From opponent to assistant coach


Jamie Vaught

Tony Barbee sure has come a long way in going from a Wildcat opponent to becoming an assistant coach at UK.

Nearly 25 years ago when Barbee played at Rupp Arena, he tried to help his 1991-92 UMass teammates and then-coach John Calipari beat host Kentucky, which was coming off a severe NCAA probation. But the UMass swingman couldn’t do much that December night as his road-weary team got whipped by the Wildcats 90-69.

Just right after capturing the Great Alaska Shootout title, the Minutemen had encountered airline problems and didn’t arrive in Lexington until less than 24 hours before the tipoff. On that night against the Wildcats, Barbee managed to get 13 points before fouling out, and the Cats were led by a pair of 20-point scorers in Jamal Mashburn (28 points) and Richie Farmer (22 points).

And the 6-6 junior from Indianapolis had another opportunity that season to beat UK, facing the Cats — who had four “unforgettable” seniors in John Pelphrey, Sean Woods, Richie Farmer and Deron Feldhaus — in a Sweet Sixteen matchup during the NCAA Tournament.

This time in Philadelphia, UMass did much better before losing 87-77 with Barbee getting 10 points and six rebounds. Calipari’s team finished the campaign with a remarkable 30-5 mark, while the Wildcats later completed with a national ranking of No. 6 and a 29-7 record after dropping to Duke 104-103 in overtime in a historic showdown.

Anyhow, before Barbee arrived at UMass, he was being recruited by Kentucky during the late 1980s. Other schools like Purdue and Evansville sought him as well. He was a pretty good player in the prep ranks, but not a superstar.

But he bypassed UK, which was under a very dark cloud of NCAA troubles, and took a chance at UMass, playing for second-year coach Calipari who was rebuilding the struggling program basically from scratch.

In Calipari’s 1996 book, “Refuse To Lose,” with Dick Weiss, Barbee discussed the schools. While his friends couldn’t believe he went to Massachusetts, Barbee admitted that “UMass was one of the worst programs” in the 1980s but felt more comfortable with the coaching staff after getting acquainted with them, including Coach Cal, at summer camps.

After Barbee — who became a two-time All-Atlantic 10 performer at UMass — finished his playing career, he worked with Calipari off and on throughout his coaching career. He has had three coaching stints with Coach Cal, including his current stay at Kentucky.

In 2014, Barbee became a member of the Big Blue Nation, joining Calipari as a special assistant, after spending a total of eight years as the head coach at Texas-El Paso (UTEP) and Auburn, compiling an overall mark of 131-127. He had competed against Calipari and the Wildcats in recent years.

Calipari was thrilled to have Barbee back again on his staff. The coach added he “had the pleasure of watching him grow up and mature with this game since I started recruiting him when he was 16 years old.”

And just recently, UK announced that Barbee will rejoin the bench as an assistant coach, filling the vacated position of Barry “Slice” Rohrssen, who became the associate head coach at St. John’s.

After seeing Kentucky’s historic 38-1 campaign in 2014-15, Barbee is very pleased to be back for another year at Kentucky.

“I really enjoyed my first season in Lexington and I’m looking forward to returning to the bench as a coach,” said Barbee, who has been a part of Calipari’s basketball family for more than 20 years.

Calipari commented Barbee will be a huge asset in an active role on the coaching staff.

“Tony has proven himself to be one of the top coaches in the country,” he said. “The knowledge and experience he brought to our staff last season was invaluable. To have him be a part of our staff is a blessing for all of us.”

Even though 43-year-old Barbee, who was a serious candidate for the Nevada head coaching post this past spring, would like to be the head coach again, he nevertheless is still happy to be a part of Calipari’s staff.

“I see myself as a head coach and want to get back in that role, but now that I’m an assistant I’m going to do that to the best of my ability and help Coach (Cal) in any role that he needs me to fill.” he said in a news conference on May 28.

Asked if there was any hesitation to getting back out on the road with the grind of recruiting every day, Barbee said, “Not at all. I think if you speak to any head coach, that never changes. When you go from an assistant coach to a head coach or a head coach to an assistant coach, you better grind every day. Whether you’re an assistant coach or a head coach, it doesn’t matter. You still have to get the work done.”

In one of the most storied hoops seasons ever in UK history, the Wildcats became the first NCAA team to begin a season at 38-0, winning the SEC regular season and tournament titles as well as advancing to school’s 17th appearance in the Final Four.

Barbee said the Final Four setback to Wisconsin was difficult for Calipari.

“I doubt he’ll ever get over it (that loss),” Barbee said. ” I don’t know if any of us will. It was such a special, historic season, and that one loss doesn’t change that. But when you have your eyes on that one prize, and you come up that short and it’s that close, it hurts. But I’m sure, for him, it hurts more that he wasn’t able to help those young men achieve it.”

Calipari, who was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame two months ago, hasn’t changed much, if any, over the years, according to Barbee.

“He really hasn’t,” said Barbee, who is a member of UMass’ Athletics Hall of Fame. “He’s as intense today as he was when I played for him when he was 30 years old. The intensity is still there with the love and competitive spirit for winning. The passion he has for teaching and growing on and off the floor and the love that he has for them, I haven’t seen any change.”

After working in an administrative role with Calipari last season, Barbee is anxious for the upcoming season since he would be working very closely with the players on the floor.

“It’s exciting for me to be back in the mix and working with the guys,” he said. “It’s why we do what we do obviously: to help the kids grow off the floor as well. Basketball and passion is what we do as coaches and to be able to get back on the floor, work with the guys individually and help the team in that way is exciting for me after a year off.”

Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]

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