He came in smiling, as usual, dropping a hello here and a what's up there, with a handshake or two. Things looked the same, looked normal, though they weren't.
Rod Barnes entered the Bonnie Lee "Country" Graham Media Room on Monday afternoon for what was probably his last press conference inside the friendly confines of the enclosed underneaths of C.M. "Tad" Smith Coliseum. A world away from the glory and success his program had attained in its first four years; no more than a possible handful of games, but only one loss, away from ending what started as a storybook ride eight years ago.
Make that 20-plus years ago. This goes back to Bentonia High in Yazoo County and a younger Rod Barnes who came to Ole Miss in the fall of 1984 as a player for Coach Lee Hunt's program.
So Monday he kept on smiling and as always thanking God for his opportunity to coach the game of basketball and for the kids he has responsibility for, both now and in the past.
I don't know if every coach would have showed up for this one Monday. Released Friday as head coach at the school he played for and graduated from, maybe that was the reason. Maybe he was there because of Ole Miss. Maybe it's because visiting with us is still part of his job. Maybe it's because of his character that he is playing this thing out as though he has the job again next season.
But he was there. So were about six media members, the norm on a Monday in the winter and spring for this weekly event, and three or four by teleconference hookup, including a couple of writers who cover Kentucky, the Rebels' opponent at 2:15 p.m. Thursday in Nashville, Tenn.
I couldn't help but think for a week or so that Rod will likely wind it all up as head coach of the Rebels in the same building where he had one of the real shining moments for his program and for Ole Miss men's basketball ever. In 2001, with thrilling wins over Tennessee and Florida, the Rebels made the finals of the SEC Tournament only to fall in the Sunday finale – to Kentucky.
Irony is with us this week, now five years from that special week and the subsequent run to the Sweet Sixteen just a couple of weeks later.
Did that all really even happen? At this point, it's all a blur and a distant memory, although still a very special one for Ole Miss and its people.
So Monday, Rod tried to tell us his main focus continues to be his kids and the next game. Still coaching as always, but a man that soon won't have a team to coach. At least not at his school.
The questions were as much about him and his situation and the past four or five days as they were about Kentucky, even from the Kentucky writers. It's all such a part of the story now.
So how was your Sunday, Rod was asked? Did it all sink in at that point after the long bus ride back from LSU the night before?
"It was business as usual," he said. "I got up and went to church. After church I spent some time with my family. I talked to our coaches about Kentucky. Like I said, business as usual.
"I've got a job I've got to complete. We're not going to change anything because of that. We'll do the same things. We exchanged tapes and we've done our homework. We watched Kentucky on TV (Sunday), and our coaches are working on that and on Alabama (who meets the winner of UM-UK). We'll practice (Monday) and get back to work. That's it. And when it's over, it's over."
How do you keep the focus off you and the situation with the coaching change and on the game or games at hand, he was asked?
"The challenge is making sure these kids are prepared to play," he said. "That's why I've tried to keep the personal issues of this situation out of the way. I spoke on this in Baton Rouge (after the regular season finale), and I'm speaking about it again today. This is about these kids. This is about our student-athletes. I love our kids. That's what it's about. All this other stuff has to be handled right and all that. But when we go to the floor Thursday, both Tubby (Smith of UK) and I have to have these kids in the right frame of mind to compete and to try to win a game for our universities that we represent.
"Past that, you just can't go there. If you do, then that's when other struggles and problems set in. Since Friday my whole desire and focus has been these kids, making sure they're OK, making sure they do the right things and that they are focused on what we've got to do at hand. And that's it. No surprises and no changes from their leader. Maybe by doing that we were able to go to LSU and give one of our best efforts this season (against the overall SEC champion). We'll try to do the same thing on Thursday."
One of his kids may or may not play Thursday. It's the only one at this point that we know of who might not be with the team. Junior guard Clarence Sanders didn't play at LSU, and Rod said he will decide if Sanders will play this week at some point.
But his players who will play will have to play the game for a lot of reasons. One reporter asked of the Rebel players what it would be like to win four straight games and advance to the NCAA Tournament? Would they be doing that for coach to send him out on a great note?
I wasn't the one who asked that. I know that's not going to happen. Winning four in Nashville this week would be even more miraculous than beating Kentucky in the finals would have been back in '01.
Still it was asked, and the players answered. Of course they said that would be the ideal situation.
"That would be great," said sophomore center Dwayne Curtis. "But we have to win this first one before worrying about that."
It will be Curtis' first time to play against UK this season. In another of those trying twists of fate, that was the game he missed to attend the funeral of his brother.
"I'm happy to get a chance to play them," Curtis said. "I wasn't there for the team. I called everybody before the game and told them to play hard and be tough. I'm looking forward to being a part of the game Thursday."
So they will play on. For Ole Miss. For themselves. For their coach.
"We're going to give it all we've got, like we always do," said junior guard Todd Abernethy. "We're excited. We lost to Kentucky by 40, so we want to make up for that. We played that game without DC. It's a new game, a new season. We want to keep playing as many games as we can."
Todd says he felt the pressure was off the program last Saturday against LSU and he believes it will be this week in Nashville.
"Coach seemed to really enjoy coaching and he seemed to be savoring the time he has left here," the Indianapolis native said. "I think the players had fun too, and we just didn't feel the pressure we have been. And we seemed to play that way."
But the change isn't easy for the players.
"We love Coach, you know," said a reflective Abernethy. "We think he's a great coach and it's a sad time for all of us."
Then Rod Barnes, away from the reporters and their interviews and out on the court getting ready for one of his last practices at Ole Miss, called the troops together, led them down the tunnel ramp, and into the locker room for some film watching.
It all seemed like business as usual. But it wasn't.
It's business as usual for hoops, or is it?
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