Volunteers, reaping rewards of Barnes’ new attitude towards coaching, are riding high on Rocky Top
While Tennessee’s Rick Barnes has had tremendous success over his three decades as a college basketball head coach, a change he made in his personal life has made him even better.
Barnes’ son, Nick, told the Knoxville News Sentinel in 2016 that his dad and the whole family went from being cultural Christians to living a God-centered lifestyle.
“I mean, as the scripture would say, (he) lived out a new creation, a new person—just much more peace, affection,” Nick said. “I think the way he sees basketball now is not only win a lot of games, but get to pour into young guys and love on them. I think that was always there, but now to a much greater degree.”
Barnes, in the midst of his 32nd season as a college basketball head coach, agrees.
“I’ve made a lot of bad mistakes where I got so wrapped up in this, for all the wrong reasons,” Barnes said in the same Knoxville News Sentinel interview in 2016. “I’ve seen it through the eyes of being a selfish coach, being a coach who was prideful in this and that. But now I realize there’s a bigger picture for these young guys.”
Barnes has been the model of consistency through the years with his teams participating in 23 NCAA Tournaments, despite the fact some of the programs he took over needed major rebuilds. At Tennessee, Barnes’ Volunteers claimed the Southeastern Conference (SEC) regular-season title in his third year in 2018 and now they are the No. 1 team in the land. This is the Vols’ first trip to the top of the Associated Press poll since February 2008—the only other time in school history it has been ranked No. 1. It also makes Barnes just the sixth coach in college basketball history to take two different programs to a No. 1 ranking, as he took Texas to No. 1 in 2010.
Barnes, a native of Hickory, North Carolina, played at Lenoir-Rhyne College and broke into the college coaching ranks as an assistant coach at Davidson. Stops at George Mason, Alabama, and Ohio State followed before Barnes became the head coach at George Mason in 1987. And the rest is history.
Barnes’ success and zeal moved him up the ladder in his profession at a swift clip. After one season at the helm of George Mason, he left for Providence. After six successful years leading the Friars, the lure of Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) basketball led the North Carolina native to leave for Clemson.
There, Barnes’ Tigers became known for two things: physical basketball and not backing down from a challenge. Never was this more evident than when he and legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith got into a heated argument during a matchup in the 1995 ACC Tournament. After a controversial play, Barnes used some colorful language to let Smith know he was not backing down from the league powerhouse—or its powerful coach—like others from Clemson had done so many times before.
Despite once being considered the laughingstock of ACC basketball, Clemson became an annual NCAA Tournament participant under the fiery coach. But with Duke and North Carolina looming ever large, the Tigers’ ceiling was not as high as their coach’s aspirations. So Barnes headed for Texas to try and tap a reserve that had never been tapped before.
At Texas, Barnes turned a sleeping giant into a giant college basketball contender. Under his direction, the Longhorns reached the postseason in each of Barnes’ 17 seasons, with 16 of those appearances coming in the NCAA Tournament. The Horns also made the program’s only Final Four appearance in 2003 and two additional Elite Eight trips in 2006 and 2008. Consensus first-team All-Americans T.J. Ford, Kevin Durant and D.J. Augustin were among the stars who headlined one of the country’s most successful programs for more than 15 years.
Despite such tremendous success, Texas and Barnes parted ways after the 2014-2015 season. It had been some time since the ‘Horns had made a deep run in March Madness, and some Texas people felt the veteran coach was past his prime. As it turns out, a change of scenery is just what Barnes needed to take his career to even greater heights.
Tennessee hired Barnes in the spring of 2015. The Vols had been a middle-of-the-pack team in the SEC for a few years, even though they did have an unexpected run to the Sweet 16 in the 2014 NCAA Tournament under Cuonzo Martin. Despite that run, Tennessee basketball had experienced more downs than ups since Bruce Pearl’s heyday.
Barnes’ first two Tennessee teams failed to make any postseason tournaments. But the 2017-2018 team had a breakout year, shocking the college basketball world. The Vols went 26-9 (13-5 in SEC), won a share of the regular-season SEC title and made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament before falling to eventual Final Four Cinderella Loyola-Chicago.
This year, Rocky Top is really rocking as the Vols currently sit atop the Associated Press Top 25 Poll and are the favorite to win the SEC again. And unlike last year, the Vols are considered one of the Final Four favorites this time around.
With basketball in a proper perspective in his life, Barnes has Tennessee poised to reach heights it has never seen before. Looks like any notion he is past his prime is certainly very premature. H&A
All photos courtesy Tennessee Athletics