Rod Barnes always has been a well-liked guy in the coaching profession.
But he didn't know how many friends he had until he landed the head coaching job at Georgia State.
"My desk is pretty full with scheduling requests," Barnes said. "Seems like everybody wants me in some kind of tournament they have."
The former Ole Miss player and coach fully understands why. His team is supposed to be only so much non-conference fodder for the big boys. But the big boys know they had better get him early. He made the Rebels a winner (141-109 in his eight seasons, including four postseason appearances), and there's a good chance he'll do with the same with the Panthers in the Colonial Athletic Association.
"I wish he was still in the SEC," George Mason coach Jim Larranaga said. "Our teams battled before. We played each other once at Ole Miss and once at George Mason. Rod is a heckuva coach and recruiter, and our league is getting better and better."
The Colonial has been unkind to Georgia State. The Panthers moved into the league two years ago and are just 8-28 in conference play, with a 10th-place finish in 2005-06 before moving up to ninth last season.
"The first thing I told them is if there's one thing I'm known for, that one stamp people put on me, it's that my teams play hard," Barnes said. "We're gonna do that. We're gonna try to really, really defend.
"We've gotta change the mind-set of the fans and media about Georgia State. That starts in-house first. We've got to do everything we can do to be first class, with our players and our program. We want to do the things that say we're trying to move to the next level. We want to challenge them that people will see us differently whether we win or not."
Center Deven Dickerson is entering his final season. He said he couldn't be happier that it will be under Barnes.
"He said we're gonna win next year, no doubt," Dickerson said. "He said it will be hard work, which I don't mind doing. So far he already got us more with our teammates. He's already got us kind of working more as a team as far as being on top of each other and responsible for each other."
Barnes spent last season as an assistant to Jeff Capel at Oklahoma. Capel was in his first season at the Big 12 school after coming over from - of all places - the Colonial. He had spent four seasons as the coach at VCU. Perhaps he left a year early when you consider the Rams went 28-7 and beat Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament this past season.
Barnes said he and Capel talked a lot about the Colonial. He had no idea how valuable those discussions would turn out to be.
"Obviously, I didn't know this job would come open and that I'd wind up in the league," Barnes said. "But we talked about the style of play in the league, the type of players in the league. We talked a lot about the guys he had on his team. We talked about Eric Maynor and how good he is, could he have played in the SEC or the ACC. So I think I have a really good feel for this league."
No one can sleep on the Colonial any longer. It's a league that's becoming a major factor among mid-majors, with plenty of evidence to support that claim.
• Larranaga's team stunned the nation by advancing to the Final Four in 2006.
• The league has earned an NCAA at-large bid in each of the past two seasons.
• VCU handed Duke its first first-round NCAA exit since 1996.
• The league has had at least two teams in the NIT in each of the past four seasons.
"Our league has dramatically improved in the 10 years since I arrived," Larranaga said. "The major reason is the presidents and athletic directors took a stand when American University, East Carolina and Richmond left our league. They said, 'Hey, we're not gonna be a league that takes a step back, we're gonna step forward.
"We added six schools from Boston to Atlanta that have made our league extremely strong. We've added quality head coaches and made a commitment to go after quality head coaches. Look at the guys we have in this league – Tom Pecora (Hofstra), Bruiser Flint (Drexel), Pat Kennedy (Towson), Blaine Taylor (Old Dominion), Rod Barnes (Georgia State). These guys are very successful coaches."
Barnes hasn't been successful in the CAA just yet. He plans on it, but it will be a huge difference for a coach who never has spent any time in his career at the mid-major level.
2001: A Coaching Odyssey
Rod Barnes was the Naismith National Coach of the Year in 2001 when Ole Miss went 27-8 and reached the Sweet 16. Here's a look at the SEC coaching landscape in the 2000-2001 season, with where they are now (if not still at the same school):
• Florida: Billy Donovan
• Georgia: Jim Harrick (coach of the Bakersfield, Calif., Jam of the NBDL)
• Kentucky: Tubby Smith (coach at Minnesota)
• South Carolina: Eddie Fogler (television analyst)
• Tennessee: Jerry Green (director of basketball operations for Indiana)
• Vanderbilt: Kevin Stallings
• Alabama: Mark Gottfried
• Arkansas: Nolan Richardson (coach of the Mexican National Team, which hasn't been to the Olympics since 1976)
• Auburn: Cliff Ellis (television analyst)
• LSU: John Brady
• Mississippi State: Rick Stansbury
Barnes finished his playing days at Ole Miss in 1988 and earned his degree in 1989. His first coaching job was an assistant at Division II Livingston College (since renamed the University of West Alabama). In 1993 he returned to Ole Miss as an assistant, and in 1998 he took over when Rob Evans left for Arizona State. Barnes was fired after the 2005-06 campaign, which saw the Rebels get off to a 13-3 start but lose 13 of their last 14 games.
Capel gave him a place to land for a season at Oklahoma. Barnes wasn't quite sure what to make of the Georgia State opening, but after asking some of his close coaching friends about it - including UAB coach Mike Davis and his mentor Evans - he decided it was worth a shot.
"Yes, there are some changes at this level, but there are some advantages," Barnes said. "I think one of the major things at this level is there's more student-athletes that fit this level. When you start talking about high-major guys that are talented, the numbers are fewer. Here you get a chance to recruit more people.
"Another great thing here is I don't have to travel very far to find the talent. Atlanta is one of the best cities in the nation as far as producing players. And the state of Georgia is great, too."
Barnes said he was in no hurry to be a head coach again, but that something felt right about this opportunity.
"It's back in my region (the Southeast)," Barnes said. "It's a mid-major conference that has done well and is gaining more and more respect. I think there is great potential. It could be a really good situation."