KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Rick Barnes will take you to his favorite lunch spot, but not until this tour ends.
He's the head coach of the No. 1-ranked Tennessee Volunteers, but he also might as well be a Knoxville Chamber of Commerce rep as he weaves past a statue of Pat Summitt, steers down Phillip Fulmer Way and rolls toward Tee Martin Drive in a super-sized SUV that hogs the streets of Tennessee's campus during the school's winter break.
"You gotta see this," he says as he ignores the GPS directions to the restaurant, and charts his own course.
Barnes speaks of Knoxville as if he's a proud, longtime resident of this growing city.
The strip on Cumberland Avenue that cuts through campus once featured dilapidated housing and rickety storefronts. Today, it's a modern stretch with high-rise apartments, fast-food restaurants, new sidewalks, trendy steakhouses and microbreweries.
Much like the surrounding area, this phase in Barnes' evolution might be his most promising.
The Vols are a national title-contending, 19-1 team after Tuesday night's win at South Carolina, and that is an event at a school that has never reached a Final Four, much less won a national championship in men's basketball.
Grant Williams is a prime All-America candidate and chasing the Wooden Award. Both he and teammate Admiral Schofield could secure NBA contracts this summer. Tennessee boasts the conference's best offense and its No. 2 defense behind Kentucky -- it beat Gonzaga and Louisville on a neutral floor -- and the Volunteers have taken every SEC opponent's best shot en route to a 7-0 league start.
The man who has engineered it all never expected to be here.
He'd made the NCAA tournament 16 times in 17 seasons at Texas, including a Final Four and a pair of Elite Eight runs. He recruited future NBA standouts Kevin Durant, Myles Turner, LaMarcus Aldridge, Cory Joseph, Avery Bradley and Tristan Thompson. But the Longhorns brass, led by new athletic director Steve Patterson, wanted more.
Barnes never felt secure after Patterson fired Mack Brown, the football coach who won a national title in 2005, even in spite of Patterson's promises to keep Barnes.
"Don't trust him," a person close to Barnes warned. They were right. Patterson fired Barnes after a 20-14 season in 2015.
Barnes already knew he had the Tennessee job during his final news conference in Austin. Former Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart had called him following Donnie Tyndall's messy tenure, which ended when the NCAA charged him with various violations at Southern Miss, his former school. (Tyndall subsequently received a 10-year "show cause"' penalty from the NCAA.)
The hire was not universally praised. Barnes was 61 years old and had his detractors, those who believed Texas' resources should have yielded perennial Final Four appearances, or something close to it. Those naysayers wondered about the fit. They're not wondering now.
Barnes is not in the mood for carelessness during a practice the day before the Vols face Arkansas at Thompson-Boling Arena in mid-January.
That's why sophomore Derrick Walker accepts blame for bobbling a pass and committing a turnover.
"That's on me," Walker says as he taps his chest.
"We know it's on you," Barnes tells him. "Everybody in the stands knows that's you! You don't have to say it."
The Vols practice hard. They're aggressive on every play. Williams, the 20-point-plus scorer with a strong chance to repeat as SEC Player of the Year, collides with a teammate in a scrap for a loose ball. Schofield, the senior forward who averages 16.6 points per game and has 9 percent body fat, already has put himself through two workouts before fighting for rebounds in this practice.
The team's two biggest stars share a bond that is perhaps not evident on the surface.
"I think the most important thing is how we really want to see each other do well, but most importantly we really push each other," Schofield says. "During the summer, people don't think we're friends because of how much we get at each other. Everything's competitive."
Adds Williams: "We're two different guys. I enjoy different things. Admiral enjoys different things. For me, I'm more of a nerd. Admiral's more of the cool kid everybody follows. When we realized that's just how I am, the guys are like, 'That's just Grant.'"
For all their differences, Williams and Schofield will tell you they're only here because they survived the spring of 2017.
After Tennessee lost to Georgia in the first round of the SEC tournament that year to finish 16-16 in Barnes' second season, the coach couldn't get settled. On the trip home, Barnes asked his players to name the toughest team in the league.
Every player picked South Carolina, which reached the Final Four that year.
"When you start seeing them doing what you're saying, the details, and they start coaching themselves, that's when it's fun." Rick Barnes
Barnes wondered why they hadn't named themselves. Plus, their demeanor was carefree 20 minutes after they'd hopped onto the bus. At the time, the Vols didn't hate losing the way he has for more than four decades. Too many players seemed more interested in their spring break plans than the season-ending loss in a .500 season.
A frustrated Barnes pulled the team off the bus once Tennessee got back to Knoxville and delivered the bad news.
"We don't have it," Barnes told his team. "We don't have what we need to do. We're getting ready the next three months. We're gonna find out who really wants to buy in."
After that meeting, Barnes instructed Garrett Medenwald, Tennessee's strength coach, to take the players to a treacherous ramp in a nearby parking garage -- known ominously to all as "G10" -- and find out who deserved to keep their scholarships. When the Vols returned from spring break that season, they ran the G10 hill every day. They didn't dribble a basketball for weeks.
"We knew we had to create an environment where we were going to find out who wanted to be on the ship," Medenwald said.
The signs of progress became apparent early in the 2017-18 season. The Vols beat Purdue and North Carolina State in the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, and they were competitive in a loss to eventual national champion Villanova. Barnes said he could see his team changing on that trip.
"When you start seeing them doing what you're saying, the details, and they start coaching themselves," Barnes says, "that's when it's fun."
Tennessee continued to ascend, going 13-2 in one late-season stretch and securing a 3-seed in the NCAA tournament -- the program's best showing in 10 years. The Vols beat Wright State in the first round before playing their worst game in weeks and getting caught in the teeth of Loyola-Chicago's Cinderella story.
The way it ended last March has added a sense of purpose for a team that Schofield says is closer than at any time in his four years in Knoxville.
"We're able to critique each other, criticize each other on a different level, which really helps us get better, but also, in practice, we compete at a different level and we can really get after each other, talk trash, whatever," Schofield says. "I think that's a big step for us. My first two years, we weren't able to do that. We had a bunch of individuals."
As the Volunteers team gathers in the film room to plot against the Razorbacks and projected first-round pick Daniel Gafford, a concerned staffer cautions a visitor.
"Um, I wouldn't sit there if I were you," he says. "That's Admiral's seat."
Once the veteran leader settles into his aisle seat in the third row, Barnes introduces a special guest: Lawrence Frank, the current LA Clippers president and a former Tennessee assistant. He's not here as an NBA executive but as someone with a connection to the program.
Frank's presentation is what you might expect if Samuel L. Jackson did an unfiltered TED talk.
"Listen, you shouldn't give a s--- about the NBA," Frank says.
Frank is here to talk about teams: what makes them work and what makes them fail.
"It's the division within," he says before listing the issues that could ruin a team's aspirations.
When he's done, the players applaud Frank, watch some film on Arkansas, grab a meal and stuff a few protein bars from the pantry into their pockets on their way out. The Vols look like a group of factory workers clocking out at 5 p.m.
You can't tell if this is a team on the verge of earning the No. 1 ranking or a squad fighting for its season, because its collective personality never wavers.
It's Barnes' balanced demeanor -- he never seems to take himself too seriously -- that keeps the Vols loose.
Tennessee opened a new team lounge in September, and the feature most associated with its head coach is an old-school arcade cabinet.
"I love Golden Tee [Golf]. That's mine," Barnes says of the game in which he enthusiastically and frequently challenges his players.
He makes a group of staffers laugh when he talks about a former trainer who used "horse medicine" to treat a player's sprained ankle when he was at Providence in the 1990s. "We had a guy at Providence who did things a little different," Barnes says. "One day, this player came out smelling like garlic."
Barnes is always the life of the party, but if you think this guy isn't serious about his craft, maybe take a peek at that résumé one more time. He has 680 wins, and has won 20 games at five different schools in a head-coaching career that started at George Mason in 1987. It should be noted that none of those schools (George Mason, Providence, Clemson, Texas and Tennessee) can be accurately described as a college basketball blue blood.
The turning point in Tennessee's development into a consistent winner, according to a question posed to Vols assistant Rob Lanier, is obvious.
"When Dave Hart called Rick Barnes," Lanier answers. "Because when Clemson hired him, that's what they were getting. When Providence hired him, that's what they were getting. When Texas hired him, that's what they were getting. When Dave Hart made the decision that he would be opportunistic at that particular time under those particular set of circumstances, he gave Tennessee an opportunity to do something with their basketball program by calling Rick Barnes. That was the biggest turning point."
Barnes has finally reached the parking lot at Stock & Barrel, one of his go-to places for lunch. As he walks into the restaurant, you can hear the chatter.
Minutes after he sits down, a waitress approaches him. "I just want to say thank you for turning this from a football school into a basketball school," she says.
The chef leaves the kitchen to bring Barnes his black bean and corn salad. "Uh, just wanted to, uh, bring this to you," he says. "Appreciate you, Coach."
Barnes takes a few bites before the manager walks toward him. "We were all watching the game on Saturday," he says. "We were just in here screaming."
"I just want to say thank you for turning this from a football school into a basketball school." Waitress, Knoxville Stock & Barrel restaurant
When he returns to Thompson-Boling Arena, Barnes notices that his parking space near the entrance is occupied.
"You know what, I never do this," he says before creating his own spot next to the curb. Practice will begin soon -- just 24 hours before Tennessee's lopsided, 106-87 win over Arkansas.
As players enter, Barnes looks around the empty arena.
He then starts to climb the stairs in the massive facility. It's a concrete slab of steps, dozens of them, that never seems to end.
"Whew, my quads," Barnes says as he moves toward the nosebleeds.
More steps, more pain.
"You gotta see this," he says.
As he reaches the last row in Section 322, one of the highest points in the arena, he finally sits down.
He waves to Tom Satkowiak, the team's sports information director who recently had a liver transplant.
"Tom! Up here!" Barnes says. "Can you guys hear me?"
It's a breathtaking scene -- nearly 12 stories above the court -- and it's one Barnes is digesting.
The chatty veteran coach, who has a story for every chapter in his life, is quiet. He's just staring ahead, not saying a word.
Then he smiles.
Three years ago, Barnes lost a job he'd enjoyed for nearly 20 years. But he found a school that wanted a coach who would love this team as much as its supporters do. It was a perfect match and a lesson that sometimes an unpleasant ending is nothing more than a necessary beginning.
"Well, grab the railing on your way down," Barnes says as he trots back down the steep steps.
He's not one to get stuck in the moment. The hike to the top of Thompson-Boling was nice, but Rick Barnes has a job to do.