You might not have felt it — might not have even been paying attention if you aren’t a fan of Tennessee or UCLA — but there was a bit of a shift in the college basketball landscape on Monday.
Rick Barnes spurned UCLA’s offer to become the Bruins’ head basketball coach, choosing instead to remain at the University of Tennessee. It was a lucrative offer — in excess of $5 million per year — and an opportunity to coach one of college basketball’s blue blood programs. Barnes is unfailingly loyal — he turned down Kentucky (another blue blood) to remain at Texas a decade ago, and said four years ago that Tennessee would be the last place he ever coached — but the opportunity to restore UCLA to its Wooden-era success appealed to him.
According to The Sports Animal’s Jimmy Hayes, UCLA initially reached out to Barnes on April 2 — five days after the Vols were eliminated from the NCAA Tournament by Purdue. Barnes told his athletics director, Phillip Fulmer, about the Bruins’ overtures later the same week (it’s been reported that UCLA worked around Fulmer and never spoke to the Tennessee AD), yet news of the talks somehow didn’t leak until Sunday evening.
By that time, UCLA thought it had its man. Privately, those involved in the process were telling colleagues that Barnes would soon be on his way to Westwood. But Fulmer wasn’t willing to let Barnes go without a fight. He and Barnes met on campus late Sunday night, then again on Monday morning. Fulmer pitched a significant pay increase to Barnes — one that made the 64-year-old head coach pause.
In the meantime, Barnes’ contract negotiations with UCLA hit a snag when the Bruins insisted on giving him a $4 million signing bonus while requiring him to pay his Tennessee buyout of $5 million himself. Barnes would’ve been taxed for the $4 million — and California taxes aren’t cheap. (UCLA also balked at paying a $8 million buyout for Texas Christian’s Jamie Dixon last week).
It all added up to become the biggest feel-good story for Tennessee athletics since Peyton Manning’s “I’m gonna stay at the University of Tennessee” announcement in 1997. Barnes announced Monday night that he would not be accepting UCLA’s offer.
By Tuesday morning, it had been reported that Barnes’ new salary at Tennessee will be around $4.7 million per year, up substantially from the $3.25 million he was making after signing a new contract last fall.
All of this does two things.
It raises expectations. This one is relative only to Barnes and Tennessee. With his new salary, Barnes is one of the highest-paid coaches in the game (third-highest, in fact), making more than Michigan State’s Tom Izzo ($4.1 million), more than Kansas’ Bill Self ($4.1 million), more than Villanova’s Jay Wright ($3.9 million), and more than North Carolina’s Roy Williams ($3.9 million).
There was lots of love for Rick Barnes on Monday, but that wasn’t necessarily the case for 10 days before the news of UCLA’s overtures broke on Sunday. A small, but perhaps not insignificant, portion of the Tennessee fan base was grumbling that “Regular Season Rick” would never be anything more than a Sweet Sixteen coach.
That’s not necessarily fair. It plays off his reputation from his Texas days, when he was fired for exiting the NCAA Tournament in its first weekend seven straight years. But the Vols were one terrible call from an official away from at least the Elite Eight this season. They had beaten Purdue fair and square, and battled back from 18 down to do it, before the whistle with six-tenths of a second remaining.
But it just goes to show that Barnes’ honeymoon is over. No one expected much prior to last year. When the Vols were picked to finish 13th in the SEC as the 2017-2018 season was beginning, there was no pressure to win. Things change quickly, though. Barnes’ team charged to a regular season conference championship in 2018, and spent several weeks at No. 1 in 2019. Suddenly, expectations are up.
Those expectations will increase 10-fold with Barnes’ new salary. And they should. If you’re going to pay a basketball coach $5 million per year, you expect Final Four results.
The problem for Barnes is that there isn’t much of a grace period built in. He loses Admiral Schofield and Kyle Alexander to graduation. Jordan Bone and Grant Williams are both testing the NBA Draft waters and may go pro. Barnes does have an excellent recruit coming in, blue-chipper Josiah James. And he has some players to build on, including Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner. But for a guy who many saw as someone who was simply waiting on retirement when he signed on at Tennessee, Barnes just made his job much more difficult.
Did Tennessee overpay? That’s a common sentiment, but it’s not an easy answer. If Barnes can sustain the success he’s had the past two years, the answer is no. Besides, Fulmer was paying for stability as much as he was paying for results. His No. 1 priority, and likely his directive, is to fix Tennessee’s flailing football program. But football is two to three years away from being relevant again, and that assumes that Jeremy Pruitt is the right guy to turn things around — something that has not yet been proven. Women’s basketball has fallen off-track, and the hire of former player Kellie Jolly Harper to replace Holly Warlick — a move seen by many as an effort to placate the Lady Vols old guard bloc of the fanbase — has hardly inspired confidence among many. Fulmer needs stability within the basketball program. And he was willing to pay for it.
SEC salaries are going to skyrocket. This is where the college basketball landscape really shifted on Monday. Prior to last week, there was only one exorbitant salary being paid in the SEC: Kentucky’s John Calipari makes $9.3 million per year, making him college basketball’s highest-paid coach. (Only Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, at $7 million, comes close.)
Tennessee rewarded Barnes in September when it increased his salary to $3.25 million, making him the SEC’s second highest-paid head coach (and the 14th highest-paid coach in all of college basketball). The move bumped Barnes ahead of his SEC counterparts Tom Crean (Georgia, $3.2 million) and Avery Johnson (Alabama, $3.1 million), and deservedly so (Johnson has since been fired).
To be fair, the game began to change last week, when Texas A&M agreed to pay $3.8 million per year to lure Buzz Williams away from Virginia Tech. Williams has an excellent resume; he took Marquette to the Elite Eight and turned a terrible Virginia Tech program into a Sweet Sixteen qualifier this year. But the Aggies’ offer would’ve been brow-raising just a few years ago. They instantly made him the SEC’s second highest-paid coach by a half-million dollars, and one of the 10 highest-paid coaches in college basketball. (Like Barnes, Williams has a contract stipulation that awards him a $100,000 raise each year.)
In the span of one week, we’ve gone from a conference where one guy makes an exorbitant amount of money and everyone else makes around $3 million or less, to having a $9 million guy, a $5 million guy and a $4 million guy. That’s a pretty sizable change in a pretty big hurry.
These things tend to escalate quickly. It seems like an eternity ago that Alabama stunned the college football world by offering Nick Saban $4 million a year to leave the Miami Dolphins. That was only 2007. A decade later, Saban’s salary — even adjusted for inflation — wouldn’t even be a Top 20 salary in the college game. He makes $8.3 million now, and the rest of the SEC has charged right along in an effort to keep up. Auburn’s Gus Malzahn makes $7.5 million, Georgia’s Kirby Smart makes $6.6 million, Florida’s Dan Mullen makes $6.1 million and South Carolina’s Will Muschamp makes $4.2 million — all more than Saban was making in 2007. Even Kentucky’s Mark Stoops is making $4 million now. Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt, who was a virtual nobody when he was hired by the Vols, is making $3.8 million…and he’s not one of the 25 highest-paid coaches in the game.
The same salary race hasn’t extended to college basketball, but we’re now knocking on that door. Back in 2010, when Bruce Pearl was fresh off unprecedented success at Tennessee, he was making just $1.9 million.
Kentucky had just paid $4 million a year to lure Calipari away from Memphis, which was an outlandish salary in the college basketball world. But when it comes to college basketball in the SEC, there’s Kentucky and then there’s everyone else. Which is why Calipari was in a class of his own when it came to salaries.
With Barnes making $5 million a year, the bar has been raised. How much is Pearl worth at Auburn, after leading the Tigers to the Final Four? He’s currently making $2.6 million, which pales in comparison to Barnes and Williams. How much will Mike White be worth when he starts winning at Florida? (That’s likely to happen as soon as next year.) He’s only making $2.6 million as well. Ben Howland is only making $2.2 million at Mississippi State.
It seems very likely that we start to see the rise of basketball coaching salaries accelerate — in no small part because Tennessee was willing to pay for stability.