Commentary -- Safe Bet: Barnes, Ford Staying Put

Casinos are among the many diversions in the Crescent City, but the surest bet you can make if you are Final Four bound is that both head coach <B>Rick Barnes</B> and point guard <B>T.J. Ford </B>will be back at Texas next season.

We’ve got to get used to the fact that, from now on, Barnes’ name is going to surface any time there is a coaching vacancy at a high profile basketball school, particularly when there is a shake-up at a place like North Carolina. Matt Doherty’s resignation after three years in Chapel Hill jump-started the rumor mill of possible successors, including Hickory, N.C. native Barnes.

Barnes told the Associated Press Tuesday that he had "absolutely no desire to think about any other place to coach and live than where I am right now."

Not that he doesn’t deserve to be courted, but Barnes isn’t going to Chapel Hill for a number of reasons.

I spent half of my childhood in Chapel Hill and maintain contacts affiliated with the university. I can tell you there are people in Chapel Hill who look upon Barnes in almost the same way some Orangebloods feel about Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops.

Barnes possesses a bravado that can be misinterpreted as brash. His teams are their best when they go up against storied programs that act as if championship seasons are their birth rite. He didn’t blink in taking it to the Tar Heels his first year with his upstart Clemson Tigers, particularly in his refusal to bow and scrape before the legendary Dean Smith. (How legendary? Just remember Smith already had a building named after him while he was still coaching.) By the time Barnes was being wooed by Texas, it was the Tigers (not the Tar Heels) that were in the Elite Eight. He made Carolina blue about as much as did archrival Duke. Those memories die hard in places like Chapel Hill.

The Tar Heels have a track record of going in-house for their coaching hires. That’s why KansasRoy Williams is at the top of their wish list, just as he was three years ago. Williams was a Smith assistant, while Doherty played on the same Tar Heel team as Michael Jordan.

Barnes respectfully asked sports media Wednesday to ease the feeding frenzy surrounding Williams and his Final Four Jayhawks team.

"I promise you right now that nothing is more important to Roy than the Kansas Jayhawks," Barnes said. "He’s not going to allow those rumors to get in the way of trying to do what they want to do this weekend. He’s not going to let it effect him. What he’s more concerned about is people asking that question to his team. If the truth be known, I’d ask the media to respect that the team not be bothered with that because they’ve worked so hard to get here."

Barnes knows he has finally awakened a sleeping giant at Texas -- not only in terms of his team’s success but fan support. This year’s squad is one year ahead of schedule. All five starters (including Ford) will return next season.

During the South Regional, Ford reiterated his intent to return for his junior year. While Ford said on Senior Day in Austin last month that he was "110 percent" certain he’ll be wearing the Orange and White again next season, Barnes has used a more cautious tone, stating that he and Ford would meet later this spring to evaluate his level of play, assess his options and make a decision that is right for Ford.

If Ford plays for a national champion the same year that he was named Naismith National Player of the Year, what, then, is the impetus to return? In short, love of the collegiate game. Ford expresses a fierce loyalty to his teammates, particularly the group that will be seniors next year (Royal Ivey, James Thomas, Brian Boddicker). The humble Ford also knows he can get better.

The only thing that concerned me during the regular season is whether Longhorn fans would ever embrace basketball to where the Erwin Center would at least sell out a few times each season. Would Barnes get discouraged and take seriously other offers?

The feeling here is not any time soon. The fact that 30,000 Texas fans turned out for UT’s gritty win over Michigan State Sunday was obviously unprecedented and probably hooked a couple thousand for years to come. Junior G Royal Ivey acknowledged that all kinds of folks are now jumping on the UT bandwagon, but that it was welcomed. Barnes is creating a monster at Texas. This is just the beginning. He would also want to understandably see the three-year renovation of Texas basketball facilities (that he initiated) be brought to completion.

Then again, money talks. (Just ask Dennis Franchione.) Texas has had a longstanding, unspoken rule that the basketball coach will never earn more than the football coach. Still, Barnes’ seven-year contract signed last season is untouchable save for a select few in college hoops ($950,000 plus six-figure incentives for advancing in the Tournament). What’s more, AD DeLoss Dodds can open up the UT coffers without flinching and be the lone gun standing when it comes to dueling checkbooks.

So, let Dodds whip out the big bucks and place your money on the sure thing: Barnes and his starting five will be on the Texas sideline next fall.

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