KNOXVILLE, Tenn.—Rick Barnes stood at a podium in Tennessee’s Pratt Pavilion sporting an orange tie. For once, the tie wasn’t burnt orange. Instead, Barnes opted for a brighter color, one that better represented his new job.
On Tuesday, Tennessee introduced Barnes as its newest basketball coach only 48 hours after he was forced out Texas. Barnes had spent 17 seasons in Austin, but he comes to Tennessee as the school’s third head coach in three seasons. The Vols aren’t the Big 12 blueblood that Barnes used to coach, but Tennessee hopes Barnes can replicate the stability and success that long defined his tenure at Texas.
“We are very, very fortunate today to have hired an elite basketball coach,” Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart said. “That’s what Rick Barnes is. He’s an elite basketball coach.”
Somehow, it appears the Vols have emerged from the burning rubble of the Donnie Tyndall era in a better place. Last Friday, Hart was forced to fire Tyndall after only one season due to an NCAA investigation into Southern Miss, Tyndall’s former school. The decision rattled a program that had lost coach Cuonzo Martin to Cal only one year earlier. Suddenly, Tennessee basketball was threatening to slip back into mediocrity.
But on Tuesday, four days after Tyndall’s departure, Hart made a splash by hiring Barnes. Whether the coach can bring a championship to Knoxville remains to be seen. After all, Texas just fired him. But he doesn’t seem to be leaving anytime soon, and that’s step one. “I fully expect this to be my last job,” said Barnes, who agreed to a six-year worth about $2.25 million in base pay per year.
Despite Barnes’s awkward exit from Texas, the coach’s résumé suggests good things to come. Barnes went to 16 NCAA tournaments in 17 seasons with the Longhorns. He coached 13 first-round draft picks in his career, including 10 since 2000. Barnes’s 604 career wins rank ninth among all active Division-I coaches. By most measurements, Barnes became the most successful coach in Tennessee history when he stepped off the plane in Knoxville.
Of course, there’s a reason Barnes was unemployed in the first place: He might haveve hit his ceiling at Texas. Barnes won only three Big 12 regular season championships and one tournament championship. Though he went to five Sweet 16s with the Longhorns, they haven’t made it to the second weekend of the tournament since 2008.
But Barnes does get to the tournament—he’s made 22 appearances as a head coach. Tournament appearances are hardly guaranteed at Tennessee. The program has only been to 20 in its history. No one knows whether Barnes can push the Vols deep into the tournament, but he’ll at least get them there. Still, Barnes plans to aim higher.
“All we have to do is look around us every single day,” said Barnes, who toured Tennessee’s facilities prior to his press conference. “There’s greatness and examples everywhere. The standard has been set. And it’s a standard that we have to work and fight for every day to live up to.”
Barnes didn’t live up to expectations at Texas. Can he do so at Tennessee? Even Pearl never went further than the Elite Eight (2010) with the Vols. Barnes, meanwhile, took Texas to three Elite Eights and one trip to the Final Four (2003). Such accomplishments would easily win over fans in Knoxville, but eventually those same fans would want more. And Barnes hasn’t proven that he can do more.
But Tennessee shouldn’t worry about championships right now. Instead, it should focus on stability. That’s what Barnes brings to Knoxville: A coach with no NCAA baggage—good news for UT—and a proven tournament résumé. If Barnes recruits like he did at Texas and wins against easier SEC competition, Vol fans could be in for a nice future.
The move to Tennessee also represents a smart move for Barnes. He needed a fresh start after his departure from Texas. His wife, Candy, is a UT grad, and on Tuesday Barnes spoke about his memories of visiting Candy during her time as a student in Knoxville. It was then that Barnes started to appreciate a different shade of orange. Perhaps that’s good for Barnes, because it’s definitely good for Tennessee’s future.
“In some ways,” Barnes said, “I feel like I’m coming home.”