The Rick Barnes hire was an exceptional find for the Vols
Making bad hires has been a Tennessee tradition over the past decade. Rick Barnes is the exception.
But before we get to Barnes and his historical success, let’s look at the tattered backdrop that UT’s athletic department has been known for.
In the past decade, the Vols hired basketball coach Donnie Tyndall to replace Cuonzo Martin, who was never a good fit and bolted for California. Tyndall, who already had drawn the ire of the NCAA, stepped into the position that was vacated by Bruce Pearl, who was fired because of NCAA issues. Not a great plan. Predictably, Tyndall was fired due to NCAA infractions.
Then there were the hirings of Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley and Butch Jones to head up UT’s football program. Those didn’t go so well. I need not go into details.
We could also delve into the decision to hire John Currie as athletic director and the hiring of football coach Greg Schiano that lasted less than 24 hours. Suffice to say, UT has not been at its best when it comes to key personnel decisions recently.
Then there’s Barnes, who is in the midst of the second-best 2-year run in program history. His Vols have won 53 games and counting in the past 2 seasons, just 2 from matching Pearl’s record of 55 set in 2007 and 2008 seasons. Like this team, Pearl’s 2008 team also reached No. 1 in the AP poll.
Barnes’ hiring was met with a collective sigh by Tennessee’s fan base when former athletic director Dave Hart tabbed Barnes to head up UT’s basketball program in 2015. There were far sexier candidates. Shaka Smart comes to mind. He was the next great coaching prodigy at VCU when the Vols were looking to replace Tyndall. Now, Smart is on a red-hot seat four seasons after replacing Barnes at Texas.
Richard Pitino at Minnesota and Bobby Hurley, who is now the head coach at Arizona State, were also mentioned. Both were recognizable names to even casual college basketball fans. Both will finish the regular season with no more than 20 wins. The Vols are 27-4, the No. 3 seed in this week’s SEC Tournament.
Will Wade, who was the head coach at VCU when Barnes was hired, was mentioned as a candidate to replace Tyndall. That made sense. Wade is from Tennessee and seemed like a rising star looking for a big break. Things have changed since Wade was hired by LSU. Wade was suspended Friday after Yahoo! reported the FBI had recorded Wade discussing an offer for recruit. I’m thinking that wouldn’t have worked out.
That all brings us back to Barnes. Sure, the hire was solid, but Barnes had some questions surrounding him like any other candidate. Was UT just a final stop before retirement, a la Jerry Green? Could Barnes consistently recruit elite prospects? Would he be able to have better success in the tournament than he had before? Let’s get to that last question later.
First, Barnes has shown he wasn’t just a safe choice to replace Tyndall. In fact, Barnes, 64, might be in his prime. He has shown he can develop players, such as Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield, who weren’t highly rated. Barnes has produced one of the most likable teams in UT history and has led them to historic heights. Second, Barnes has recruited elite prospects as evident by receiving a recent commitment from guard Josiah James from Charleston, S.C. There is no question that Barnes has been a tremendous asset for UT. However, like all college basketball coaches, Barnes will be judged by what he does in March.
That was his undoing at Texas, where he spent 17 seasons and won 402 games — almost 200 more than anybody else in program history. His Longhorns were consistently very good. He recruited Kevin Durant. But he only got to the Final Four once and the Sweet 16 just 7 times.
The NCAA Tournament questions still linger. Barnes has been a head coach since 1987. He’s only advanced past the Sweet 16 three times in his career. The expectations are that these Vols will advance further. Not doing so would make the Barnes’ hire a good move, but not an exceptional one.