COLUMBUS, Ohio — Rick Barnes was feeling sick. It wasn’t because 15th-seeded Colgate had just taken a 52-50 lead on his second-seeded Tennessee team Friday afternoon in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
It wasn’t even the building noise in Nationwide Arena as the crowd of 19,641 began to smell one of those monumental upsets that makes the tournament unique.
It was the cough.
“Had it all winter,” he said. “I’ve been on different meds, but I can’t kick it. I’ve had trouble sleeping at night. Once the season’s over, I guess I’ll have to go get it checked out.”
Barnes’s season didn’t end Friday, and he hopes it won’t end for a while. As his players came to the bench after Colgate had taken the lead with less than 12 minutes to play, Barnes looked as if he was about to order a latte. His face betrayed no emotion, and he didn’t raise his voice during the timeout.
“I just told them they had to make plays,” he said a few minutes after the Volunteers survived, 77-70. “Not spectacular plays, just the kind of plays they’d been making all season. . . . I knew I couldn’t afford to be anxious or uptight at that moment. I’ve learned you can’t do that. If I was, they’d feel it and it would make it worse.”
Barnes, who will turn 65 this summer, didn’t say it, but his message was clear: This is not my first rodeo. This is Barnes’s 32nd season as a head coach. The only one of the five schools he has coached that didn’t make the NCAA tournament is George Mason, where he went 20-10 in 1987-88, his only season in Fairfax County. Since then he has taken Providence to the tournament three times, Clemson three times, Texas 16 times and Tennessee twice. That’s 24 trips in 32 years.
There are those who talk about his March problem. At Texas he made it to at least the Sweet 16 on five occasions, the Elite Eight twice and the Final Four in 2003. A year ago, after taking Tennessee to a share of the SEC regular season title, Barnes had to live through being an unwanted part of the Loyola Chicago-Sister Jean miracle, losing, 63-62, to the Ramblers in the second round.
Most of the players from that team came back this season, and the Vols had a run at the top of the polls midway through the season before finishing 29-5 and earning a No. 2 seed.
Barnes isn’t accustomed to the role his team was in Friday — a heavy favorite.
“I’m not comfortable with it,” he admitted. “I’ve always preferred being the underdog. I’ve already pointed out to our guys this week that we’re a No. 2 seed and they planned on us playing Cincinnati in Ohio. They lost, so now we’re playing Iowa [in the second round Sunday]. And where are we? Right in the middle of Big Ten country.”
Barnes is as folksy and funny as anyone in coaching. His son, Nick, has been a missionary in the Middle East for seven years, and Barnes makes a point of ending conversations with friends by saying, “I love you.”
But he has always coached with a chip on his shoulder. He grew up in western North Carolina dreaming of playing in the ACC and ended up at Lenoir-Rhyne. He got his first college coaching job at Davidson because Coach Eddie Biedenbach forgot he had a 9 a.m. appointment with the eager young coach and walked into the un-air-conditioned gym at 7 p.m. on a June day and found Barnes still waiting for him. He hired him on the spot.
Barnes got to Providence in 1988. The Big East then was still the league of John Thompson, Jim Calhoun, Rollie Massimino, Lou Carnesecca and Jim Boeheim.
There was no back-down in Barnes. One afternoon he walked into the office to find assistant coach Fran Fraschilla engaged in a shouting match with Connecticut assistant coach Howie Dickenman over comments being made back and forth to recruits by the two staffs.
Moments after Fraschilla slammed the phone, it rang again. It was Calhoun — for Barnes.
“You better not ever allow one of your assistants to yell at one of my assistants again!” Calhoun roared.
“Tell your assistants to stop negative recruiting!” Barnes roared back.
The two men yelled at one another for several minutes. Finally Barnes said: “Look, Jim, there’s an easy way to resolve this. I’ll just meet you at the state line, and we’ll straighten this out man to man.”
That wasn’t even close to being Barnes’s most famous confrontation with another coach. That came in 1995, when he and Dean Smith had to be held apart during a first-round ACC tournament game.
Barnes had arrived at Clemson with the notion that his team was not going to be treated like a second-class ACC citizen. When Smith began yelling at one of Barnes’s players, Iker Iturbe, because he didn’t like how physically Iturbe was playing, Barnes walked down the bench and began yelling at Smith.
“If you have a problem with one of my players, Dean, you talk to me,” he said.
Smith, never one to back down from a confrontation, met Barnes at midcourt, and the two began yelling and pointing at each other — Smith in his 34th ACC season, Barnes in his first.
A year later, Barnes walked into the Dean Dome for his first appearance in the state since the incident.
John Dubis, assigned to escort visiting coaches to and from the court, sat outside the visitors’ locker room.
“Are you a little nervous about doing this, I mean, walking out there with me?” Barnes asked.
“Not at all, Coach,” Dubis responded.
“Oh, come on; you can tell me,” Barnes said. “These people hate me, don’t they?”
“Yes, Coach, they do,” Dubis reluctantly answered.
“Do they hate me more than they hate Mike Krzyzewski?” Barnes asked.
“No, Coach,” Dubis said. “Not even close.”
Barnes was disappointed.
He was hugely successful at Texas, but a new athletic director decided just making the tournament every year wasn’t enough.
Barnes landed at Tennessee and began doing what he has always done — build. Even so, Barnes is still coaching with a chip on his shoulder.
“When we got to number one [in the polls] this year, I told the players: ‘Look, everyone out there thinks we’re a cute little story, but they aren’t taking us seriously,’ ” he said. “ ‘As soon as we lose, they’ll be back talking about the blue bloods. But it’s okay. We know who we are.’ ”
Tennessee was routed by Kentucky soon after and, sure enough, the word was the Volunteers just weren’t in the same class as the ultimate blue blood. They’ve beaten Kentucky twice since then.
And Friday, with Barnes seemingly about to cough up a lung, they did what they had to do in the final 10 minutes to end the upset dreams of a Colgate team that played superbly to the finish.
“You know what? This is what makes the NCAA tournament the NCAA tournament,” Barnes said when it was over. “I mean it. That team has good players, they’re very well coached, and they came in here believing they could win. I love that; I really do.”
And why not? If anyone can relate to an underdog with a dream, it’s the kid from Lenoir-Rhyne.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.