That certainly didn’t take long.
Just 96 hours after Donnie Tyndall was fired, Tennessee has a new basketball coach: Rick Barnes.
Multiple media outlets, including the Knoxville News Sentinel and radio personality Jimmy Hyams, are reporting that Tennessee has finalized a deal with the former Texas head coach and will formally introduce Barnes at a press conference Tuesday afternoon.
If this seems like a whirlwind coaching search for Tennessee, it has been even moreso for Barnes. It’s been fewer than 72 hours since Barnes was fired by the University of Texas after a 17-year stint there that included 16 NCAA Tournament appearances.
It’s been a bizarre 96 hours on several fronts. When Tennessee fired Tyndall on Friday, the Vols were left in what seemed to be an abysmal situation. UT had just fired its second coach (out of its last three) for cheating, the talent cupboard in Knoxville is rather bare, and the program seems to be in a state of disarray. What quality coach, fans rightly wondered, would want to come to Knoxville to coach this team?
But rewind to UT athletic director Dave Hart’s press conference on Friday and you might have your first clue that this search would conclude as it did. It didn’t receive much play at the time, but Hart said that he would be willing to pay for his next coach.
When asked about whether Tennessee was prepared to pay a large amount to get the coach it prefers, Hart answered: “Yes. I am and we are as an institution. But I will say this, I don’t know what that ceiling might ultimately be. But we are willing to get into that marketplace, yes.”
Why was that important? Most Tennessee fans, and most prognosticators, had resigned themselves to the inevitability that Tennessee would make a bargain basement hire; an up-and-comer with a lot of potential but one who would not command a large salary. For instance, Chattanooga coach Will Wade was most often mentioned as a possible replacement for Tyndall. He’s a terrific young coach with lots of potential, but he makes a base salary of less than $200,000 at Chattanooga. It was probably safe to assume that Tennessee could hire someone like Wade for around $1.5 million. And, yet, Hart was indicating that Tennessee was willing to go out and spend more than the $1.6 million that Tyndall was making at Tennessee.
The second clue was when Barnes was fired by Texas 24 hours later. In his own press conference, Barnes was asked if he would ever coach again. His response was a slight grin, and: “Quicker than you think.”
That was significant. Does that sound like a coach who is confident that he already knows what his future holds?
There has been some speculation that Tennessee reached out to Barnes before Barnes was officially fired by Texas just 24 hours after Tennessee fired Tyndall. The fact that the timeline was so extremely tight lends credence to that speculation, especially when you consider the comments that Hart and Barnes made in their respective pressers. Remember, Barnes was on the hot seat and presumed a dead man walking in Austin long before he was officially fired. There isn’t always smoke behind the fire — this is the internet, after all. But, in this case, it certainly appears that Dave Hart knew who he wanted as soon as he knew he had to fire Tyndall . . . which is while the rest of us were still speculating over whether Tennessee would hire Will Wade or Brad Underwood. (Well, not all of us; a few of us were hoping against hope that UT would hire Bruce Pearl.)
What we do know, based on what VolQuest reported yesterday, is that Barnes was in Knoxville as soon as Sunday evening to begin discussions with Hart and other UT decision-makers. That was just one day after he was fired by Texas. Hart said at Friday’s press conference that he would employ a search firm for the first time in his career. On Monday, it was reported who that search firm would be, but it certainly appears that by that point, the search firm wasn’t even needed. A plane owned by a UT booster flew to Austin late Monday, presumably to pick up Barnes’ family and return them to Knoxville for an introduction, an indication that UT and Barnes had already agreed on principle at that point. And, this morning, that agreement was apparently cemented, paving the way for Barnes to be introduced as Tyndall’s successor.
By most accounts, this is a home run hire for Hart and the Vols. As multiple prognosticators have pointed out, the stars aligned perfectly for Tennessee — for a change. Not only did a big-name coach become available at a time when Tennessee needed one, but the Vols don’t have to pay his buyout.
Barnes led Texas to NCAA Tournament appearances in 16 of his 17 seasons there. He was also an NCAAT regular at Clemson and Providence. As ESPN’s Chris Low pointed out, he’s made more NCAAT appearances in his career (22) than UT has made in the history of its program (20). He led the Longhorns to a Final Four and two Elite Eight appearances, the program’s first-ever No. 1 national ranking . . . and, perhaps most notably, recruited Kevin Durant to Austin.
Of course, his Texas teams were also noted for underachieving, which makes Tennessee fans a bit antsy. If he couldn’t win in Texas, they ask, how will he win in Knoxville? Barnes caught flack late this season when, exasperated by his team’s performance, he told reporters that his players weren’t “listening.” That causes some to wonder — and perhaps fairly — whether the game has passed by the 60-year-old Barnes.
On the other hand, Barnes was the Big 12 coach of the year as recently as last season, when his Longhorns were predicted to finish eighth in the conference and actually finished third.
It’s clear that Hart is shooting for program stability with this hire. Even if Barnes cannot take Tennessee to the next level, his track record as a coach virtually assures that he can stabilize the program, recruit quality players and get the team to the NCAA Tournament — all of which make it easier for Tennessee to lure a proven winner to Knoxville to replace Barnes in a few years, when he’s finished coaching. Most importantly, given Tennessee’s own track record of late: Barnes has no history of NCAA troubles.
Dave Hart deserves a lot of credit for how he master-minded this entire transition. He’s taken a lot of flack from UT fans for hiring Tyndall in the first place — and, during his press conference on Friday, he took responsibility for that hire. But fans who are judging that hire are doing so with the benefit of hindsight. Sure, Tyndall had NCAA troubles at Morehead State. Sure, I was a little skeptical of his past. But UT fans were clamoring for Tennessee to bring back Bruce Pearl — and consider me among those who would’ve been thrilled by that hire — and Pearl had the same number of NCAA run-ins as Tyndall at that point. No one knew of Tyndall’s looming problem at Southern Miss — including the NCAA, which was contacted by UT as part of the vetting process of Tyndall.
Meanwhile, Hart pressed the NCAA to fill the university in on where things stood with Tyndall and Southern Miss following the conclusion of this season. The NCAA’s report was not flattering for Tyndall, indicating that he will face serious sanctions once that Southern Miss investigation is complete. That allowed Hart to go ahead and pull the trigger on Tyndall’s termination while the coaching market was still hot. More importantly, it allowed him to go ahead and make the move before his top target — Barnes — became unavailable.
The result is a good hire for the University of Tennessee. And that can’t be glossed over. It’s a much less risky hire than Will Wade or any of the other potential candidates. It’s a good, solid hire. Time will tell if it’s a great hire.