By Tim Chambers
Johnson County felt a bit like home for Tennessee head basketball coach Rick Barnes on Wednesday during his recent visit to the RedTail Golf Course.
“It sort of reminds me of Hickory, North Carolina,” said Barnes. “It is absolutely beautiful up here. “
Barnes, a Lenoir-Rhyne University graduate and several other alumni including Johnson County resident Roger Maxey were there fundraising for the college on Wednesday. He praised Maxey for all his hard work.
“Roger and many others are trying to build up the university and not just the athletic part,” said Barnes. “I respect him for inviting us over and doing it. We alumni are a close knit group. I’ve got some friends here today that I haven’t seen in years.”
Many of my questions weren’t basketball related which Barnes enjoyed answering. But he did take some time to talk about his first season as head coach of the Vols.
“It’s been great because Dave Hart, our athletic director, has been phenomenal and so has our assistant AD John Gilbert, a Lenoir Rhyne graduate,” said Barnes. “Those guys told me exactly where they thought the program was coming in and they’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do to help build the program up. The fans have been remarkable too. We weren’t a great basketball team this year but the fans appreciated the hard work and intensity that our players played with. They’ve really been unbelievable and made it special.”
The Vols had some big wins including ones over Kentucky and South Carolina in Knoxville. They also collected two SEC tournament wins after losing their leading scorer late in the season due to an injury.
“We thought we could have won some more games had we had Kevin Punter available,” said Barnes. “But some of the guys accepted that challenge which helped us build some momentum going into next year.”
Barnes added that the move to Tennessee from Texas had been special in several ways. One he enjoyed discussing was location.
“The jobs are very similar but being at Tennessee feels sort of like back home. Hickory is only two and half hours away so I can reconnect with a lot of people that I grew up with. It’s been really special getting back here – like being in Johnson County today. I saw some guys that I haven’t seen in 30 years. It’s great getting to do that.”
It was also special for Maxey and his wife.
“Rick’s a great guy who is always willing to help,” said Roger. “We’re glad he’s at the University of Tennessee. We drive down to home games and see him some.”
I learned after my conversation with Barnes that another Johnson County resident knew him quite well for two years. Longhorns assistant baseball coach Jerry Whitener worked with Barnes in Hickory while the two were growing up. He hasn’t talked to Barnes in 40 years but would love to do so in the near future.
“I went to North Carolina State for two years then graduated from Lenoir-Rhyne,” said Whitener. “Rick and I worked at the recreation department while going to school. He was liked by everyone.”
Whitener told a couple of stories about the coach.
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