By Steve Williams
New Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes and former Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer have something in common. Both won a lot, but not enough to please their bosses in the twilight of distinguished careers.
And when their respective athletic directors said it was time to step down after 17 seasons, each walked away with class.
“I love Tennessee too much to let her stay divided,” said Fulmer at his emotional press conference in November, 2008.
Last week, as his job at Texas came to an end, Barnes said: “I don’t have any regrets. I truly love the University of Texas and I always will…I would tell the next person to sit in my seat, ‘You’re walking into something really, really special.”
Fulmer, who guided the Vols to a national championship in 1998 and is the second winningest coach in Tennessee football history, hasn’t coached since former athletic director Mike Hamilton forced him to resign. Fulmer wanted to continue, but the right fit never came for him.
The timing was just right for Barnes to get a fresh start. Two days after parting ways with the Longhorns, he accepted Tennessee’s offer and replaced Donnie Tyndall, who was fired after one season. Tennessee reportedly had learned Tyndall would be receiving serious sanctions from the NCAA for rules violations committed the previous season when he was head coach at Southern Miss.
Barnes, who has a 604-314 career record, is expected to give much needed stability to the Tennessee program, as he becomes the Vols’ fourth coach since 2011.
Barnes put Texas on the national college basketball map, reaching the Final Four once and the Elite Eight two other times, but his Longhorns had slipped in recent seasons and again were first-round victims in this year’s NCAA tournament, losing to Butler.
Texas AD Steve Patterson told Barnes he would have to let some of his assistants go, if he wanted to keep his job. Barnes wanted no part of that, saying he and his aides were in it together and he wasn’t going to put the blame on them.
Give credit to Barnes for being loyal to his assistants. It’s an example of why so many have stepped up and praised his character since Texas pushed him out.
Even the Texas athletic director spoke highly of Barnes in the end.
Patterson said in a statement he appreciated Barnes’ hard work over his tenure.
“The University owes Rick a great deal of gratitude and respect for all he’s done to put Texas on the Basketball map,” Patterson said. “He elevated our program immensely and always did it with class. He put our student-athletes first. He won with integrity. We thank Rick for his many years of service to Texas and wish him continued success in the future.”
Dave Hart, Tennessee’s athletic director, admitted he made a mistake, as it turned out, in hiring Tyndall, who was head coach at Morehead State when that school was guilty of NCAA violations and put on probation for five years.
But for the second time since he came to Tennessee in 2011, Hart rebounded to make what appears to be a great hire. And both times Texas was involved.
Hart didn’t land Charlie Strong, who opted to take the Longhorns’ football post in 2013, but he reeled in Butch Jones on his second cast. Jones, heading into his third campaign, has the Vols’ grid program climbing.
Barnes, a native of Hickory, N.C., who dated and married a University of Tennessee coed in the early 1970s, has been called a young 60. He’s earned the reputation of being an excellent recruiter. The new beginning at Tennessee should recharge his coaching battery even more.
Barnes also knows quite a bit about Tennessee’s basketball history, even going back to the Ray Mears era and the Bernie and Ernie Days.
His Longhorn teams played the Vols twice in the Bruce Pearl era. In fact, Pearl notched his first big win as Tennessee’s coach with a 95-78 win in Austin one Saturday afternoon in 2006.
The following season, Barnes got a look at pumped up Thompson-Boling Arena and the passionate Vol fan base. Chris Lofton hit a “bomb” and the Vols outscored freshman sensation Kevin Durant and the Longhorns 111-105 in overtime that day.
No doubt Barnes is looking forward to being a part of that excitement, but wearing Tennessee orange instead of burnt orange.
Something tells me Fulmer will be there for Barnes’ Tennessee debut. It would only be fitting.