When you think of the most elite coaches in men’s college basketball, Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes doesn’t automatically spring to mind. Based on his track record, he shouldn’t be one of the top five names in the sport, but he has the resume of a top 10 active head coach. A Final Four appearance, multiple Elite Eight berths, and taking two teams to No. 1 in the AP Poll during the regular season is nothing to scoff at.
According to one national writer, Barnes’ career accomplishments haven’t been appreciated enough. Specifically, Texas didn’t value what he did enough.
Myron Medcalf of ESPN wrote an article that ranked college basketball’s “most underappreciated head coaches.” He was inspired by Michigan’s John Beilein after he left the Wolverines to become the head coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA.
“Beilein led Michigan to the 2013 and 2018 national title games,” Medcalf writes. “Seven of his players were selected in the first round of the NBA draft. That’s why new Michigan head coach Juwan Howard talked about enhancing the program’s culture during his introductory news conference and not building it.
“Despite Beilein’s achievements, however, he didn’t secure the same adoration his peers with similar résumés have enjoyed.”
Belein’s underappreciated tenure at Michigan led Medcalf to look around the rest of the college basketball world to find other undervalued coaches. Medcalf created three categories to define the underappreciated coaches: Coaches who are underappreciated because they’ve never won titles, coaches who are underappreciated because they’ve won so often their success is taken for granted, and coaches who are underappreciated because they’re coaching at schools that lack national brands.
Barnes appeared in the second of those three categories. Specifically, his nearly two decade tenure at Texas.
“In April, UCLA chased Barnes after the veteran led Tennessee to its best season in a decade with a 31-6 record and the team’s first No. 1 ranking since the 2007-08 season,” Medcalf writes. “Two of his players, Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams, are projected second-round picks in this summer’s NBA draft. Barnes arrived in 2015 as the longtime Texas coach who was fired by an athletic director, Steve Patterson, who thought Texas deserved better. Well, Texas fired Patterson months after he’d dismissed Barnes. And Barnes has won more games at Tennessee in the past two seasons (56) than Texas has won over the past three seasons (51). That job, as Shaka Smart has learned, isn’t easy. Barnes deserved more respect in Austin and he finally received it in Knoxville.”
While at Texas, Barnes took the Longhorns to their first Final Four since 1947 when they got there in 2003. Their Elite Eight appearance that year was the first since 1990, and Barnes’ Elite Eight berths in 2003, 2006, and 2008 nearly doubled the total amount of Elite Eights that Texas had made it to in their program’s history. In fact, Texas had been to just one Elite Eight (1990) since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 before Barnes helped lead the Longhorns to three appearances there in six years.
Despite the newfound success — and because Barnes seemed to hit a wall in his final few years with the Longhorns — Texas decided to part ways with Barnes after the 2014-15 season. Texas thought they had a home run hire to replace him when they brought in VCU head coach Shaka Smart.
Barnes, meanwhile, ended up going to Tennessee. The two programs have moved in opposite directions since.
After going 15-19 in his first year and 16-16 in his second season, Barnes helped take Tennessee to a surprising 26-9 overall record and a share of the SEC regular season title in his third year. This past season saw the Vols tie a school record with 31 wins, and Tennessee set a new program record by earning the No. 1 ranking in the AP Poll for four-straight weeks. The Vols made it to the Sweet Sixteen and were seconds away from getting to only the second Elite Eight in school history.
Texas, however, has failed to even win an NCAA Tournament game since Barnes’ departure.
Smart went 20-13 in his first year at Texas, and the Longhorns were bounced in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The next season saw Texas plummet to 11-22 overall. Smart’s third season saw the Longhorns sneak into the NCAA Tournament, but they couldn’t get a win again, and they finished 19-15 overall. Despite not making it to the NCAA Tournament this past season, it actually ended up being Smart’s most successful year at Texas so far, as the Longhorns won the NIT title and finished 21-16.
Still, winning an NIT championship is a far cry from making it to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament a decade ago like the Longhorns did under Barnes.
Texas has gone just 71-66 in four years under Smart, and they’ve made the NCAA Tournament twice and gone 0-2 in the Big Dance. Tennessee has gone 88-50 in four years with Barnes at the helm, made the NCAA Tournament twice, and have a Sweet Sixteen berth and a share of an SEC regular season title under their belts.
There are certainly things to critique Barnes about during his time both at Texas and so far at Tennessee, but it’s clear that the Longhorns have been much worse off after moving on from Barnes. The long-time coach has found more appreciation in Knoxville than he was receiving in Austin, and the results speak for themselves.