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Column: With Great Pay Comes Great Expectations

Photo by Anne Newman/RTI

Rick Barnes had a chance to go coach at UCLA, but he opted to stay at Tennessee. His reward for sticking with the Vols? A beefed-up contract that’s made him one of the highest-paid head coaches in college basketball.

Barnes’ new deal at Tennessee will pay him $26 million over the next five years, and that’s just the base salary for him. He has an opportunity to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses, and he’ll receive an annual $250,000 raise for every year of his contract. His $4.7 million in base pay for this upcoming season is nearly $1.5 million more than he made this past season.

That new contract puts Barnes in elite company. Based on salary numbers from last season according to the USA Today Sports coaching salary database, Barnes’ $4.7 million he’ll be earning this upcoming season places third among current head coaches. Only Kentucky’s John Calipari ($9.3 million) and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski ($7.05 million) made more this past season than what Barnes is set to make this upcoming season.

With the way the whole UCLA situation played out with Barnes and with this new deal, there’s one thing that’s for certain: Fans are no longer going to be content with shorter postseason runs in men’s basketball.

Historically, Tennessee’s men’s basketball hasn’t had success in the NCAA Tournament. The Vols have only made one Elite Eight appearance ever, and last year’s Sweet Sixteen appearance marked only the sixth time UT has made it that far in the tournament since it expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

In short, the Vols are far from a blue blood in basketball. But now their head coach is being paid like one.

Vol fans were surprised and pleased with how Tennessee’s basketball team came out of nowhere in the 2017-18 season and won a share of the SEC regular season title. Because of that unexpected success, fans were lenient on UT’s early exit in the NCAA Tournament and didn’t hold it against the team or Barnes. Expectations, understandably, were raised heading into this most recent season. And for the first few months of the season, the Vols were fulfilling those expectations.

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But when it was all said and done, many fans believe this past season was a disappointment. At the very least, it ended in a disappointing fashion.

The Vols were No. 1 in the AP Poll for four-straight weeks, but they didn’t win the SEC regular season or tournament title, and they were one of two No. 2 seeds in this year’s NCAA Tournament not to make it to at least the Elite Eight.

Based on UT’s history in men’s basketball, this past season was one of the most successful in school history. Now, though, Rick Barnes is being paid to do much more than that.

Barnes’ $4.7 million salary this upcoming season is more than five head coaches with national titles on their resume. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, Virginia’s Tony Bennett, Kansas’ Bill Self, North Carolina’s Roy Williams, and Villanova’s Jay Wright all made less money this past season than what Barnes is set to make in the 2019-20 season. Granted, Bennett just won his title this season and is likely due for a huge raise himself (he made $4.15 million in 2018-19), but Barnes’ track record in the postseason is no comparison to most of the coaches he’ll now be compared to.

When you look at the top 10 highest-paid head coaches in college basketball for the 2018-19 season, seven of them have won at least one national championship, and the only coaches without multiple Final Four appearances in that top 10 are Bennett (1) and Louisville’s Chris Mack (0).

As a head coach, Barnes has just one Final Four appearance ever, and he only has three Elite Eight appearances in 32 years as a head coach. Tom Izzo has been a head coach for eight fewer years than Barnes, and he has 10 Elite Eight appearances.

In fact, Barnes’ rate of making it to even the Sweet Sixteen is far behind the other highest-paid coaches in college basketball.

This past season marked the seventh time in his 32 years as a head coach that Barnes has taken a team to the Sweet Sixteen. That’s a Sweet Sixteen appearance every 4.6 years. Even Chris Mack, who has only been a head coach for 10 years, has a better ratio, reaching the Sweet Sixteen four times in his first 10 years as a head coach. Roy Williams, Tom Izzo, and Bill Self are all averaging a Sweet Sixteen appearance every two years or fewer, yet they’re set to make less this upcoming season than Barnes.

Here’s a look at how Barnes’ track record compares to the coaches in the top 10 of annual salary for the 2018-19 basketball season:

Coach (Salary)National TitlesTitle Game AppearancesFinal Four AppearancesElite Eight AppearancesSweet Sixteen Appearances Years Coaching (Division I)
Rick Barnes ($4.7 million in 2019-20)0013732 years
John Calipari ($9.3 million in 2018-19)136121527 years
Mike Krzyzewski ($7.05 million in 2018-19)5912162544 years
Tom Izzo ($4.15 million in 2018-19)128101424 years
Tony Bennett ($4.15 million in 2018-19)1112413 years
Bill Self ($4.07 million in 2018-19)123101326 years
Chris Mack ($4 million in 2018-19)0001410 years
Roy Williams ($3.9 million in 2018-19)369131931 years
Jay Wright ($3.88 million in 2018-19P)2234625 years
Bob Huggins ($3.87 million in 2018-19)0024934 years
John Beilein ($3.8 million in 2018-19)0224727 years

The rebuild that Barnes has done at Tennessee is nothing short of impressive. He took a team that went 15-19 in his first year and 16-16 in his second to No. 1 in the AP Poll in his fourth season as head coach. That’s to be commended.

But it’s clear now that expectations are going to be different moving forward for Barnes. He’s being paid more money per year than some of the most recognizable names in the sport right now, and that raise in pay comes with a similar rise in expectations.

There are several coaches making much less per year than Barnes is set to make who have had much more success in their head coaching tenures. Barnes is certainly aware of this, and he’s also likely aware of his reputation of being a regular season coach and not a postseason one. He has the perfect opportunity to rebrand himself at Tennessee, and he has quite literally millions of reasons to be motivated to do so thanks to his new contract.

Should the Vols make it to the Elite Eight, Barnes is set to receive an $800,000 bonus. Taking the Vols to their first-ever Final Four would net him a clean $1 million bonus.

If that’s not motivation enough to rise up to expectations, nothing is.

Barnes is already recruiting at a higher level than Tennessee has ever seen in men’s basketball, and it’s clear he and his staff are exceptional at developing talent. Now, they just have to take that next step and start achieving more postseason success.

Tennessee is paying Rick Barnes like he’s one of the top head coaches in college basketball, and Vol fans are going to expect and demand that he produce like one moving forward. This upcoming season may be more of a retooling year depending on what Jordan Bone and Grant Williams decide to do, but it’s clear that the future of Tennessee men’s basketball is expected to be much, much more successful than what the past has been.

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3 Responses

  1. I think the thing that will be forgotten is that it took the increase in salary to keep him from going to UCLA! Also, leading a team that had NO players in the ESPN Top 150 to such a quick turnaround (remember 4 years ago?) is great! And we see the multiple 4 and 5 star recruits wanting to be a part of a Rocky Top surge in basketball. And filling up Thompson-Boling is big for the university. I think things are really looking up! If Barnes can get these blue-chip recruits to buy in like this year’s team did, Final Fours are in the future! #GBO #VFL

  2. Rick Barnes is a phony! If he is vane enough to think that God is worried about him and his salary then he is much mistaken. No, if She is looking down on Knoxville She would be worried about homeless people and poor people in general–not whether Barnes is making 3 or 5 mil a year. I’m cynical enough to believe that the UCLA thing was a ploy to get more money. Fulmer should have fired him instead of giving him a raise. A final 4? I don’t think so. His track record will show otherwise– blue chips or otherwise. Disgruntled after 70 years being a fan.

  3. Maybe it’s time you were a fan of another team….we won’t miss you

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