The Tennessee Volunteers men’s basketball program was in a bad place in March of 2015.
After reaching heights that were never seen before just a few years prior, the Vols were on the hunt for their fourth head coach in six years - and third in as many years - after Donnie Tyndall was fired due to misconduct during his time as head coach at Southern Mississippi.
Tennessee was fresh off a 16-16 season. There were flashes of promise during Tyndall’s tenure, but instead the program was once again left in the dark at year’s end.
Prior to Tyndall’s arrival, Bruce Pearl had been fired in 2011 for lying to NCAA investigators. Tyndall’s predecessor, Cuonzo Martin, bolted the program after leading it to its first NCAA tournament appearance since Pearl’s tenure.
Now, it was Tyndall cracking eggs over Tennessee’s face.
Former athletic director Dave Hart knew he had to act fast. If he didn’t find a good hire quickly, then the Vols were as good as dead when it came to reviving the product on the hardwood.
Tennessee was about to lose nine players from their 14-man roster heading into 2015. The remnants of the roster were made up of a few seniors and mainly rotational players.
Tradition was never really around Thompson-Boling Arena outside of the Pearl era. It was going to be a tough sell to get a good head coach to come to Knoxville.
In an odd stroke of luck that is usually not seen around Rocky Top, the Vols were able to find their guy just six days after firing Tyndall.
That man is/was current head coach Rick Barnes.
The first couple of years were rough. The team went 31-35, but as previously mentioned, the cupboard was bare when Barnes first arrived.
He was able to fill the empty spots with a ton of talented freshman whom he would later develop into bona-fide basketball players. You may have heard of a few them: Lamonte Turner, Admiral Schofield, Kyle Alexander were all recruited to Tennessee in 2015. Grant Williams, Jordan Bone, and Jordan Bowden followed soon after in 2016.
What’s even more impressive is the fact that his 2015 class was ranked 60th in the country. The trio of Turner, Schofield, and Alexander were all rated as three-star prospects. The same goes with Williams, Bone, and Bowden.
Now, the Vols are the No. 3 team in the country and several of the aforementioned kids have a legit shot to make it to the NBA.
Barnes was able to build the foundation he wanted with the players he wanted and he made it work. The funniest part about all of this is the fact that it may have never happened without Tyndall’s past transgressions and Tennessee’s poor decision to hire him.
Tyndall’s first season was nothing spectacular, but it was solid. According to Hart, Tennessee did their “due diligence” and “thoroughly vetted” Tyndall before he made the decision to hire him. No one really had a reason to suspect any wrongdoing at Southern Miss. With all of this at play, there is no reason to think that Tyndall would have been fired after year one.
And considering the fact that Barnes was hired just two days after Texas forced him to resign, there’s even less reason to think that he would’ve still been around after Tyndall’s eventual departure.
It’s scary to think about where the men’s basketball program would be right now without Barnes.
I’d bet the house that they wouldn’t be the defending SEC champs. I’d then double down and bet my mother’s house that they wouldn’t be coming off a win over the No. 1 ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs.
For a school that was once carried by the football program, Barnes and the men’s basketball team are a wonderful change of scenery - as well as a great escape - from the current doldrums that surround just about every facet (except women’s softball and volleyball) of UT sports right now.
But instead, it’s the Rick Barnes show and we are all better for it in the end.
Thank you, Donnie Tyndall.