The year was 1977, and Barnes had just realized his dream. A student at Lenoir-Rhyne, the first-year Tennessee head basketball coach was on his way to becoming a P.E. teacher — he was never going to be able to sit still in a cramped classroom all day, he recalls — when he was invited by a friend to attend a day at the ACC Tournament with his now-wife.
The mystique of college basketball enveloped him. That was when he knew.
“When we walked out of the building that day, I said to her, ‘I would like to do this,’” Barnes said. “I would like to be a college coach.’”
With a heart filled with motivation and a mind swarming with possibilities, he sat down to write as many letters as possible to colleges across the country, politely asking if they had a graduate assistant spot open he could apply for.
Well, maybe saying Barnes wrote the letters is a bit of a stretch He dictated the letters to the woman who he claims earned two degrees in college — hers and his.
“I got out the addresses and started writing them,” Barnes told a packed Big Orange TipOff Club crowd April 29. “(My wife) wrote the letters for me.”
In the pile of return mail he received, the letter from Tennessee informing Barnes there was no opening in Knoxville still remains.
“I saved them all,” Barnes said softly, his piercing blue eyes purposefully scanning the room.
It’s a gaze that screams of renewed impetus, one that no doubt scanned over the letters that poured in declining him the opportunity to begin his dream.
Barnes was finally able to break through in the college coaching world when the same friend who took him to the ACC Tournament helped get him an interview with former Davidson head coach and current UNC Wilmington assistant Eddie Biedenbach.
“I was supposed to be there at seven in the morning and he didn’t show up until seven that night. I stayed there the whole time,” Barnes recalled. “I realized sometimes, when you outwait people, they’ll feel guilty.”
Biedenbach let Barnes volunteer at Davidson while working at a lumberyard and Equifax Services. He even got an interview to be an assistant coach at Duke later on, but Mike Krrzyzewski went in another direction.
The arduous path he traveled down that led him to a podium on the top floor of Calhoun’s on the Tennessee River was almost interminable. Barnes stopped in many places, from Ohio State to Alabama, before eventually ending up at Providence for his first ever head coaching gig. Providence turned into a return to his beloved ACC at Clemson, which then morphed into an opportunity to revive the basketball program at the behemoth known as Texas.
It was then, after 17 years and 17 NCAA Tournament appearances, he was told he wasn’t good enough to continue. At his farewell press conference, Barnes revealed Texas athletic director Steve Patterson told him he would be back for another season but “some things change.”
Indeed they do.
So now Barnes is in Knoxville, hoping to bring some consistency to a program that has experienced exactly zero of it since Bruce Pearl was fired after being charged with NCAA violations in 2011. Since that time, Tennessee has had more head coaches than tourney appearances.
Barnes is out to make sure he’s the last guy to stroll the court for the Vols for a long time. His ouster at Texas seems to have reinvigorated the 61-year-old, because this time the rejection letter came in the form of a pink slip.
Barnes never said why he kept the letters. It could have been for motivation to keep going. He could have just filed them away to toss in the trash later and never did.
Whatever the reason, they still remain with him — tangible evidence of the roadblocks which pelted the beginning of this coaching dream.
But that gaze, the one that cut through his twang-laden, sermon-like speech that day with a reserved desire waiting to burst out, it remains the same.
Because Rick Barnes isn’t in the business of collecting letters anymore.