SEC Tournament title is awesome! But Vols coach Rick Barnes knows there's more work to do
Rick Barnes doesn’t need to be told what’s at stake this and every March for as long as he chooses to coach. He knows his legacy is on the line.
Tennessee’s head basketball coach doesn’t need to prove much as a person. Barnes puts the “class” in class act. He’s a man of faith, character and kindness. When is the last time you’ve heard a coach described like that? Not often.
Barnes’ personality is rare in big-time college athletics. The nice guy usually doesn’t finish first. To this point, neither has Barnes. That’s a Grand Canyon-sized hole on a résumé that includes 750+ wins — and the 2022 SEC Tournament championship, which he won Sunday.
NCAA Tournament success has been much more elusive.
Barnes has been a head coach since 1987 and he’s only made it to the Final Four once. There are plenty of coaches who would take 1 Final Four appearance and be content with their career. Something tells me Barnes isn’t one of those coaches. He’s been too good for too long to be OK with no national championships and just 1 trip to college basketball’s ultimate weekend.
The solid 65-50 win over Texas A&M to win the SEC Tournament Championship on Sunday was proof enough of that. That resulted in Tennessee’s first SEC Tournament championship since 1979.
Barnes certainly has his nice side but you don’t become one of the winningest coaches in NCAA basketball history without some fire. We’ve all seen it on the sideline. I’m sure it’s even more on display at practice.
Barnes, 67, probably doesn’t have many opportunities left to win a national championship or get to the Final Four. Even Tom Brady retires. Barnes will feel the need to do the same at some point. It would be a shame if he didn’t win a title before doing so.
It feels like Barnes should be mentioned in the same breath as some of the elite coaches in the history of college basketball, like Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim, Roy Williams and Bob Knight, but he’s not. To be considered an elite coach and not just an elite person who happens to be a good coach, Barnes has to break through and win one championship. Otherwise, he’ll be remembered by what he didn’t win rather than what he did.
Keep in mind, he’s top-25 all-time in career coaching wins, basically in a foot race with John Calipari and Bill Self. He’ll be 7th in wins on the list of active coaches next season.
Despite what happens in Barnes’ remaining Marches, he should be remembered for running a respectable program, but that usually doesn’t get brought up in conversation. It should.
Barnes hasn’t failed to recognize a wide-ranging academic scandal like Jim Boeheim or Roy Williams did at Syracuse and North Carolina, respectively. That doesn’t matter. They’ll both be remembered more fondly than Barnes without that coveted top prize. That may say more about our society than Barnes, but it certainly says a little bit about both.
Winning is the ultimate determination of success, especially in sports. Barnes’ legacy will be judged just like ever other great player or coach who never won a championship. There will be no mention of how many thousands of lives he’s impacted in a positive fashion. There will only be the persistent notion that he never won a championship — unless things change. That’s a shame. Barnes can make the world a better place and still be remembered as the coach who couldn’t quite win it all. That’s a social shortcoming.
At the same time, Barnes has to carry some of the responsibility for not winning a national championship by this point in his career. His teams have made the Sweet 16 on 7 different occasions but only advanced past that round 3 times.
There are certainly some teams in that Sweet 16 mix that should have ascended further. Barnes would admit that. Barnes also coached a guy named Kevin Durant, who many consider the best basketball player on the face of the earth right now. Durant and Barnes only won 1 game in the NCAA Tournament.
The good news is Barnes can still change how he’s remembered. Look at John Elway and the way he finished his career with 2 Super Bowl victories. Elway was already one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, but now it’s firmly cemented. Ask Dan Marino what just 1 championship would mean. Maybe the best pure passer in the history of football, Marino would give up tanning beds and hair gel to have a Lombardi Trophy on display in South Florida.
Tennessee may be the perfect place for Barnes. Expectations have been historically low. A Final Four appearance would be akin to a football championship in Knoxville. Just being in the conversation during the final weekend of college basketball would be a huge achievement for a program that is known for underachieving. While that history is decades old, some of Tennessee’s underachieving years have come under Barnes. The Vols were considered a Final Four contender in 2019 and, by some, in 2018. That resulted in one Sweet 16 appearance.
The Vols are clearly a Final Four contender this year. Sunday affirmed as much.
It would be a huge disappointment if the Vols didn’t make a deep run into the NCAA Tournament. More importantly, it would continue to mount pressure on a great person who deserves to be considered a great coach.