But what if UCLA had promised to pay Barnes' $5 million buyout?
"I think I would've been the coach at UCLA," Barnes told reporters in Knoxville on Tuesday. "I've said that to people before. I really felt at that time that's what would happen."
In one of the most transparent and honest news conferences ever held by a coach who'd just rejected an enticing offer from another school, Barnes admitted he tussled with his final decision to stay in Knoxville, largely due to financial matters.
As part of his return, Barnes has agreed to a new deal with Tennessee that will pay him in excess of $4 million next season and approach $6 million annually by the end of the contract, sources told ESPN's Chris Low last week.
Barnes signed a deal last year that was set to pay him $3.25 million per year with annual $100,000 increases. His new deal will also provide more cash for his assistants, including former Colorado assistant Kim English, who replaces Rob Lanier on Tennessee's staff.
Lanier, UT's former associate head coach, recently agreed to a deal to be Georgia State's head coach.
"I'm supposed to be at Tennessee," Barnes said. "And it's really above and beyond the basketball program. I'm in love with this community. I'm in love with this state. I just think we got a lot of great things going on in this town."
But the multimillion-dollar buyout in his contract seemed to be the main issue that stopped Barnes from taking his talents to Los Angeles.
"A lot of praying went into it, I can tell you that," Barnes said. "There was a lot going on. When you get down to a situation like that, it has to make sense from a financial standpoint. Bottom line is we couldn't work it out with the buyout."
Barnes led Tennessee, which secured a No. 1 ranking during the 2018-19 season, to the Sweet 16, where the Vols lost to Purdue in overtime in one of the greatest games in NCAA tournament history.
On Tuesday, the 64-year-old head coach said talks with UCLA moved swiftly last week. But he told the school he would not leave Knoxville without talking to athletic director Phillip Fulmer and others in the community.
"I told them point blank, 'I'm not going to walk out of here and not meet with my team,'" Barnes said. "'I'm not going to walk out of here and not meet with people here that have been really good to me.' ... I said, 'You just can't say send a plane tomorrow and we're leaving. I'm going to make sure this is done the right way.'"
Barnes said he lost weight as he pondered his options. He also said he believed the breakdown of the buyout talks was a sign from God.
"There was one time in my mind I truly felt that's what would happen," Barnes said about potentially taking the UCLA offer. "It got to that point where I felt like my prayers had been answered."