Barnes confident Vols can reach another level

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- A day after spurning UCLA to remain at Tennessee, Rick Barnes said he's more eager than ever to write the final chapter of his coaching career with the Vols.

"I believe here at the University of Tennessee, with the way our fan base has been since I've been here and the way we've gotten it going, that there's no reason we can't keep this thing going, but also take it to another level," Barnes told ESPN on Tuesday.

Barnes, whose Vols matched a school record with 31 wins this past season and were ranked No. 1 in the polls for a month, said he wasn't expecting UCLA to pursue him. But when the Bruins did with an offer that would have guaranteed him $5 million per year, not including bonuses and incentives, he said he felt like he owed it to himself to give it serious consideration.

Barnes, 64, remembers the UCLA dynasty under John Wooden and was intrigued by the opportunity to restore the Bruins to their past glory.

"It had nothing to do with Tennessee," Barnes said. "I've been here for four years and could never, ever say enough about the way this university, this state and the Vol Nation has treated me. It was simply the lure of UCLA basketball. I remember all those great teams and great players going back to Lucius Allen, Tommy Curtis, Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton, and I had a chance to spend quality time with Coach Wooden in his later years when I was able to go by and meet with him at his condo and go to lunch with him.

"So the way I look at UCLA basketball might be different than some people look at it now. But, still, in my mind, the UCLA basketball job was something I thought I had to look at."

Barnes acknowledged that it was a difficult decision, but he said the relationships he's established at Tennessee and the way athletic director Phillip Fulmer and university interim president Randy Boyd handled the whole matter only reinforced to him that the university was where he needed to be.

Sources told ESPN that Barnes agreed to a new deal at Tennessee that will pay him in excess of $4 million next season and approach $6 million per year by the end of the contract. Barnes also received a larger salary pool for his assistants and staff as well as multiyear contracts for some of his assistants.

Barnes earned $3.25 million this past season after signing a new deal last September that would have increased by $100,000 each year of the contract. He would have owed Tennessee a $5 million buyout had he left, which UCLA was willing to compensate him for, at least in part, but the details of that compensation were still being negotiated.

"Tennessee made it very clear to me what the basketball program has meant to the university, and while they know this game can be up and down, they also made it clear that they wanted me to be the coach here and were willing to give me everything we need to sustain it," Barnes said. "My goal is to make it even better, and I can never thank them enough for the way they handled everything."

Two-time SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams, who announced Tuesday that he plans to test the NBA waters while leaving open the possibility of returning for his senior season, said the players on the team were "ecstatic" when they found out Barnes was staying.

"Guys were excited because we were going to trust him. Whatever he did, we were going to support him because it's the same with us," Williams said. "We want him to live out the dreams that he has, and if that's here, we were going to support him, which it is, and we were going to support him the other way, too. He does that for us every single day. He puts as much time in the gym as anyone. ... He's always been a guy who's shown us love and cared for us."

Barnes said he has had several conversations with Williams about his future. If Williams gets feedback that he will be a first-round pick, Barnes said that he should keep his name in the NBA draft. If not, Barnes thinks there's a reasonable chance Williams will return for his senior season.

"Grant knows we want what's best for him and that we're going to do everything we can to help him in this process," Barnes said.

While wrestling with the decision, Barnes joked that he barely left his house for three days, so he made sure on Tuesday to stop by Litton's, one of his favorite lunch spots. Old friends, waitresses, police officers and anybody else who walked through the restaurant told him repeatedly how thrilled they were that he was staying. One lady said while laughing, "You nearly gave me a heart attack. But you made the right decision."

Barnes said he'd fallen in love with the people of Tennessee, which would have made it especially difficult to leave.

"But once you get through it, you're like, 'OK, the decision has been made, and it's time to get back to work,'" he said. "We all understand that this is a business, but those relationships you develop, they do play a part. People are calling you and saying, 'We want you here, but we also want what's best for you and (wife) Candy.'

"There was a lot of prayer that went into this, and I know a lot of people outside of our family that were doing a lot of praying. I don't think we have a God of confusion. I think he was absolutely going to make it clear, and in my mind he did that."