Rick Barnes was very, very close to leaving Tennessee for UCLA.
In fact, had UCLA decided to pay the $5 million buyout written into Barnes’ contract at Tennessee, Barnes would be coaching the Bruins right now.
How do we know that? Well, Barnes said it himself.
“To be honest with you, when you get down to a situation like that it has to make sense from a financial standpoint. We just couldn’t really work it out with the buyout,” Barnes told reporters Tuesday at a press conference introducing Kim English, his newest assistant with the Vols.
Barnes has a lot of reverence for the UCLA program. He spoke about attending a camp as an eighth-grader where legendary Bruins coach John Wooden was a featured speaker. He watched UCLA games on television late at night when he was young and played in a variation of the famous UCLA offense while in college.
That led Barnes to seriously consider the offer that was on the table from UCLA, who ended up hiring Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin to cap off a winding coaching search that lasted nearly four months.
Barnes said he was “totally surprised” to hear from UCLA, but was “intrigued” about the opportunity.
“I was totally surprised to be quite honest with you,” Barnes said. “It was the fact that I’ve got so much respect for UCLA basketball and what it meant to me growing up. That was really the sole reason that it all got started.”
Barnes even said there was a point where he felt that he would be the next coach at UCLA, but the buyout — like it was with UCLA’s pursuit of TCU’s Jamie Dixon — eventually became a sticking point.
Had it not been for that buyout?
“I think I would have been the coach at UCLA. I really felt at that time that that’s what would have happened. In my mind that’s what I was thinking,” Barnes said.
Barnes said he prayed and asked God for “total clarity,” and when UCLA “came back with their decision” on the buyout, it became clear to him that he was not “supposed to be the coach at UCLA.”
“I felt that God made it crystal clear that I needed to be at the University of Tennessee,” Barnes said. “I’m here because I believe God wants me here. I believe that with all my heart.”
Rare transparency from a head coach
Head coaches at both the professional and collegiate level are rarely — if ever — this honest about a behind-the-scenes negotiation. No matter the sport, coaches look around at other jobs constantly and some are far closer to leaving their current job than the public ever realizes.
Details of the negotiating process may eventually trickle out in the press, but to hear a coach like Barnes come out and plainly say how close he was to leaving Knoxville was pretty surprising.
From a personal (media) perspective, it’s refreshing, but it could be somewhat difficult to wrap your head around if you’re a Tennessee fan.
How should Tennessee fans feel?
For one, the coach that got the Vols an SEC title and back to the Sweet 16 is returning. That part of the equation has to feel good for Tennessee fans, especially when you consider Barnes’ age. At 64, this may have been his last chance leave for a “bigger” job.
But will the fan base’s feelings about Barnes change moving forward? Will there be worry about Barnes leaving for another job when the coaching carousel rolls around next year?
And the fact that Barnes specifically said the ultimate deciding factor between staying at Tennessee or leaving for UCLA was financial may rub fans the wrong way. It may take some time for those feelings to go away, especially if the team takes a step back in 2019.
Oh, and by the way, Barnes agreed to a new deal that will reportedly increase his pay from $4 million to $6 million as part of the decision to stay at Tennessee.
Another look behind the curtain of UCLA’s search
On the other hand, some Tennessee fans might be feeling lucky that UCLA was frugal and would not pay Barnes’ buyout.
UCLA’s search got plenty of attention, but not for the best reasons. The school went after big names like John Calipari and Tony Bennett, but struck out on both with Calipari using UCLA’s interest as a leverage point for a new “lifetime” contract at Kentucky.
Later, UCLA could not come to an agreement with TCU’s Jamie Dixon because it would not pay his $8 million buyout. And as we now know, the negotiations with Barnes (and his reported $5 million buyout) reached the same outcome.
From there, the school went with Cronin, who spent the last 13 seasons at Cincinnati.
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