One of the immediate questions to emerge from reports Rick Barnes was a finalist for the UCLA job was “Why would Rick Barnes want to take over UCLA?”. It’s a fair question. Barnes at his age isn’t in a position to likely reap the fruit of another rebuilding project. His ethos seems more Knoxville, Tennessee than Los Angeles, California. He’s close to his hometown of Hickory, North Carolina, and any compensation UCLA offered would have a difficult time exceeding Tennessee’s package when accounting for tax structure and cost-of-living.
This led to immediate speculation that maybe things were not as well as they seemed in the Tennessee Athletics Department. Compounded with some recent eyebrow raising remarks from Admiral Schofield, the departure of top Assistant Rob Lanier, and Jordan Bone’s almost eminent entry into the NBA draft, it seems fair to ask what issues there might be behind the scenes.
Most speculation has related to the departure of Lanier. While Rick Barnes takes a no-drama approach to his job, he has been very insistent on ensuring his assistant coaches receive the compensation he feels they deserve. He was most notably reported for a very minor NCAA infraction two years ago for paying Assistant Desmond Oliver out-of-pocket because he felt that he wasn’t compensated adequately by then-AD Dave Hart. While that was one issue John Currie actually fixed, the issue of Assistant pay may have came up again with Lanier creating vacancy. Rumors have also floated that there will be at least one more vacancy on the assistant staff before the off-season ends.
If Barnes felt that his Assistant pool wasn’t what he needed to build the staff he sought, it would be the most Rick Barnes reason ever to engage with another position. He is clearly very loyal to those around him, and understands the importance of a deep staff. Beyond this, there have also been reports that he felt the Athletics Department did not respect the Mens Basketball program enough. If this is true, that is a massive error by the Athletics Department. The Mens Basketball program has been one of the few bright spots at Tennessee the past two years. This past season produced one of the best Mens Basketball teams in program history. If the Administration did not appreciate that, they have no one to blame but themselves.
Ultimately, it sounds like Barnes will not make his decision based on money. While UCLA is in disarray, it certainly still has appeal. While Tennessee is a good job, UCLA has a history, prestige, resources, and recruiting advantages that the Volunteers simply cannot compete with. While Phillip Fulmer should still offer Barnes a raise, a larger Assistant pool, and anything else he believes will keep him in Knoxville, it will be a major setback for him if Barnes leaves. Fulmer has placed a very large bet in his efforts and resources on Jeremy Pruitt and a very young Football team that will take a long team to reach the upper echelon of the sport. If the Volunteers do not substantially improve from 5-7 this season and it turns out that Barnes feeling that what may have been the best Men’s Basketball team in school history was short-changed leads him to walk, Fulmer will feel the heat this time next year. While Fulmer has contributed to Tennessee Athletics in a way very few living people have, he will rightfully have to answer for these issues should Barnes decide to step away.