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Why Leave? Barnes Realized Clemson's Limitations

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

September 17, 1999 CLEMSON - With the Clemson basketball program in disarray and sinking fast, Rick Barnes decided to switch instead of fight. He switched to a program at Texas that was, in several ways at least, in just as much trouble as the one at Clemson.

    Barnes joined the Longhorns for a minimal pay raise, approximately $7,000 annually. It cost him - through Texas, of course - $100,000 to buy out the six years remaining on his Clemson contract.
    Figure that out? There's no figuring to be done. The simple fact is that when a comparable job became available, Barnes was ready to leave Clemson.
    "People are wrong if they think Rick had a problem with the university, or the administration, or (athletic director) Bobby Robinson, or his players, or the fans," one Clemson source

said. "He liked a lot of things about Clemson, and he enjoyed his four years there.

"But he also realized that there are limits to the Clemson job. He got tired of hearing recruits tell him they liked everything about his program except the fact that they'd have to live four years of their life in Clemson, S.C. He was mad when recruits committed to him and then signed with the so-called basketball schools. "When he looked at the big picture, he saw negatives at Clemson that he didn't see other places - negatives that weren't going to change. He was ready to give it another year or two (at Clemson), or even more. But when an opportunity like the Texas job popped up, he was ready to give it serious consideration." On April 13, Barnes was named the head coach at Texas, replacing the popular Tom Penders, who was fired after four players on the team complained to UT athletic director DeLoss Dodds about the treatment they had received from Penders.

Bulletin to the remaining Texas players: You ain't seen nothin' yet. Barnes' coaching style will make Penders look like a summer-camp coach. Friction will occur, and sparks are sure to fly. You will especially love Barnes after he makes you get up and run at 5:30 a.m. after one of you is 15 seconds late for a meeting, or when he screams at you in practice until you can't take it anymore. On his first day in Austin, Barnes laid down the law: no hats inside, no facial hair, no earphones, breakfast at 7:30 a.m. every day. Rest assured, the Longhorn players eventually will learn the true definition of verbal abuse.

The situation between Barnes and Texas developed rapidly. He met with Texas officials in Atlanta on Thursday, April 9, and in Dallas on Friday, April 10. Sources said Dodds was impressed with Barnes' no-nonsense style and his constant talk of defense. Then Barnes had to wait 24 hours and hope Dodds wasn't able to work out massive financial arrangements with Utah's Rick Majerus, the No. 1 choice to replace Penders. Majerus, the hottest coach in the business, was out of Texas' price range, but he remained a candidate for the Texas job because he is affiliated with shoemaker Reebok. Reebok also has the Texas contract, and Dodds was hoping to rearrange the basketball contract and shoe money to put together a deal that would attract Majerus. The Texas fans wanted Majerus, but they didn't get him and there was disappointment all around Austin. Some Longhorn fans believed Barnes was the second coming of Penders, but that was off the mark.

Under Penders, Texas was known as the Runnin' Horns. The Horns played games with scores in the 90s. Barnes prefers to keep it in the 60s and 70s. Unless he can land more talented players than he brought to Clemson, his grunt-and-grind style of basketball may not be popular with the Texas faithful. "He'll change his style as he gets more athletic, skilled players," the Clemson source said. "But his focus will remain defense, and that's one of the main reasons he got the job. (The defensive focus) may not be a fan favorite, but it impressed the hell out of DeLoss Dodds." There were rumors Sunday afternoon that Barnes was getting cold feet and was ready to pull out and stay at Clemson because he didn't want to be considered anything but the first choice. There was even word that he had told Clemson Sunday morning that he was staying. "Not true," another Clemson source said. "About 90 percent of the rumors I've heard about this whole thing simply aren't true. "It was a tough time for Rick, but it was a decision he knew he had to make, and he was ready to make it even if it hurt a little bit."

By late Sunday afternoon, Barnes had summoned his entire staff for a meeting and met with the remaining members of the team. After what was described as a "very emotional" team meeting, Barnes and his staff went to the airport and boarded a private plane to Austin for a Monday press conference.

Former Virginia assistant Ricky Stokes, who just joined the Clemson staff the first week of April, will go to Austin with Barnes. Barnes even took Todd Wright, the strength coach he "kidnapped" from the Clemson football weight room four years ago, to Austin.

Barnes left Clemson without comment. He did keep Clemson athletic director Bobby Robinson informed on the Texas talks, and the two men did meet before Barnes left. Robinson said Barnes never asked for more money.

What could Barnes say to the Clemson faithful? Many of those in orange felt betrayed by someone they expected to be around for at least another six years.

Undoubtedly, Barnes continued his method of operation of not staying in any one place for a lengthy period of time. This is a coach who, so far, hasn't put down roots. "It's Clemson's own fault if they thought Rick Barnes was going to stay there for life," one ACC assistant coach said. "It's right there in his track record. He gives you more than an honest day's work - anyone who suggests he didn't pour his heart into that Clemson job doesn't know what he's talking about - but he's also the kind of guy who always has one eye on the big picture. "If you hire someone like Rick Pitino, you know it's temporary; he had big-money aspirations, wanted to climb the career ladder. If you hire someone like Dave Odom - a little older, less focused on money and publicity - you have a chance of keeping him forever. "The bottom line: Rick Barnes is a lot more like Pitino than he's like Odom, and Clemson should have known that from the very beginning." A year ago, Barnes hired an agent to shop him around, and he is continuing his pursuit of his ultimate goal - coaching in the NBA. The fact that there are three NBA teams in Texas was reportedly a major factor for Barnes. He has told close friends he wants to coach in the NBA for five or six seasons, then move on to something else. During his first press conference at Texas, Barnes talked about it being the right place and a great place to raise a family. It was essentially the same speech he used when he took the Clemson job.

He even took a shot at the public-school system in Pickens County, saying the schools in Austin were better for his two children than the schools in Clemson. (He later apologized.) Needless to say, criticizing the public schools in South Carolina was not well-received.

"I'd be glad to sit down with coach Barnes and get some advice from him on education if he'll take some advice on free throw shooting," said David Beasley, a Clemson graduate and the governor of South Carolina, in an interview with the Associated Press. The facts showed a Barnes smokescreen. The average SAT score in Pickens County, S.C., is 1,022; the average in Travis County, Texas, is 1,025.

After the public-school comment was published, Larry Abernathy, the mayor of Clemson, called a local radio show to assure his citizens that it didn't matter what Barnes thought about the quality of life in Clemson. So, why did Barnes want out of Clemson like it was on fire? He had six years remaining on a contract that was going to pay him nearly $700,000 next season, he had several experienced players returning, and the fans still respected him for the job he had done for the Tigers.

Why leave?

Barnes left because he saw the dark storm clouds coming. In his mind, he had taken the Tigers as far as he could take them. He decided to get out while he still could. A bad year on his resume would have taken him off the list of "hot" coaches and severely damaged his market value.

"Was he looking out for his own long-term future? Absolutely," the ACC assistant said. "It kills me to hear the fans talk about how selfish the coach is when he leaves. The same thing happened to Mack Brown when he left UNC.

"Coaches don't have any more or any less loyalty to colleges than colleges have to coaches. In most cases, both sides try to be fair. But they also look out for their own self-interests. This is a business, and that's the way things work in the business world. "I think (the criticism) is hypocritical. How many of those same critics of Rick Barnes or Mack Brown refuse to leave their own jobs when they have an opportunity at something that might look a little bit better?"

Although the Clemson basketball job does have some inherent limitations - big-city recruits usually are turned off by the campus setting - Barnes also had himself to blame for the state of the program. His last two recruiting classes were failures. When he couldn't generate high-level success, frustration took over. Barnes tried to change things at Clemson, and the school administration spent a lot of money on him and his program. But just like every Clemson coach before him, he hit the wall.

Tates Locke made the Tigers hard-nosed and competitive. Bill Foster got Clemson to the Elite Eight. Cliff Ellis won an ACC regular-season title. Barnes took Clemson to three straight NCAA Tournaments.

But none of the four was able to get the big-time players or sustain a big-time program at Clemson.

The best thing Barnes did for Clemson was change the mentality of the Clemson team and its fans. The Tigers finally lost their fear of the rest of the ACC.

Barnes' first three years at Clemson were a storybook; low expectations were greatly exceeded. His final season with the Tigers was a horror show; expectations were way out of whack. An overconfident team that started the year ranked in the top five struggled for the entire season. The Tigers lost nine games by five points or less. Nerves were frayed and raw. Inconsistent play and numerous frustrating losses created a dark mood in the Clemson locker room.

Through it all, Barnes rarely placed the blame for losses on himself. His ego just wouldn't allow it. He almost always blamed the players. His first line after most games was: "I told the players it was going to be this kind of game." He refused to give the players a break. The players worked 50 weeks a year, and the practices during the season were physically and mentally exhausting.

When the 1997-98 season ended with a disappointing 77-72 loss to Western Michigan in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Barnes' program at Clemson started falling apart: Rising seniors Tony Christie and Iker Iturbe announced they were leaving the program. Christie said he was transferring, while Iturbe said he was returning home to Spain to play professional basketball. (After Barnes' departure, both reconsidered their decisions.) Associate head coach Dennis Felton left to take the head job at Western Kentucky. He took assistant coach Ken McDonald with him. Barnes' recruiting class disappeared. Guard Todd Tackett of Paintsville, Ky., a solid commitment since last fall, signed with Kentucky instead of Clemson. Earlier, Brandon Dean of Louisiana backed off a commitment; he later signed with Arkansas. The other two point guards Barnes really wanted - Steve Francis and Kevin Braswell - signed with other schools. Barnes was preparing to comb junior colleges for players before he took the Texas job. Three scholarships remain open. Barnes was tired of butting heads with Duke, North Carolina and the rest of the ACC. Under Barnes, the Tigers were competitive against the ACC's best two programs, but they also were losers most of the time (5-15). In the Big 12, there is only one high-profile program: Kansas. Even though the Texas team has some problems, Barnes does have the ability to make the Longhorns a challenger in the weak Big 12 in a short period of time.

Some say Barnes may not be the coaching magician he's often made out to be. In six years at Providence, he had a losing conference record in the Big East. In four years at Clemson, he had a losing conference record in the ACC. But Barnes will be remembered around the ACC as the coach who finally stood up to North Carolina's Dean Smith. It was a move that got him reprimands from the ACC office and hugs from little old ladies at Wake Forest and N.C. State. Barnes showed a lot of fight and intensity that fateful night in Greensboro, when he went nose to nose with Smith. That attitude rubbed off on his players, who were as tough and aggressive as any group in the nation.

But when it came time to really fight and pull the Clemson program out of its latest nosedive, Barnes took a pass.

    Left behind were a lot of pleasant memories, but they were clouded by visions of what might have been.