Rick Barnes’s last ride: Tennessee’s new coach revs up the Volunteers
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — It’s a chilly November day in Knoxville, and Rick Barnes is sitting behind the wheel of a humming Polaris ATV. Barnes, Tennessee’s first-year head coach, shifts the vehicle in drive and hits the gas, swerving right onto Volunteer Boulevard in the heart of UT’s campus. The ATV picks up a few seconds of hair-raising speed and comes to a halt at a red light.
Barnes turns to a visitor in the back seat and grins. “Sometimes,” he says, “you’ve just gotta let it out.”
It’s Nov. 11 and Barnes has traded his clipboard for a taxi license, offering students free rides to class. In about 48 hours Barnes and the Volunteers will open their season against UNC-Asheville in Thompson-Boling Arena, an appetizer to the school’s Homecoming festivities that will take place that weekend. But right now Barnes, armed with a megaphone and a box of orange-and-white swag, is spreading the gospel of Tennessee hoops.
A few minutes later Barnes pulls to the front of the university’s John C. Hodges Library. He offers two nearby students a ride, and they climb into the Polaris holding bags of fast food. “Those fries smell good,” Barnes says. The coach invites both women to UT’s game and suggests they bring dates. When the ladies admit they don’t have dates, Barnes grabs his megaphone. “We’re looking for dates,” he yells, his voice bellowing across campus. “Two beautiful girls looking for dates for Homecoming!”
Far be it for Barnes to feel timid or averse in his new surroundings. Yes, this is the same Rick Barnes who was fired last March after 17 seasons at Texas. But his past with the Longhorns is just that: the past. Now Barnes finds himself as Tennessee’s third head coach in three seasons and fourth in the past six, the latest figure tasked with restoring stability to the Volunteers. The shade of orange is a bit different, but Barnes’s enthusiasm is just the same.
“If it helps us get interest in the basketball program,” Barnes says, “I’m going to do it.”
Barnes saw his ending at Texas coming. In September 2013, longtime athletic director DeLoss Dodds—who’d hired Barnes before the 1998-99 season—announced his intentions to retire the following summer. Steve Patterson replaced Dodds in November 2013, and a month later football coach Mack Brown resigned as criticism mounted surrounding his program, which had won a national title in 2005 but underachieved for years.
Barnes’s success at Texas was well documented. He’d reached 16 NCAA tournaments, including a Final Four in 2003, and won three Big 12 regular-season championships. But the Longhorns hadn’t advanced past the first weekend of the Big Dance since ‘08, missing it entirely in ‘13. Barnes knew a regime change in the AD’s office didn’t bode well for his future.
“I think everyone at Texas knew that when DeLoss Dodds resigned, things were going to change,” says Barnes, sitting courtside in Tennessee’s practice facility. “When Mack Brown decided to step down, you just knew that something was going to be inevitable. But you were hoping it would work out.”
Barnes didn’t help his case last season. Texas opened the year 7-0 and was ranked as high as No. 6 before going 13-14 the rest of the way. In the Big 12 tournament, the Longhorns allowed the final 12 points of the game in a 69-67 loss to Iowa State, then followed it up by dropping a 56-48 decision to sixth-seeded Butler in their NCAA tournament opener.
According to Barnes, Patterson told him his job was safe despite the tournament loss. But Patterson added an ultimatum: Barnes had to shake up his staff. The coach refused (two staffers, Rob Lanier and Chris Ogden, later came to Tennessee with Barnes). It was then that Barnes, the winningest coach in school history, truly realized his vision for Texas basketball clashed with the new administration. “Things can’t work out if you don’t have relationships,” Barnes says. “There was not a relationship there.”
As rumors swirled surrounding Barnes’s future at Texas, friends in the industry pointed him toward the Tennessee job. Barnes gleaned advice from Kentucky’s John Calipari, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton, the last of whom had worked for Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart in Tallahassee. Barnes remembers Calipari describing Tennessee as a “great basketball job.” So moments after holding a tearful press conference at Texas on March 29 to announce his resignation, Barnes hopped on a plane to Knoxville. The Vols introduced Barnes as head coach two days later.
Turmoil surrounding the program didn’t deter Barnes from taking the job. The Vols had fired first-year coach Donnie Tyndall in March due to an NCAA investigation into Tyndall’s former job at Southern Miss. Tyndall’s predecessor, Cuonzo Martin, ended his tumultuous tenure in Knoxville after reaching the Sweet 16 in 2014 by taking over at Cal. Both Martin and Tyndall followed Bruce Pearl, whose six-season run included the school’s only Elite Eight trip, in 2010, but ended in ‘11 after he committed several NCAA violations. The NCAA eventually handed Pearl a three-year show-cause penalty and placed Tennessee on two years' probation.
But Barnes had his own positive memories the school, which sits less than 200 miles west of his hometown of Hickory, N.C. Barnes was a standout player at Lenoir–Rhyne College there in the mid-1970s, when he’d routinely make the drive to Knoxville to visit his then-girlfriend, Candy, an undergrad at Tennessee. Barnes remembers that era of Volunteer basketball history, when former All-Americas Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld formed the “Ernie and Bernie Show” and led UT to the 1977 SEC title.
Thirty years later, Barnes—now married to Candy—returned to campus as Tennessee’s basketball coach. Days after his introductory press conference, Barnes spotted a Knoxville billboard that read, “Welcome home, Candy!” Underneath that message, in small letters, the billboard spelled out, “You too, Rick.”
Most of Tennessee’s players had grown accustomed to coaching changes. The Vols’ rising seniors have already played under Martin and Tyndall and were now being asked to acclimate to another head coach in Barnes. “Going into my senior year, you always want to feel like you’re in the right place,” senior forward Armani Moore says. “When Coach Tyndall’s thing was going on, me and my teammates were just like, what’s next? That’s a critical situation for us.”
Moore’s first real conversation with Barnes took place the week he was hired, and it had little to do with basketball. Instead, they talked about life. Moore discussed his Christian faith with Barnes, who, according to Moore, always had two items with him: his Bible and his iPad. “He wanted to know the type of people we were,” Moore recalls. “I feel like that’s very important.”
Older players weren’t alone in adjusting to Barnes’s arrival. Admiral Schofield, a freshman guard, had been committed to Tyndall when the coach was fired by Tennessee. The possibility of NCAA trouble at UT worried Schofield, who didn’t want to start his career on a team saddled with sanctions. But Schofield’s AAU coach, Dickey Simpkins, had played for Rick Barnes at Providence. Simpkins advised Schofield to listen to the coach’s message before making a decision.
One day Schofield answered his phone and heard a North Carolina twang on the other end. “Coach has that accent,” says Schofield, the brother of Atlanta Falcons defensive end O’Brien Schofield. “He was talking real fast and I couldn’t understand what he was saying.” They talked for an hour about the coach’s plan for Tennessee. Before hanging up, Barnes issued a challenge: He wanted to push Schofield’s game to its limits.
That’s been the Barnes approach during his short Tennessee tenure. In a film session during preseason practice, Barnes asked his team a question: Who knows how to play basketball? Half the players in the room raised their hand. Barnes responded by promising he’d show exactly why they were wrong. Now Schofield says he learns “seven or eight” new things everyday. That’s partly because Barnes rarely leaves the gym. Players don’t often find him in his Thompson-Boling Arena office; instead, he’s usually on the floor of Pratt Pavilion, the Vols’ practice facility, fiddling with his iPad. He uses his tablet to review game and practice film with players in between drills. Off the court, Barnes favors two apps—ESV Bible and Ligonier Ministries—for his own personal Bible study.
Tennessee probably isn’t primed for an immediate turnaround. The media picked UT to finish 12th in the SEC in October after the Vols finished 16-16 last season, including 7-11 in conference play. They lost All-SEC guard Josh Richardson, who now plays for the NBA’s Miami Heat. This season Barnes has expected more from Moore and senior guard Kevin Punter, who both averaged 10.3 points per game last year, tops among returning players. That duo has combined to average 36.0 points per game during the Vols’ 2-1 start under Barnes.
The Vols don’t resemble a tournament team just yet. But the coach has taken to his new group, a collection of players who have been through more uncertainty than most student-athletes around the country. “They haven’t been afraid to work and compete,” Barnes says. “I’m the third coach in three years for some of these guys, and I don’t think people realize how hard that is for young people to deal with. You’ve got to earn trust both ways.”
Rick Barnes is getting hungry. A half-hour into his stint as a student taxi on Tennessee’s campus, Barnes pulls his Polaris up to a hot dog stand on Andy Holt Avenue. This pleases Vols director of basketball operations Mary-Carter Kniffen. “Candy texted me today and said, ‘He has a really busy day, so make sure he eats,’” Kniffin says. Barnes places his order—one dog topped with coleslaw, mustard and chili—and offers to buy a few passing students lunch. He also implores them to attend UT’s upcoming game.
If Barnes is bitter about the unexpected new chapter in his life, he doesn’t show it. “If I’d written the script, I would’ve loved to have finished what we had going at Texas,” Barnes says, “but God had a different plan.” In fact, the marriage between Barnes and Tennessee might make too much sense. Barnes gets a chance to re-write his legacy at a sports-mad, resource-rich school aching for success. The Vols get an accomplished coach who has had more success (22 NCAA tournament appearances, one Final Four) than the entire program has had (20 and zero).
Barnes, 61, might not coach another 17 seasons, but the coach who signed six-year deal worth about $2.25 million per year sees Knoxville as a destination. He has already purchased a plot of land near campus where he and Candy plan to build a house. At his introductory press conference in March, Barnes said, ““I fully expect this to be my last job.” Now that job includes facing other high-profile, first-year coaches in Ben Howland at Mississippi State and Avery Johnson at Alabama, who have already stirred up their respective fan bases in the SEC. And there’s always the looming threat of John Calipari and Kentucky.
But for now, Barnes finishes his hot dog and climbs back into the Polaris. “Where to next?” he asks. A staffer directs him to the front of Burchfiel Geography Building, situated only a few steps away from Neyland Stadium. A student named Hunter has tweeted Barnes (@RickBarnesUT) and asked for a ride after his Geography of American Popular Culture class lets out. The tweet says to pick him up at 12:05, so Barnes pulls to the front door at 12:03 and sends Hunter a tweet. Moments later the shocked student exits the building and sees the coach waving.
Barnes drives his passenger down Phillip Fulmer way and turns right on Peyton Manning Pass. The two talk a little hoops—Hunter coaches a local high school team—as the ATV chugs onto the sidewalk and pulls up next to the Humanities Building, the location of Hunter’s next class. Barnes reminds him to attend Friday’s basketball game, and Hunter says he’ll be there. “Thanks for the ride,” he says. “I didn’t expect you to tweet me back.”
Barnes laughs. “One thing I do know,” Barnes says, “people here love their basketball.”