The coaching carousel in college basketball has been spinning up to a higher and higher speed this week, and the Tennessee Vols have found themselves impacted. Earlier in the offseason, Kim English left as an assistant at Tennessee to accept the head coaching job at George Mason. That has been followed up with recent reports that another Tennessee assistant, Desmond Oliver, is making the move from Knoxville to Johnson City to become the new head coach of the ETSU Buccaneers, with an announcement expected as soon as Tuesday. While the Vols had braced to potentially lose some assistants to coaching hires, they had expected that head coach Rick Barnes was firmly in place in Knoxville. However, with the retirement of Roy Williams at North Carolina, that may not be the case.
Pat Forde of Sports Illustrated has reported that Barnes could be a candidate for the Tar Heels to fill their vacant head coaching position. Forde noted that Barnes was likely a “Tier 2,” option for North Carolina, however, the top choices on the board for Carolina are far from sure things. Mark Few at Gonzaga and Tony Bennett at Virginia top the Tar Heel’s wish list, however, Bennett has won a National Title at Virginia and maintained a high level of success, while Few will coach Gonzaga tonight in the National Title Game in pursuit of an undefeated season as well. While North Carolina could offer big checks to both coaches, there is a strong case to be made for neither leaving their current jobs. If the Zags are victorious tonight, Few and Bennett will be the last two National Championship-winning coaches in the country. There is a strong chance both would want to stay in the extremely successful programs they have already built. That would the Tar Heels looking firmly at their Tier 2 choices and Barnes.
Barnes is a North Carolina native, hailing from Hickory, North Carolina. He has cited the proximity to his mother, still in Carolina, as one of the reasons he chose to come to Tennessee. It goes without saying that were he offered the job in Chapel Hill, that proximity would still be to his liking. Barnes famously flirted with UCLA two seasons ago, interested in the charm of potentially coaching at a blue-blood college basketball power with the Bruins. It goes without saying, North Carolina is as much a blue-blood program as there is in college basketball. Much was made about Barnes at that time, having coached primarily at schools known for putting football first over basketball in Clemson, Texas, and Tennessee, and that he was interested in coaching at a school where basketball was the priority. As much ground as Mack Brown and the Tar Heel football program have covered, basketball will always be king in Chapel Hill. Barnes also has experience coaching in the ACC, compiling a 74-48 record at Clemson while rebuilding that program. Barnes is one of the most respected coaches in all of college basketball, and he carries the experience of knowing how to transfer to a new program and be immediately successful. If Carolina decides Barnes is their man, it is also highly unlikely that Tennessee will opt to give Barnes another sizeable raise after doing so only two seasons ago.
What makes Barnes a secondary choice for Carolina is first his age. At 66 years old, Barnes is not far from retirement, and the Tar Heels may be looking for a longer-term answer at head coach. Still, with many of the top choices off the board, such as Chris Beard hired from Texas Tech to Texas and Porter Moser hired from Loyola Chicago to Oklahoma, and the aforementioned Bennett and Few, strong candidates to remain with their current programs, the Tar Heels may opt for a known and respected commodity to be a bridge. Barnes has tallied over 700 wins as a head coach in his career and has found success in four different conferences. North Carolina could see Barnes and his proven record as the best option available at this time. Their hesitation in hiring could also come with his long history of postseason shortcomings. Barnes is below .500 for his career in the NCAA Tournament, and his history of early exits could make Carolina wary. The Tar Heels would have to pay Barnes money equivalent to what they were paying their former head coach, multi-time National Champion Roy Williams, to get him away from Tennessee. North Carolina could see that as too steep an investment in a coach with such a poor March history, or they could be convinced that they would be able to surround Barnes with what was needed to get him to a Title at last.
Whatever happens, it is unlikely that North Carolina is able to poach the top of their coaching wish list in these circumstances and at this point in the process. Barnes would make enormous sense for Carolina in the situation they are in, with the program being accustomed to an older coach already, Barnes being a Carolina native, and the fact that the Tar Heels can afford to pay the kind of contract it would take to get Barnes from Knoxville. There are hesitations with Barnes as well, but he has a career of being successful at all his stops.