The last sentence of the last thing I wrote about Tennessee on Friday was, “There is as much reason to believe in Tennessee basketball right now than at any point in my lifetime.”
This was immediately tested, of course. The point of that piece on Friday was to not pretend bad things always happen to Tennessee just because good things were happening to Bruce Pearl. But we are definitely no stranger to ye olde time of testing.
On some level it felt like an accomplishment that a coach would even consider staying at Tennessee when the alternative is UCLA. Because that coach is Rick Barnes at age 64, I think most of us also believed staying at Tennessee was the better fit all along.
But as the hours stretched on – and it’s remarkable how this whole thing happened in right at 24 hours but felt like so much more – the narrative of Tennessee’s commitment to basketball moved to the forefront. I wasn’t thinking about matching UCLA dollar for dollar; those dollars still go further in Knoxville, and are now unnecessary at an impressive assortment of local restaurants. It began to feel more about what a basketball program could be worth at a football school. Especially a good basketball program at what used to be a great football school.
If Barnes simply said yes to an enormous salary a program like UCLA could offer but Tennessee could not, so be it, I told myself. But with the conversation seemingly focused on Tennessee’s overall commitment to basketball, including assistant salaries and the program’s place in the athletic department, it became a telling moment for Phillip Fulmer and the narrative of Tennessee basketball.
My teams have had a really good run over the course of my life. The Braves won the World Series when I was 14, the Vols a national championship at 17. I grew up in the immediate aftermath of the Celtics’ three titles in the 80’s, then watched them win another when I was 26. And for the most part, really until the last decade of Tennessee football, my teams were really well run and competitive on the highest levels. Only three championships, but plenty of seasons in the conversation.
Because of that, there’s a part of me that pulls for Tennessee basketball the hardest. Basketball is my favorite sport. But college basketball is also the one where my favorite team had the most room to grow, as my fandom came of age during the Wade Houston era. There were individual runs with the 2000-01 teams and Cuonzo Martin’s last season. But the long-term trust my other favorite teams earned has really only been available for Tennessee basketball twice in my 37 years. One was at the tail end of Bruce Pearl’s tenure in 2010, the post-Chris Lofton run to the Elite Eight solidifying his ability to make Tennessee, as he said then and says now about Auburn, a Top 25 program instead of a Top 25 team.
But then Pearl was gone by his own hand a year later. Anyone who’s spent any time reading me through the years knows I love Cuonzo Martin. But that hire at the time – three years at Missouri State, zero NCAA Tournament appearances – wasn’t a Top 25 program hire.
Then Rick Barnes re-established that long-term trust over the last two years. Tennessee was back in the Top 25 program conversation, with NCAA Tournament seeds built for the second weekend. McDonald’s All-Americans were signing here again. And Barnes carried none of the baggage of scandal and investigation. After a decade of instability, things suddenly seemed so safe: Fulmer in the big job, Jim Chaney running the offense, and Barnes the safest bet of all.
And then all of a sudden it seemed like he might leave, and it felt like the whole program was in jeopardy again. Because we’re not just a football school, we’re a football school where the football team is 67-70 in the last 11 years. Perhaps a football school could only be committed to basketball when football is doing well. Or even if that wasn’t the case and Barnes just took the UCLA money, would we/could we pay someone new to stay on the same level? And what names are on that list when you’re hiring a week after everyone else? The Vols benefited from excellent timing to get Rick Barnes. Before that, this program bought from the mid-major aisle, and the coaches from Buffalo, Nevada, and Wofford were already gone.
It felt like we would come only so close in basketball, but no closer. A somewhat self-imposed ceiling on basketball at a football school.
Still, it didn’t surprise me that Barnes stayed. I’ve never met the man, but Tennessee just seems like such a better fit than UCLA for him right now.
What absolutely surprises and delights me: he didn’t just stay because his assistants got raises. Jimmy Hyams reports his salary will exceed $4.5 million a year.
Tennessee paid UCLA money. In basketball.
For the moment, Tennessee has the third-highest paid coach in college basketball. That’s not a happy-to-be-here Top 25 program. That’s a real-life commitment to the championship conversation.
I know several of the guys now ranked 4-10 on that list – Tom Izzo, Roy Williams, Bill Self, Jay Wright, and now Tony Bennett – have championship resumes. I’d imagine Rick Barnes just got a couple of those dudes paid. Good for them. To me, the primary takeaway isn’t whether Barnes is worth $3.25 million or $4.5 (or $5 at UCLA). It’s the good news that Tennessee was committed enough to basketball to pay the latter.
Barnes’ return is obviously a short-term win for Tennessee. It keeps Josiah James in the fold for sure; Jordan Bone and Grant Williams are testing the NBA waters and the Vols are a No. 6 seed in ESPN’s initial 2020 Bracketology. It returns the sense of stability we lost for a very long 24 hours.
But long-term? The Vols anted up at the big table. It’s outstanding news for the program’s future whenever Barnes decides to retire (hopefully with football risen from the ashes by then to create even more revenue). Last week there was as much reason to believe in Tennessee basketball than at any point in my lifetime. This week there’s more.