Even as Tennessee bowed out of the NCAA Tournament disappointingly early for a second consecutive year — losing to Purdue in overtime in the Sweet 16 — Vols coach Rick Barnes may have had more goodwill within his fan base than any basketball coach at any major program in America.
Tennessee had just fired women’s basketball coach Holly Warlick for disappointing performance after she won the SEC three times and went to the Elite 8 three times in seven seasons. Yet the same school would, within days, ink a new deal with Barnes to pay him nearly $5 million per year — third-most of any coach in college basketball. It’s hardly an apples-to-apples comparison, but it serves as a mood indicator — both among the Tennessee administration and among the Tennessee fans.
Fast-forward to April 17, and a significant chunk of that goodwill is gone. College blue-blood UCLA came at Rick Barnes with a lucrative offer to become the next head coach of the Bruins, Barnes entertained the offer, Tennessee paid Barnes handsomely to stay in Knoxville, and the rest is history.
It wasn’t exactly new news when Barnes revealed at a Tuesday press conference that he stayed in Knoxville because he couldn’t come to an agreement with UCLA on terms of his $5 million buyout at Tennessee. Jimmy Hyams reported a week earlier, the day after Barnes ended his talks with UCLA, that the school wanted to give Barnes a $4 million signing bonus and have him pay his $5 million buyout at Tennessee — not such a sweet deal for Barnes, considering he would’ve been taxed on the $4 million.
Still, it felt a little different to hear it from Barnes’ own mouth. “It has to make sense from a financial standpoint,” Barnes said of his decision to turn down UCLA. “And the bottom line is, we just couldn’t make it work out, the buyout.”
After a follow-up question, Barnes doubled down. When asked what would’ve happened if UCLA’s buyout offer had been better, he said, “I think I would be the coach at UCLA.”
It was brutal honesty from a coach who’s known — both by his players and the media — for brutal honesty. Some find that refreshing. No coach-speak, no feel-good one-liners. Just the cold, hard truth.
But more than a few Tennessee fans had already been questioning whether Barnes’ new $5m salary at Tennessee was really worth it. Despite the work he had done to turn around the UT basketball program, should he actually be the third highest-paid coach in America?
For those doubters, Tuesday’s press conference was one more reason to see Barnes in a different light.
Rick Barnes is the same person today, on April 17, that he was when he was preparing his team for their showdown with Purdue three weeks ago. His values, his integrity — none of that has changed. He’s a man who saw an opportunity that would change his life, and the lives of his family, and he explored it. There are few among us who wouldn’t do the same. Loyalty is well and good, but loyalty to self and loyalty to family have to come before loyalty to employer.
But the Barnes’ flirtations with UCLA have changed everything. Before, he had lots of leeway with Tennessee fans. Now? Not so much. Now he has to win.
Many have correctly pointed out that, for coaches and administrators, college basketball is a business. But you can’t tell college basketball fans that. For fans, it isn’t a business. For fans, it’s a passion — one that’s worn on the sleeve. And you’ll have to be a little understanding of the Tennessee fans who don’t see Barnes in quite the same light today as they did a couple of weeks ago.
As someone said on Twitter, “I have no issue with Rick Barnes being a hired mercenary. Just win at the level your salary commands or you’ll be treated like a hired mercenary when you don’t.”
Greg Butcher put it this way on Twitter: “Rick Barnes has turned our we love ya this is great relationship into a transactional one where he’s made himself paid higher than Bill Self, Roy Williams, and Tony Bennett. So he’d better win like it.”
All that goodwill Barnes had with his fan base, he could’ve used that goodwill to get him through several lackluster seasons. Yes, the goodwill was in large part due to the way Barnes has won games the last two seasons. Let’s not kid ourselves. But that goodwill is about more than that. It’s about the way Barnes has carried himself on the job in Knoxville. Fans appreciate his character and his integrity, and that goodwill is because they see Barnes as more than just a coach who’s paid to win games — even if that’s what he, in fact, is. Those fans felt a personal connection to Barnes. It was a warm and fuzzy relationship. Now it’s devolved into a relationship that’s all about dollar signs and marks in the won-loss column. Fans will no longer be content with regular season second-place finishes in conference play, or even Sweet 16 appearances. They’ll demand more. And, let’s be as brutally honest as Barnes is: With his new salary, they should demand more.
Rick Barnes has not changed. He’s still a coach Tennessee fans can be — and should be — proud of. He’s a terrific ambassador for the school and its fanbase, and for the entire region.
But his job is a lot more difficult now. The expectations are much higher. And the cost if they aren’t met will be, too. Rick Barnes’ brutal honesty has made it that.