Dan Fleser: UT Barely Avoided Anguish Of Another Sudden Coaching Departure

Thursday, April 18, 2019 - by Dan Fleser

Remember the night Lane Kiffin announced that he was leaving Tennessee after one season as its football coach to become the head coach at Southern California?

You probably couldn’t forget Jan. 12, 2010, if you lived through it here, especially if you were a member of the media. I was on the periphery of the announcement. Yet I still hurried downtown to the office of the Knoxville News Sentinel to help produce and edit copy.

What. A. Night. Angry students filling the streets and setting a mattress on fire.

All of the madness made sense – in an SEC football context anyway. Fans will be fans. What also made sense, at least to me, was Kiffin’s decision. Regardless of the timing or circumstances involved, Southern Cal was his dream job.

I’m surprised that I didn’t of think of that wild night at some point during the calm daylight hours of April 8, when Tennessee’s Rick Barnes was deciding whether to accept UCLA’s offer to be its men’s basketball coach. The uncertainty continued into another potentially fateful night until news broke that he was staying at Tennessee, where he has built an elite program in four short years.

The memory eventually came to mind during a press conference on Tuesday that provided more context and background regarding Barnes’ decision to spurn the Bruins’ offer. As he detailed his affinity for UCLA and its storied past, it was apparent that the opportunity had a dream-like appeal for him. Barnes has photos of himself at the home of former UCLA coaching legend John Wooden and photos of him sitting in restaurants with Wooden.

UT barely avoided the anguish of another sudden coaching departure. In this case, the loss would’ve been far greater, given Barnes’ experience and track record. He was named the national coach of the year by two different organizations this year. New assistant coach Kim English, who was introduced on Tuesday, spoke of Barnes in terms of being “mammoth.”   

Fans ought to be relieved. Yet some of them apparently have been rankled by Barnes’ honesty. In a stunning moment of candor, he admitted on Tuesday that he likely would’ve taken the UCLA job had they been able to work out the terms of his buyout at Tennessee.

Anyone hurt or disillusioned by how this played out ought to consider what Barnes said to his players in their first meeting after the drama subsided.

“The first thing I said was ‘When you win, opportunities come,’ ‘’ Barnes said, “That is the truth.”
He then recounted that winning played a part in Vols associate head coach Rob Lanier leaving to become the head coach at Georgia State and forward Grant Williams being considered for national awards.

“All of those are a by-product of winning,” Barnes said. “I had an opportunity to interview with UCLA.”

Because of that interview, he’s agreed to terms on a new contract with Tennessee, complete with a pay raise. That’s another by-product of winning.

A fan who’s disillusioned by all of this might grumble that Barnes better keep winning.

Chances of that are better with him than anyone else.   

* * *

Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri who covered University of Tennessee athletics for the Knoxville News Sentinel from 1988-2019. He can be reached at danfleser3@gmail.com 


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