By Alex Norman
In recent years, Tennessee has not been a “destination” job when it mattered most. In football, Lane Kiffin memorably bolted for his “dream job” at Southern California in 2010. In men’s basketball, Cuonzo Martin, who many fans were happy to see leave, departed for what could only be seen as a less than lateral move.
Their replacements have been less than overwhelming. In football, Kiffin was followed up by the inept Derek Dooley and the overwhelmed Butch Jones. The jury is still out on Jeremy Pruitt. In basketball, Donnie Tyndall couldn’t run away from the NCAA.
And then the Vols really lucked out when Texas fired Rick Barnes. He was available just as Tyndall was bring fired, and the rest is recent history.
Tennessee has been one of the top programs in the country in men’s basketball for the past two years. And one of the traditional powerhouses of the sport took notice.
UCLA tried to woo Barnes to California. For a time, he thought it was going to happen.
“The last time I prayed, I asked God for total clarity,” said Barnes. “I said this is what’s got to happen, ‘If they come back and say they can’t work this out, it’s clear that I’ll be at Tennessee. That’s where I want to be.’ It got to that point where I felt like my prayer had been answered. Once it happened, I called the people I needed to call and told them I would be staying at Tennessee. I haven’t looked back.”
That said, Barnes added, “If the buyout would have worked out, then I think I would have been the coach at UCLA.”
But Tennessee wasn’t sitting idly by during this process. Tennessee athletics director Phillip Fulmer worked with University of Tennessee Interim President Randy Boyd and key boosters to secure funds to give Barnes a substantial raise. Barnes reportedly will make $4.75 million a year in his new contract, third highest in all of college basketball.
But perhaps the most important thing is the change in perception of Tennessee athletics. For too long, Tennessee has been a stepping stone. Long gone are the days of Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer coaching the football programs for 16 years and only leaving because they were forced out the door.
The move to make sure Barnes stayed in Knoxville proves Tennessee can be a destination job again for a hall of fame coach. In Barnes’s case, it shows that Tennessee is a place someone can succeed and then retire. Barnes is 64, and this likely will be his last stop.
“We have been through a lot of change and different things,” said Fulmer. “…we weren’t going to let somebody come in here and buy our coach without putting up a great fight. I think it makes a statement for our programs. We have invested here and in people. We are in this to compete for championships at the conference and national level. We had a really outstanding proven person and we weren’t just going to let him go away.”