By Alex Norman
Well, that was interesting… but if we have discovered anything over the past decade, it is that Tennessee fans should expect the unexpected, and fear the worst.
Despite losing in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, the future for Tennessee’s men’s basketball program is bright.
Yes, Admiral Schofield and Kyle Alexander are graduating, and yes Jordan Bone is examining his NBA options (as is, as expected, Grant Williams), but a solid recruiting class is heading to Rocky Top. That class is led by 5-star point guard Josiah James. 3-star small forward Davonte Grimes (Hargrave Military Academy) and 4-star power forward Drew Pember (Bearden) also could be contributors.
The Vols have gone 57-15 over the past two seasons. Thompson-Boling Arena was regularly a sell-out. Tennessee had established itself as one of the top basketball schools in the nation.
Then… the rumors started flying.
UCLA, which has been an absolute mess in recent years, had offered Rick Barnes its head coaching job. This is one of the “blue blood” programs. A very select few (Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky, Indiana) make up that group. Despite their issues, if the Bruins call, you are likely going to pick up the phone.
But it seemed like an odd move for Barnes. He is a Hickory, North Carolina native. His coaching career has been mostly in places like Clemson, Austin (TX) and Knoxville. These aren’t big cities. These are places small enough that you can get home after practice and not spend hours in your car fighting traffic. These are places where the sports teams mean everything.
Los Angeles? L.A. is none of those things.
But UCLA was offering $5 million a year. Enough to make the 64-year-old Barnes consider taking the job.
Nerves were calmed late Monday night (April 8) when Tennessee released a statement from Athletics Director Phillip Fulmer.
“The last few days have been interesting to say the least. One of the nation’s most tradition-rich college basketball programs identified what we here at Tennessee already knew—that Rick Barnes is one the game’s elite coaches and a program-changer. His incredible work here at Tennessee over the past four years illustrates that. Additionally, the impact that he and his wife, Candy, have made throughout this community has been immensely inspiring as well. The University of Tennessee and East Tennessee as a whole have developed an enhanced love and appreciation for our men’s basketball program and its culture under Rick’s leadership, and I’m thrilled that he will remain a part of our Tennessee Athletics family. I’m grateful to Rick and Candy, and I’m also grateful to our university leadership, which stepped up to show Rick how much he is valued and appreciated. Our commitment to basketball has never been stronger, and we’re all excited for the future as we move forward.”
Barnes will reportedly get a new contract, starting at $4 million a year, with the top amount at $6 million when the contract ends.
“Tennessee made it very clear to me what the basketball program has meant to the university, and while they know this game cam be up and down, they also made it clear that they wanted me to be the coach here and were willing to give me everything we need to sustain it,” Barnes told ESPN’s Chris Low. “My goal is to make it even better, and I can never thank them enough for the way they handles everything.”
Tennessee will likely take a step back next season due to roster departures, even if Bone and Williams return. The SEC is getting better, and it is tough to see the Vols achieving a number one ranking for a month once again.
But the program has some much needed stability…