For most of my life and certainly for the 15 years I lived in Tucson, AZ the head coach of the men's basketball team at the University of Arizona was the unofficial king of the city and in many ways, the entire state of Arizona.
Now there's a new royal family.
When you combine Sean Miller's increasing shortcomings in his eleven years on the job with the explosive success of the women's program in year five under head coach Adia Barnes, you can understand why the narratives are changing in Tucson
This isn't about pitting Barnes versus Miller or women versus men, its about understanding that what Adia Barnes and the women's program represents feels a lot more like college athletics than anything that's happened on the men's side for years.
After starring for the previously most accomplished Arizona women's team in the late 90's, Barnes inherited a program that had been flailing for a while and established it as a powerhouse in just five years. Her first Final Four appearance coincidentally came in the same timeframe as Hall of Famer Lute Olson's did with the men's program.
Her success in building the program from the ground up stands alone as a towering achievement of perseverance, leadership and skill.
So what can we learn from this success that applies to the men's program, which has been increasingly watching its identity as a west coast powerhouse program slide away in recent years?
First off all, I may be a bandwagon passenger of epic proportions on this incredible ride for Arizona women's basketball but I know enough to know that Adia Barnes is the real deal. A genuine article of sincere passion for not just her own career but for her players and her school. Getting to the Final Four is at best her second biggest accomplishment in the last six months; she gave birth to a baby daughter in September of 2020. Carrying, birthing and nursing a human being didn't stop her from leading a team to unprecedented heights, so let's stop talking about draft defections and recruiting misses as an excuse for the men's side.
Secondly, there were no shortcuts to this mountaintop. Inheriting a program near the bottom of the conference and winning only single digit games in her second season, Barnes built this program brick by brick over the last three years. Superstar Pac 12 Player of the Year Aari McDonald was the icing on the cake, as she not only has led this team to the Final Four but helped keep the flicker of hope alive that Point Guard U can still be said out loud.
Lastly what we've learned is that you can have everything you want in a college basketball coach. You can have a highly accomplished former player who oozes charisma, integrity and school pride. You don't have to settle for a power lusting mercenary who's next loyalty is the one that pays the most. Barnes represents an increasingly popular and successful choice in college basketball: the former player turned coach, just as Juwan Howard does for the men's side. It's no longer pandering to an audience or manipulating your fan base to hire a former player, its just good business.
One final lesson learned is that the next time Sean Miller seeks inspiration or a path forward, instead of having to walk outside to the statue of Lute Olson, he just needs to walk down the hall to Barnes's office.
Adia Barnes and the University of Arizona women's team have earned every bit of praise and recognition for what they have accomplished and more. They represent a new standard for basketball at the University of Arizona.
And it's not over yet. In fact, it feels like its just beginning.