Here’s why Tennessee had to hire Rick Barnes
What do you do if you’re Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart and a coach who has won 70 percent of his career games, has made more NCAA Tournament appearances (22) than the Vols have made in their history (20) and has won everywhere he’s been (George Mason, Providence, Clemson, Texas) drops into your lap?
You hire him, that’s what you do.
So when Texas parted ways with its 17-year coach, Rick Barnes, over the weekend, Hart, who had also parted ways with his own coach, Donnie Tyndall, after just one season plagued by the specter of an NCAA investigation, the stars aligned, the tumblers clicked and a fortuitous possibility presented itself.
Sure, there were many of us who follow Tennessee and Southeastern Conference basketball who wanted Hart to step out on a ledge, consult real basketball people and come up with a bold, out-of-the-box hire that might have paid dividends for years to come. Chattanooga’s Will Wade would have been my bold pick. Colorado’s Tad Boyle my safe and secure pick. Both are winners who don’t have so much as a jaywalking violation on their records.
And Hart might have attempted such a move. But then along comes Barnes—hard-working, successful, combative—who was let go by Texas because he refused to allow his program to become all about him and fire some trusted assistants, just because his athletic director decreed that he should.
Barnes’ response in his outgoing press conference was classic:
“I’ve been carried by a lot of people here,” Barnes said. “We’re in this together.”
That’s a guy you want at your back in a bar fight.
No doubt Barnes has reached the stage in his career where he could pretty much tell his boss to stick his suggestion of firing assistants into a southerly location and twist. I’m sure he didn’t think his career would end. Plenty of openings are out there were Barnes could have resurfaced. George Mason, where his career began—and ended after just one season, during which, typically, he won 20 games—is one after it fired coach Paul Hewitt.
But then Tennessee came open. After a protracted, and, agonizing for all concerned parties, five-month dance with Tyndall, during which rumors about improprieties at Southern Miss were often more a topic of conversation than basketball, he was unceremoniously dispatched, his future in question.
Barnes’ future was never in question, and don’t even bring up the fact he’s 60. Some people might get insulted. Sixty is the new 40. And the coaches I’ve known over the years who have enjoyed the success Barnes has invariably say that age is just a number, that they’ve had so much fun trying to shape the future of their programs and the young men who play for them that they could coach forever.
If Barnes can give Tennessee five good seasons, after which, perhaps a trusted assistant can take over the program, or a young pup like the talented Will Wade could be convinced to take over, Hart’s decision to go for the sure thing will have been well worth any criticism he might receive. And there will be plenty of people grousing about taking a 60-year-old retread.
But call Barnes a retread at your own peril. He’s a competitor and, as I said before, combative—remember the run-ins he had with the great Dean Smith when Barnes coached at Clemson? You don’t win 70 percent of your games and coach three different programs to 22 NCAA tournament bids, three NITs and a CBI in 28 seasons unless you’re combative and competitive.
Chew on this one a while: Barnes’ teams have played in a postseason tournament in all but two seasons of his career.
Bruce Pearl proved Tennessee could be a player on the national college basketball scene. Barnes has proven that whatever he’s been doing for the last 28 years has worked as well or better than all but a handful of the best coaches in the game.
If you’re Dave Hart, and you’re feeling heat for hiring a coach who came saddled with a boatload of NCAA baggage, wouldn’t you hire a guy like Barnes?
You know what? That’s an insult to Barnes. This is a slam-dunk hire, regardless of whether there was a gun at Hart’s head, or pressure not to screw it up.
Rick Barnes will continue his winning ways at Tennessee by ramping up recruiting and just repeating what he’s done from the first year of his career 20-10 at George Mason in 1987-88 to the most recent (20-14).
There aren’t many Tennessee fans that would turn their noses up at that.
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