Column: Rod Barnes’ Return Comes During Strangely Ironic Week

Rod Barnes brings his Cal State Bakersfield team to the Pavilion for a game against Ole Miss Saturday. For those who don’t know Rod Barnes, here’s his story, or at least part of it.

Coach Rod Barnes returns to Oxford to take on the Rebels. Photo from gorunners.com.

Playing for Bentonia High School in the Mississippi Delta in the early 1980s, Rod was an all-star standout. He arrived at Ole Miss when Lee Hunt was the head coach.

He was truly an unorthodox sight as he moved up and down the court. With toothpick thin legs, a personable demeanor, and an emotional flare as a leader, an all-out effort was his trademark.

After Hunt was fired, Rod played his last two seasons under head coach Ed Murphy. During his time on the courts of the SEC, Rod gained a host of admiring fans throughout the league and even more respect.

When he left the court for the final time during his last Ole Miss game in the 1988 SEC Tournament, Rod not only got a standing ovation from the fans, the working media also stood and applauded. Nobody could remember that happening for any other player ever.

Rod became an assistant coach at Ole Miss under Rob Evans in the 1990s and when Evans bolted for Arizona State, Rod was named head coach. Ole Miss AD Keith Carter was a senior on his first team.

Some were excited and believed Rod would win. Others didn’t think he would be successful. Actually both happened.

In each of his first four seasons, Rod took Ole Miss to the postseason. In 2001, his third year, the Rebels went to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament, the deepest run before or since for an Ole Miss men’s basketball team. After the season he was named the Naismith National Coach of the Year.

In 2006 after eight seasons, Rod Barnes was let go by those in charge. It was a difficult moment for a proud Ole Miss man and his family. Ole Miss had experienced much success in the late 1990s and into the new century. Basketball games on cold winter nights were must-attend events for Ole Miss students and fans. The lines to get into Tad Smith Coliseum were long well before the doors opened.

But four consecutive losing seasons did Rod in and he was let go. That he returns to Oxford the same week as another heart and soul Rebel was relieved of his duties as head coach of another major sport is strangely ironic.

Certainly firing Rod Barnes in basketball and now Matt Luke in football were decisions that didn’t come easily for those in charge. But whatever all the factors ultimately were, empty seats always play a role.

Only a small group nationwide gets the opportunity to coach their alma maters. Rod Barnes and Matt Luke were among them.

One has had well over a decade to think about his time at Ole Miss and basically recover from the departure. Rod Barnes went on to become an assistant coach at Oklahoma under former Duke star Jeff Capel, then become the head coach at Georgia State, and is now in his ninth season as head coach in Bakersfield.

Rod’s return will be welcomed by Ole Miss fans. Rod’s Squad shirts are even going to be available. Those are what Club Red, the Ole Miss student section, wore when he coached here. The memories of his playing days and coaching days are mostly positive.

Rod and his family, if they travel with him, will receive well-wishes from those in attendance. The introductory ovation should be loud and long, and the memories will likely flood through his mind and the fans’ minds at that moment. Then they’ll quickly fade as he coaches his team and they root for theirs.

As the saying goes, time has a way of healing. It likely has for Rod Barnes, although there’s no doubt he wanted to keep coaching at Ole Miss.

Matt Luke wanted to continue to coach here, too. Although without the winning success Rod had with his program, Matt now also looks to the future for him and his family.

In both instances, they are Ole Miss guys, players who gave it all they had, and later coaches who gave just as much. Then it was over.

If Matt Luke needs an example of moving on, bouncing back, and making a difference in his future coaching career, then his fellow Ole Miss Rebel, Rod Barnes, is perhaps the best he could find as a blueprint for the possibilities.


Jeff Roberson is a contributor to HottyToddy.com. He has written sports for three decades with most of that time spent at the Oxford Eagle daily newspaper and the Ole Miss Spirit magazine and website. He is the author of “Midnight Train,” the life story of former Ole Miss quarterback and Hall of Fame songwriter Jim Weatherly.

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