had better players but Tennessee could have won. The Vols outplayed the Tar Heels for a half. They did not maintain defensive intensity in the second half. Their shots stopped dropping. They endured a long dry spell. They didn’t get enough rebounds.
Through all that, they still could have won. They were ahead almost all the way. An unexpected Carolina press led to a deadly Tennessee turnover. A poor pass ended all hope. A close game was lost.
Grant Williams, tough guy for the home team, said coming close wasn’t good enough.
“We said the same thing last year. We were close, losing at UNC by two. We were close losing to these guys. But to be the team we want to be, we shouldn’t have to say that anymore. We’re going to be there, but we’re not there yet.”
Something was gained from this experience, far above the “close, but no cigar.”
Fans provided a great basketball atmosphere. The house was full. The team gave effort. Visiting prospects were undoubtedly impressed. America may have been.
These Vols are an unselfish group. There are no egos that demand pampering. The offense is fluid, based on movement. It is fun to watch.
In open defiance of predictions, Tennessee basketball is on the upswing. There will be other big games. The Vols will win some. In one way or another, it will be Rick Barnes’ fault.
(Marvin West welcomes reader reaction. His address is email@example.com)