Blinders are not truly part of Rick Barnes’ wardrobe these days, but the University of Tennessee basketball coach brings a fastidious focus to his work atop a Vols’ program that keeps climbing in the national rankings and owns 17 wins at the earliest point in a season in a decade.
So the focus is, understandably, on arguably college basketball’s hottest team – yes, Tennessee – and Barnes’ quest to return to the NCAA Tournament for a 23rd time.
Still, Barnes is comfortable in his own skin and no stranger to coaching hoops at big-time football havens. The Hickory, N.C., coach and third-year Vols’ skipper likes the early returns on new UT coach Jeremy Pruitt and acting athletics director Phillip Fulmer.
“When I met them and they were here, I just spent a little time with them,” Barnes said of Pruitt & Co. “Since I’ve been in Knoxville, I’ve gotten to know Coach Fulmer really well and I met Jeremy when he first got here. People have asked me about him, and I said, ‘You know what, I can just tell from being around him a very short time, he’s a football coach.’
“I know they’ve put together a really good staff and they’re working. Right now, that’s what they are. This time of year, I’m pretty oblivious to what’s going on (outside of his basketball program).”
National Signing Day is Wednesday, the second of Pruitt’s two months on Rocky Top following the first-ever early signing period in December. It’s another barometer, hardly a full one, of how Pruitt is going to attack his rebuilding job on Rocky Top.
To that end, Barnes believes simply being a ball coach is among the best compliments anyone with the ‘coach’ title can receive across sports.
“Well, I think it is. He’s not about anything other than wanting to build a winning program,” Barnes said. “I think he’s just extremely focused that way, about that. He obviously knows what goes into winning. I think he’s, the biggest thing I think any coach that goes into a new situation, one, they’re going to set the culture and then they’ve got to create the identity within that culture of how they’re going to play.
“He’ll do that.”
(You can follow John Brice on Twitter @JohnDBrice)
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