It only took Mike Neighbors five minutes. In roughly the time needed for a TV timeout, the Washington coach determined that Adia Barnes had “it.”
Neighbors was an assistant then under Kevin McGuff and, as such, was asked to interview candidates for the final spot on the staff. Barnes blew him away.
“Adia was an outlier with no coaching experience,” said Neighbors, who is now head coach at Arkansas. “It was obvious in five minutes she had what we needed. She was confident and magnetic and engaged by everything we said. And vulnerable. She came in saying ‘I may not know everything, but I can’t wait to learn and I’m ready for this transition.’ It was refreshing. Everyone else came in with ‘I’m going to be a difference-maker.’”
Barnes ended up being the difference-maker — and it didn’t take long for this coaching newbie to start making waves.
None of this surprises Arizona basketball fans. Barnes led the Wildcats to a WNIT Championship this spring; fans packed McKale Center, drawn in by the coach’s big personality, the play of star guard Aari McDonald and, of course, the winning.
“I liked her energy and her passion for the game,” said McGuff, who is now head coach at Ohio State. “I thought she had a tremendous amount of talent. What I saw was that she could be impactful with the women in the program to develop them and for them to understand what it takes to be a student-athlete. In recruiting she had excellent communication skills. I could envision home visit where parents would be saying ‘I want that as a role model for my daughter.’ I could envision those things and that is why I hired her.”
McGuff and Neighbors got an early glimpse of what was to come. Neither has been surprised by Barnes’ success at Arizona.
“So many people thought it was not a good place for her first head coaching job, but she’s done an amazing job,” McGuff said. “I thought she’d hit it out of the park and she’s doing just that.… I’ve seen that she’s added talent to the program, but at the same time she’s building a strong culture. They play hard and together… the Pac-12 is hard, and she’s made progress in a tough, tough league to do it in.”
Barnes was a natural when it came to connecting with players and their parents. McGuff said he’s been impressed with the way Barnes has develop as a teacher and a tactician. Barnes’ first Arizona team played a lot like Washington did. Now, he said, Barnes is “tweaking it” to fit the Wildcats’ roster.
“She tweaked the defense during the season and it’s more aggressive in forcing turnovers and helping them score. I love to see Adia grow and develop in that way,” he said. “It takes time as a coach as you are trying to do all things — recruiting, developing a culture, establishing a system. It’s ‘I have an idea of how I want to run things’ and then teaching it in a manner that it’s reflected on game day. It’s her evolution as a coach. She works hard on that—teaching in a manner the kids can execute on the court.”
McGuff isn’t the only one watching from afar. The Wildcats have become must-watch for Neighbors. He calls Arizona his second favorite team—behind his Razorbacks.
“If Coach of the Year was voted on at the end of the season, Adia’s name would’ve been on the ballot,” Neighbors said. “It’s not a fast process. To do this in Year 3 is a little ahead of the curve. The program was at the bottom and she flipped it around in three years. She scheduled wisely to put the team in position. She did it the right way with the right people in the locker room and the right coaches. It does take time.
“I don’t think a casual observer sees it. They are focused on the outcome — like the end of the movie, not the beginning. They are going to enjoy it, but not appreciate it and they won’t factor in where the program was Day 1 and having an athletic director change — to navigate that is hard. I don’t think people give her enough credit. They think this is a fluke. It’s not. She can coach.
“What she handled the best this season was the tough losses. That’s the sign of a great coach.”
After playing professionally for 13 years and spending time as a broadcaster, Barnes thought coaching would be the natural next step.
She had played for legendary coaches Anne Donovan, Linn Dunn, and Brian Agler, as well as Joan Bonvicini at UA. Initially, she took the traits she showed on the court — her smarts, work ethic, and a desire to succeed — to her new role. And it didn’t hurt that she had built-in mentors at UW in Neighbors and McGuff.
“She was eager and not afraid to make mistakes and own up to them,” said Neighbors. “What she did for the players — neither Kevin nor I could walk the walk with the players. Adia had been through it. I used to joke that she had the busiest (office) couch in America. It was this purple couch and it was always full with a line out the door.”
During Barnes’ time at UW, the program was in the midst of a turnaround. The Huskies won 10 games the year before McGuff took over, and then 20 in his first season. Kelsey Plum, Chantel Osahor and McDonald then came in, leading UW to the Final Four in the 2015-16 season.
McGuff then left for Ohio State, and Neighbors was promoted to head coach. Barnes stayed with him, taking on an expanded role. Neighbors said he knew someone would soon make Barnes a head coach. Once the Arizona job was open, he said, it was only a matter of time.
Barnes didn’t believe him.
“I said, ‘as soon as we lose in the NCAAs, they are going to name you coach.’ It was obvious,” he said. “It was a bit drawn out because we went to the Final Four.
“Nobody is ever ready to be a head coach. I was as assistant for 14 years and I was not ready. But, Adia was prepared. She had every tool a head coach needed to have. There was never a better time or a better place for her. She was passionate about Arizona.”
Barnes has used all of her experience — in the WNBA and overseas, along with the turnaround at UW — as a blueprint for what she wants to accomplish at Arizona.
Both her mentors are excited about what she’s accomplished so far and what’s to come.
“Adia will be successful for a really, really long time,” said McGuff. “It’s fun and neat to see this come to fruition. I am so proud of Adia. For anybody who understands where the program was and where it is now, they should be recognizing the marvelous job Adia has done to this point. And she’s just scratching the surface.
“People may ask, ‘Is Adia a great coach?’ Yes, for sure. You could not find a better coach suited to be coach at Arizona than Adia. And that’s the point. She is the absolute best coach Arizona could have and they are fortunate to have her.”
- What do teams outside of Tucson think about Arizona? It’s too early to tell, but there’s one sign that the Wildcats have improved: They’re having a hard time filling their schedule.
“Adia is not getting calls from teams; she’s making calls and they aren’t so sure (they want to play the Wildcats),” Neighbors said. “They look at the roster and see Cate (Reese), Sam (Thomas), and Aari — all coming back. The schedule lines are not lighting up. Everyone wants to see what’s next. It’s fair that people to say ‘let’s see,’ but my money is on Adia’s side of the ledger.”
- Neighbors coach McDonald, now Arizona’s star guard, when the two were at Washington. They still have a special bond.
“I have a picture in my office on senior day when Kelsey Plum graduated. Aari was in tears,” he said. “You could tell she was motivated by her teammates’ success. Like her head coach (Barnes), she was special from Day 1.
“I thought 100 percent Aari would have this type of year. You walked into the gym and knew she had it. Lucky for us, we were one of the first to recruit her and she was loyal. It meant something to her. She was absolutely a joy to coach. After our games here, I get an Arizona update. I am her biggest fan in Arkansas.”