From thorn in Dean Smith’s side to NC Hall of Famer: Hickory’s Rick Barnes

The legendary college coach has bullied his home state’s top programs

Tennessee coach Rick Barnes celebrates after the Volunteers won the 2022 SEC Tournament title. Barnes, a native of Hickory, was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. (Chris O'Meara / AP Photo)

RALEIGH — One look at the thin, gentle-looking man standing in the front of the room is all it takes to draw an inescapable conclusion.

“This can’t be Rick Barnes.”

There are no visible horns on his head, no forked tail, no cloven hooves. He looks a bit like Bob Newhart, not the face of basketball evil in the state.

Barnes earned the “honor” early in his coaching career when UNC coaching legend Dean Smith took issue with his Clemson Tigers’ rough play, and the upstart Barnes didn’t back down from the esteemed Smith. Both coaches were fined after going jaw to jaw in a near brawl at the 1995 ACC Tournament.

Fast forward 28 years and Barnes’ Tennessee Volunteers eliminated Duke in the 2023 NCAA Tournament in a game that Blue Devil fans complained was filled with rough play by Barnes’ men.

After engineering his way into becoming an overly physical thorn in the sides of North Carolina’s highest profile programs, Barnes was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in the class of 2023, and for the life of him, he can’t understand why that fact caused spit takes from basketball fans across the state.

“I’m from North Carolina,” he said. “And you know, my mom lived here her entire life. My brothers still live here. My family’s here. And you know, I just have fond memories, growing up. More than anything, I tell people all the time, I wish everybody can have a childhood like I did growing up in Hickory.”

Barnes went to Lenoir-Rhyne and, after his playing days, embarked on his coaching career. He spent two seasons as an assistant for Eddie Biedenbach at Davidson, then left his home state to find coaching fame. He’s led four schools — Providence, Clemson, Texas and Tennessee — to the NCAAs and the latter three to the Sweet 16.

His heart, however, has always been back in Hickory.

“That is something that, as we’re on bus trips, everywhere I’ve ever been I’ve always said that the best five out of North Carolina would beat the best five out of anyplace else,” he said. “I love to compare. I love when people from Virginia, from Texas, would start calling names out and I would trump them. And I would always say, ‘Let’s keep going.’ They couldn’t keep up. There’s no doubt I think this is the greatest basketball state ever.”

Of course, that makes beating the blue blood programs from the state that much sweeter for him.

“Well, you know, what would I say? Like they say in the SEC, it means more?” he said. “I have incredible respect for the history of those schools. I mean, I know what it means. I know how from the time that I started studying and understanding basketball from the early ’60s and ’70s, all the way through, how this state has been represented in college basketball.

“So I believe that even if I had never grown up in the state, if you’re somewhere else in college basketball and you have a chance to play North Carolina, you’re going to be up for it because of their success and what they’ve done for decade after decade.”

Decade after decade, Barnes has been outside the borders of his state, causing the top programs within to pull out their hair. Now he’s been invited in to sit among them.

“I walked through the Hall today and realized how many people that not only had directly touched my life but people that whether I’ve seen him play or whether I coached against him,” Barnes said. “My very first little league baseball coach was Marion Kirby. And then Frank Barger from Hickory High School. I’m humbled because I love this state.

“So I’m so glad that God had me be born in Catawba County in Hickory, North Carolina. And for all the people that that I knew at an early age, I knew I wanted to be a coach because of the people that the good Lord put in my life.”