Mount Olive Elementary School principal Casey Cutter promised Rick Barnes a warm welcome if the coach would stay at the University of Tennessee.
On Tuesday, the basketball coach took him up on the offer.
Barnes visited Mount Olive – with Smokey in tow – to read a book, reminisce about his own teachers and receive a free school lunch courtesy of the Eagles.
Earlier this month, the Vols basketball coach was courted by UCLA, which hoped to hire him away. Several local restaurants promised free meals if he would stay in Knoxville, and Cutter joined in the persuasion campaign, saying in a tweet that Barnes could get a free lunch and read to Mount Olive students if he stayed.
Barnes appreciated the gesture and used his visit as an opportunity to focus on the importance of education.
Speaking in the gym, he told students a story about a little boy who struggled academically. On some days, he said, the boy would walk in the front door of his school and out the back door, going to his grandmother’s house instead of attending classes.
“All at once, God brought these angels into his life,” the coach said. “Do you know who they were? They were teachers.”
The coach went on to explain that he was the boy in the story, and he named several teachers and coaches who helped steer him in the right direction. Then he gave students a homework assignment for the day.
“I want you to look at your teacher and I want you to tell her or him how much you love them,” Barnes said. “Because you have no idea how much they love you.”
After his remarks, students presented Barnes with thank-you letters, and then the coach posed for pictures with each class and with staff members from Mount Olive.
Harrison Jackson, a first-grader who presented Barnes with a letter, said in an interview that he was excited the coach stayed. “So he can teach the team how to win the games,” he added.
Cutter said that when other businesses were reaching out to Barnes, he thought about the fact that Mount Olive is committed to literacy, and that his students love hearing adults read to them. “And then the lunch was kind of a joke – although our lunches are really good!” he added.
After the event, Barnes – the 2019 National Coach of the Year – said that he was blessed to receive such a warm welcome and that the letters from students “almost brought tears to my eyes.”
“Someday they’re going to look back on this school and the teachers and the principal and everyone as their heroes,” he said.
Watch a video from the event here.
Josh Flory is a multi-media specialist with Knox County Schools and writes this blog, Hall Pass, for the KCS website.