The Tennessee Vols will be watching the rest of the NCAA Tournament from home, thanks to a first-round loss to Oregon State on Friday.
Tennessee’s surprising loss to a 12 seed has some folks — myself included — questioning the future of the Vols’ basketball program under Rick Barnes.
Barnes is making a LOT of money to coach Tennessee. He’s one of the highest-paid head coaches in college basketball. Yet in his six seasons as the Vols’ head coach, the furthest his team has advanced in the NCAA Tournament was the Sweet 16 in 2018-19.
Now, that’s not to say that Barnes has done a bad job in Knoxville. The former Texas head coach has brought a level of consistency to UT basketball that’s refreshing. Tennessee is recruiting well and the program is certainly “stable”.
But it seems that Tennessee has hit its ceiling under Barnes.
Barnes isn’t suddenly going to become a head coach that consistently leads teams to Elite Eight and Final Four appearances. He only has one Final Four appearance on his resume in 34 years as a head coach. Expecting Barnes to start achieving that kind of success at Tennessee would be foolish.
So where do the Vols go from here?
I think it’s quite simple. Firing Barnes wouldn’t be smart. While the program isn’t achieving the success that’s expected with a highly paid coach, it’s not like Tennessee is embarrassing itself on the court, either.
Barnes is a good coach. He’s not worth what he’s being paid by the Vols. But he’s a good basketball coach nonetheless. And he’s a good fit at Tennessee.
The smartest thing for the Vols to do with Barnes is to just ride out the final years of his contract.
For one, Tennessee can’t afford to fire Barnes. If they fire him before April 30, 2022, then Barnes would be owed a little over $15 million. The buyout drops significantly after April 2022, to a little over $5 million.
Barnes is under contract at Tennessee through 2024. He will turn 70 just after the conclusion of his contract.
At this point, it’s clear that Barnes doesn’t deserve another raise/extension. But I don’t think firing him is warranted either.
The Vols need to accept what they’re getting under Barnes for the next three years and let him finish his contract. At that point, Barnes could retire from coaching with grace. There would be no ugly separation from Tennessee. And it would allow the foundation of the program to remain strong for whoever takes over after Barnes.
Tennessee certainly should aim higher as a basketball program. But if the Vols fire Barnes, they’d have to gamble on another coach who might end up being not as successful as Barnes. That would be disastrous for the program.
(UT should learn from Texas, who fired Barnes and hired Shaka Smart — a coach that has yet to make it past the first round of the NCAA Tournament as the Longhorns’ head coach.)
The Vols are in a tough spot right now, but so are some of the blueblood programs (like North Carolina, Duke, and Kentucky). Tennessee would be best served to ride out these next three years and reset the program after allowing Barnes to exit on his own terms.
Featured image via USA Today/Randy Sartin