When a coach gets fired, particularly a man you personally admire, it's like a death in the family. That's how I felt as the inevitable day approached for Rod Barnes.
It was obvious he couldn't survive a season such as the Rebels have had in 2006. There was no way Athletic Director Pete Boone could overlook that many losses, the margins of some of them and the decline in attendance. There were nights when many of the state's bigger high schools outdrew Ole Miss and that should never happen to an SEC team. So Pete did what he had to do. To me he had no choice.
But anyway you look at it, Barnes is a fine, decent man, someone I admire. He loves the game of basketball and the kids who play for him. If someone asked me would I advise him to have his son play for Rod I would have told him "yes" without hesitation.
That's the problem in these days when wins or losses count more than character and respect. It really isn't something new. One of the finest men I have ever known in my years with the Rebels was Steve Sloan. He treated his players as if he was father to them all. Before a game he would put his arms over the shoulders of key players, tell them how much the team needed them to play up to their full ability, that he was counting on them and so was every Ole Miss Rebel fan in the state.
The wins and losses during his career at Ole Miss will tell you he was a terrible coach. If that was the only measuring stick he was indeed a bad coach. But his big mistake was simply he trusted his players and they let him down. He tried to lead, not drive and it didn't work.
I think Bob Weltlich was the best basketball coach we've ever had. Along with his ability to teach the game, he was a strict disciplinarian and the result was he turned around a program that had never known what it was like to win.
We all got the message his first year when we played in a tournament in Toledo, Ohio. The Rebels won their first game and were scheduled to play in the championship game the next night. Weltlich told the players to be in the lobby of the hotel at a specific time the following day in order to leave for the arena.
John Billups was our best player and leading scorer. When the time came to leave the hotel Billups was nowhere to be found. The manager came to Coach Weltlich and asked him what should he do. The answer was short and to the point. "Leave him," Weltlich said.
And so we did. Left our best player behind in the interest of getting the team's attention. Billups took a cab to the game and came in the locker room borrowing money from his teammates to pay for the ride. Weltlich wouldn't give him a dime. Billups sat on the bench the entire first half as the Rebels fell 17 points behind. Finally coach put him in to start the second half and the kid was on fire. He scored 19 and we won the game 67-64.
In 1981's SEC Tournament our star player, the great Elston Turner, was dogging it. Broadcasting from the table next to the Ole Miss bench I heard Weltlich substitute for Elston, far and away the best player on the team. This was not the rinky-dinky opening game. This was the championship game, something the Rebels had never won, before or since.
"When you're ready to play the way you did to get us here I'll put you back in and not before," coach told Elston.
Elston twisted and turned, watching Weltlich out of the corner of his eye. Finally he could stand it no longer. "I'm ready coach," he said. Back out he went and as every Ole Miss fan knows the Rebels beat Georgia that night 66-62 for the SEC Tournament championship and a trip to the NCAA.
I don't mean this in a disrespectful manner but there are a lot of coaches who wouldn't have done that. Would Rod Barnes? I simply don't know but I do know a coach has to get his team's attention and respect and that's what Weltlich did.
I remember when Rod came to Ole Miss. We used to kid about the Joe Tex song "Skinny Legs." Rod's legs looked like two pipe stems with a man stuck on the end of them. Joe Tex could have been singing to him.
But he could play the game and he never gave less than 100 percent any time he was on the floor. After he graduated I would see him over at Livingston University, now the University of West Alabama, where he was assistant coach and administrative Assistant to the Director of Athletics. That was 1990 to 1993. His brother was a player for the school. I was covering the school's games for The Meridian Star at the time. We talked often. When Ole Miss hired Rod in 1993 I couldn't have been happier and when he got the head coach job in 1998 I was pleased.
What eventually did him in? Recruiting, plain and simple. Ole Miss is known as a football school. When I would read the biographies of some of the great young high school players around the state virtually none of them would say the were considering Ole Miss. Mississippi State—frequently. Alabama—of course. LSU, Tennessee, Florida and many others. Sure. But not Ole Miss. This year's team is the perfect—and saddest—example. There is not one single Mississippi player on the squad. Unbelievable, but true. Mississippi State has four, plus an Alabama kid who played Junior College basketball at Meridian.
Rod Barnes never cheated, never tried to buy a player. His young men went to class and they graduated. He kept them out of trouble. He did every thing a fine coach is expected to do except one.
He didn't win.
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