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Legendary College Hoops Coach Shares Unique Philosophy

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Tennessee Volunteers head coach, Rick Barnes, is a finalist for the NCAA basketball Hall of Fame. In his nearly 50 years as a coach, Barnes has led his teams to eight Sweet Sixteens, three Elite Eights, a Final Four, and in 2019 was named national coach of the year. His love for the game began in the small town of Hickory, North Carolina.

“I remember walking in the Kenworth Elementary School gym one day,” said Barnes, “and all I had on was a pair of cut off shorts, I was barefooted, didn't have a shirt on, and the superintendent, he tossed a ball and said, ‘Shoot it.’ And I know that's the first time I ever shot a basketball. But as I really got to the 8th grade is when I just forgot about all the other sports and started concentrating on basketball.”

Will Dawson: "What made you want to get into coaching?"

Rick Barnes: "It started with those teachers in the 8th grade because they were all coaches. And I knew at that point in time I wanted to do what they did. I wanted to be able to impact young people. But those are the real reasons I think that God led me into coaching."

God was important to Barnes. As a teenager, he made a profession of faith. “Ninth, tenth grade, I listened to a Billy Graham crusade. And I remember vividly getting on my knees in front of the TV and asking Jesus to truly become a part of my life,” recalled Barnes.

Barnes coached at George Mason, Providence, and Clemson. Then in 1998 he became the head coach of the Texas Longhorns. In 2003, he led the team to their first Final Four in nearly 60 years. Professionally he was on top. Personally, his relationships had become strained. “Pride, jealousy, coveting, you name it. I wasn't the husband I should be. I wasn't the father I should be, the coach I should be, because I started making it about me.”

In 2006, his teenage daughter and son gave him some tough love. “She said, 'If you die today, you would go to hell.' And I got upset and left and got in my car, drove up to the top of the hill, pulled over to the side of the road and start crying. When I looked at my daughter and the way she said it to me in a really loving way, she just said, ‘We want you to spend eternity with us. And today you wouldn't.’ And she was right.”

“I look back on it now, knowing that even during those times that maybe when things were going well in life, in terms of maybe winning basketball games, or success, or making money or whatever it may be, even at the low times when I knew deep down inside there was something empty that I was missing. And what made me chase the wrong things, I can't tell you other than the fact that it was selfish, all self-induced. I know that God had me. That’s what I had gotten away from. I had lost my personal daily personal relationship with Him. But when He has been at the center of my life, that's when I've been my most happiest. That's when I know that I'm most secure. That's when I know that that He has never left me.”

Texas experienced unprecedented success in seventeen seasons under coach Barnes. However, in 2015 he was fired after failing to reach the second round of the NCAA tournament. Turns out it was a blessing in disguise because that same year, he became the head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers.

“I wanted them to say there's something different about coach. I wanted them to say that not that he's gotten softer as a coach, but you know, what is it that's different? I wanted them to ask me that question. I want it to be the fact that Jesus Christ is the center of my life. And so I wanted our program to be a model program in terms of truly not making the mistakes that I had made in previous jobs. I want it to be a place where it was truly like a family.”

As the NCAA tournament tips off this week, coach Barnes has a top-ranked Tennessee program with dreams of winning it all. However, he’s coaching knowing that whatever happens, God is still in control.

Will Dawson: "You've had some good teams over the years and at Tennessee just haven't been able to get to the Final Four. This year, it seems like maybe you're built that way. You've got a defensive mentality and you've got a scorer like Dalton Knecht. What would it mean for you to get this program to the Final Four?"

Rick Barnes: "This is a special place. It really is. But the fact is, being able to be the last team standing would be a...just a...I guess you could say a dream come true or be a culmination of a lot of hard work. But that's what we're chasing like every team in the country. And if it's God's will, hopefully, I mean, I would love to see it happen."


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Will Dawson is a Senior Producer for The 700 Club.