Imagine going to visit somebody on life support. Nobody walks into that situation and offers thoughts and prayers for that person to be able to stand up and go out and win some kind of top athletic event immediately.
The first thought is stability, survival and the hope that they will be able to resume normal functions.
We’re talking about basketball here, not a life-or-death situation. But for the sake of comparison, Tennessee hoops found itself in a scary, brink-of-total-irrelevancy position after Donnie Tyndall’s termination.
Three coaches in three years, a roster largely bereft of talent with the possibility of more heading out, a fanbase, that often puts basketball second behind King Football anyhow, growing frustrated and a program and athletic director that just, admittedly, made the wrong call on the prior hire, calling the shots.
In the sports world, that’s about as close to life support as it gets. One more bad move could’ve easily sent the Vols spiraling further into obscurity in the SEC and national scene as empty seats continued to pop up around Thompson-Boling Arena over the next few years.
But Dave Hart, just days after standing up and admitting that hindsight told him he was in the wrong on Tyndall, seems to have gotten this one correct. We don’t know that for a fact. Coaching hires can only be truly judged with the benefit of hindsight. But Barnes is what Tennessee needs – a stabilizer.
Few in college basketball, in fact, are more representative of stability and consistency than Barnes.
Check the numbers. His stay at Texas was one of the longest tenures in the nation at one school. He took the Longhorns to 16 NCAA tournaments in 17 years. In total, including his stops at Clemson and Providence as a head coach, he compiled 22 NCAA tournament bids, six Sweet 16 appearances, three Elite Eights and a Final Four.
He’s been named the Big 12 Coach of the Year four times, including as recently as the 2013-14 season. He’s the winningest coach, by virtually any metric, in the modern era of Texas basketball. All of those numbers and facts point to one undeniable fact: He has the track record need to stabilize a basketball program in turmoil. It’s something Hart said he was looking for on Friday when he stood in front of the media.
“The profile hasn’t really changed in terms of the fit, I think,” Hart said. “Yes, we’d like to get someone who has a consistent track record of success. I believe that and I’ve said it in any search and every search I’ve ever conducted and been involved in. It’s not an accident when you see that consistent level of success.”
Hart mentioned several other things he was looking for. An ambassador for the program: Check. A clean NCAA past: Check. And Hart, naturally, emphasized recruiting.
“They have to be able to recruit,” he said. “That’s the lifeblood of any program. If you don’t have some elite athletes on your squad, you’re not going to excel. They have to be able to recruit, they have to be able to attract elite athletes to our campus and surround themselves with a great staff. Nobody ever accomplished anything worthwhile on his or her own. Some people might think they did, but that just doesn’t happen.”
Barnes knows a thing or two about that. He landed Kevin Durant, T.J. Ford, D.J. Augustin, LaMarcus Aldridge and many, many more at Texas. He hasn’t lost that either. He left Texas with a recruiting class ranked No. 1 in the Big 12 at the time of his departure.
So while he checks so many boxes, this is where I want to address the biggest negative I’ve seen thrown around. It’s that Barnes never took Texas “to the next level.” That despite his resources and talent, Texas often bowed out in the first or second round of the NCAA tournament.
I can’t deny that. Those are facts. In 14 of 22 tournament appearances, Barnes’ team went home before the second weekend. But I want to circle back to how I started. Whether Tennessee makes it to the Round of 32 of the Sweet 16 shouldn’t be on the top of too many fans’ lists of concerns right now at Tennessee.
That’s cart before the horse, to an extent. Getting the program stable and back playing significant games in March is the only step Tennessee should worry about right now. Will Barnes be able to take Tennessee to an elite level? I don’t know. There’s a chance he may not, based on his track record.
But one UT’s trash is another’s treasure in this situation. And Barnes’ “underachievements” at Texas would serve as a big step forward for Tennessee right now.
Advance past the Sweet 16? Winning a title? Leave that for the North Carolinas and Dukes of the college basketball world for now. If Tennessee looks back in about five years and the biggest complaint fans have is that Barnes has the Vols in the tournament, but isn’t taking them deep enough, I’d say job well done by Hart in this particular situation.
Maybe UT will hire somebody to finish the job down the road when Barnes is ready to retire. Maybe Barnes is able to find that next level at this UT. Regardless, the program should be in a better place whenever he decides to leave.
The most important thing today, however, is that the Vols likely found their stabilizer, and the journey back to some level of normalcy can begin.