By Jimmy Hyams
How many men’s basketball coaches have turned down blue-blood programs UCLA and Kentucky?
I know one: Rick Barnes.
In 2007, Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart, a former Tennessee associate athletic director, fired Tubby Smith and set his sights on Barnes.
Barnes had been at Texas nine years, one year removed from a 30-win season, four years removed from a Final Four.
Kentucky had won a national title in 1998 but had been in a nine-year drought from the Final Four.
The guy pegged to resurrect the program: Barnes.
But Barnes said no. He had fallen in love with Texas, with his athletic director DeLoss Dodds, with football coach Mack Brown, with baseball coach Augie Garrido, with the community.
Kentucky hired Billie Gillispie, whom it fired after two seasons.
Fast forward a dozen years.
UCLA came calling for Barnes. The Bruins were the most dominant program in college basketball history when Barnes was growing up, winning 10 national titles in 12 years. They added another in 1995.
UCLA indirectly contacted Barnes on Tuesday. Talks heated up later in the week and Barnes on Friday told his athletic director, Phillip Fulmer, about the possibility of going West.
UCLA offered about $5 million a year over five years. Barnes was making $3.25 million at Tennessee with a $100,000 built in annual raise.
“It was more than anything about the place,’’ Barnes said Tuesday of UCLA. “It was strictly the lure of growing up knowing what UCLA basketball stood for and the challenge of bringing it back.’’
UCLA’s challenge wasn’t necessarily to win a national championship in a few years or even make the Final Four.
“Just get us a coach we can pull for,’’ was the message UCLA alumni gave athletic director Dan Guerrero.
So UCLA went after Barnes – hard.
Barnes met with Fulmer Sunday night and Monday. The longer negotiations went on, the more likely it appeared Barnes would at Tennessee.
If he were going to UCLA, sources said, he was going to make that decision early afternoon on Monday.
The UCLA deal hit a snag when UCLA wanted to give Barnes a $4 million signing bonus, then have him pay Tennessee the buyout. That would mean Barnes would be taxed about $1.6 million: 40 percent of $4 million.
Despite Barnes calling UCLA “one of the five best jobs in the country,’’ he wasn’t on board with UCLA’s buyout strategy and opted to stay at UT.
“This is a special place,’’ Barnes said of Knoxville.
Barnes said he appreciated the way UT’s administration “treated me and worked with me’’ and gave him the space to make a decision.
After losing four pounds in three days due to anxiety, Barnes felt his best move was not to move.
The UCLA offer came out of nowhere. When Barnes signed his extension last year he said he didn’t request a buyout because “I wasn’t going anywhere.’’
Barnes’ challenge at Tennessee is continued success. His team was ranked No. 1 in the nation for four weeks. It won every home game. It won 19 in a row. It tied a school record with 31 wins. It set a school record with 57 wins in two seasons.
“Can we sustain it and get to another level?’’ Barnes said.
Barnes will try to sustain it this season without seniors Admiral Schofield and Kyle Alexander, and the possibility of losing point guard Jordan Bone and Grant Williams to the NBA.
Bone has already announced he will test the NBA waters.
Williams likely will do the same thing.
Barnes said that’s part of doing business.
“Every year, in college basketball, if you’re any good, you have to remake your roster,’’ Barnes said.
The terms of Barnes’ deal haven’t been make public but a source said it would likely exceed $4.5 million a year and be guaranteed over five or six years.
“Your team goal every year is to be the best team you can be and if you recruit well enough, you’ll have a chance to win a national championship,’’ said Barnes.
That from a coach who has turned down Kentucky and UCLA.
That from a coach whose return to Tennessee was the best news for the Vol Nation since 1997 – when Peyton Manning bypassed the NFL to play his senior season at Neyland Stadium.