Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, April 26, 2019

Divine intervention in form of $5M buyout keeps Barnes at UT

Coach Rick Barnes took the Vols to the top of the college basketball polls and all the way to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 this season. - Jerry Denham | The Ledger

If UCLA’s purse strings were as loose as Tennessee’s when it came to contract buyouts, Rick Barnes would be in Southern California trying to resurrect a storied program.

The Bruins made a hard push to hire Barnes as their men’s basketball coach, but their inability to fork over $5 million to buy out his contract was a sign to Barnes that he should remain in Knoxville.

“If the buyout would of worked out, then I think I would have been the coach at UCLA,” Barnes admitted last week at a news conference.

Candor has always been a Barnes’ trademark, and explaining his decision-making process to turn down UCLA was no different.

Fresh off leading the Vols to a No. 1 national ranking, a program-record-tying 31 wins and a Sweet 16 appearance this season, Barnes became a late target in UCLA’s search.

After failing to hire TCU’s Jamie Dixon because of similar buyout issues, the Bruins turned to Barnes to fill the position left open when Steve Alford was fired midseason.

UCLA is one of the only programs Barnes would have considered leaving Tennessee for, he says, given his reverence for legendary coach John Wooden and the dynasty he built.

Wooden’s stature in men’s basketball (10 national championships) is much like Pat Summitt’s (eight national championships) is to the women’s game.

Like the Lady Vols, the Bruins have fallen from national prominence. The challenge of restoring the blueblood was enticing to the 64-year-old Barnes in the final stages of his coaching career.

Barnes’ family and friends once paid $56 to send him to a Campbell University basketball camp because Barnes wanted to meet Wooden and “Pistol” Pete Maravich. Barnes often stayed up late as a kid to listen to UCLA games called by Dick Enberg.

After he became a coach, Barnes sought Wooden’s advice as much as possible until his death in 2010.

Barnes said he was “totally surprised” when UCLA began pursuing him and was compelled to listen to the offer.

“It was the fact that I have so much respect for UCLA basketball and what they meant for me growing up,” explains Barnes, who just completed his fourth season at UT after being fired at Texas.

“That was really the sole reason why it all got started. Just because I was intrigued with the basketball part of it.”

Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer first got wind of UCLA’s pursuit of Barnes when he received a phone call from Barnes’ financial adviser on the Saturday of the Final Four.

In the midst of finalizing the hire of new UT women’s basketball coach, Kellie Harper, Fulmer was attending a UT baseball game as a bit of a break.

Fulmer met with Barnes on Sunday night to figure out a way to make him stay at UT. He began reaching out to donors to find money to increase Barnes’ salary to a reported $4.75 million per season through 2023-24.

“He is a quality man and has meant as much to this community as much as anybody that has come through here in some time,” Fulmer acknowledges. “We have been through a lot of change and different things. I said it the other day, but we weren’t going to let somebody come in here and buy our coach without putting up a great fight.”

Knoxville restaurants tried to entice Barnes even more via social media by offering free food items for life if he stayed at UT.

After a long wait Monday, Barnes called Fulmer to say he was remaining with the Vols. UCLA wasn’t willing to pay the $5 million buyout, giving Barnes the clarity he was seeking.

“When UCLA came back with that decision, I knew I wasn’t supposed to be the coach of UCLA,” Barnes acknowledges. “As soon as that happened, I knew I was good with this. God has made it crystal clear that I needed to be at the University of Tennessee.”

A day after Barnes turned down the job, UCLA hired Mick Cronin away from Cincinnati.

Fulmer credits UT interim president Randy Boyd for helping UT obtain the money to keep Barnes on Rocky Top.

“Randy was huge. He took the lead in a lot of ways and asked a lot of the good questions,” Fulmer says. “Being a business person himself was huge. He knew who to reach out to and where to get help. He was crucial in the whole discussion.”

As he weighed his options, Barnes adds he didn’t leave his house for two days and lost 5 pounds, which he has since gained back. He had long discussions with his wife, Candy, fielded several phone calls and prayed many times.

“The fact is that it’s a very emotional time,” Barnes says. “I have been through it. I said to someone yesterday; I am in the last chapter of my coaching career. I am just glad I won’t have to do it again. It’s a very stressful time when you love a place. I can’t thank the people here enough.”

After deciding to stay at UT, Barnes met with his players.

“I was very transparent with them about it and talked to them. I said, ‘This is our team.’ We are starting over again, and we are going to move forward,” Barnes recalls. “We are going to continue to work as hard as we can, and not try to, we are going to work as hard as we can to take this program to another level.

“I want to consistently be one of the best basketball programs in the country.”

Barnes dispelled any rumors about friction existing between him and Fulmer, saying he feels fully supported by the former UT football coach.

“I have watched him come in here and the way he has tried to look at 24 sports, and talk about how he wants every sport to have everything they can to compete at the highest level,” Barnes continues.

““We know that he has worked hard with football. But I think he has worked hard with basketball. I think he has worked hard with baseball and everything.”

Barnes sounds committed to staying at Tennessee for the duration of his career, although you never say never in sports. Vols fans hope the $5 million decision by UCLA leads to greater riches for UT.

“It’s really above and beyond a basketball program. I am in love with this community. I am in love with this state,” Barnes acknowledges. “I just think we have a lot of great things going on in this town, and I want to help be a part of continuing to make Knoxville one of the greatest places to live.”