After spending eight years guiding the Science Hill girls basketball program to new heights, coach Darrell Barnwell is stepping down.
Barnwell, 46, informed school officials, his staff and players for the first time Monday afternoon.
His Lady Hilltoppers finished state runner-up each of the past two seasons after reaching the state semifinals in 2011. Science Hill beat three ranked teams and was ranked No. 11 nationally by CBS MaxPreps much of this season before finishing No. 25 after losing to top-ranked Riverdale.
But the season was as taxing as it was rewarding, particularly February, when Barnwell’s father, Herschel, died in his hometown of Crossville after an 18-month battle with lung cancer. Barnwell’s mother, Agnes, also has cancer.
Earlier in the month, Barnwell spent most of a day at a hospital. Preliminary indications were high blood pressure, though Barnwell has a follow-up visit scheduled for Friday.
“There are just a lot of things in my personal life that need to become a priority,” Barnwell said, “and it’s hard to do that when you’ve got the priority of the year-long commitment to being a head coach. … I needed to make this change now.”
Science Hill players and administrators had heard rumblings before Monday, but nothing seemed certain.
“Darrell had a tough time,” Science Hill athletic director Keith Turner said. “It was a lot tougher than people know. When you’ve got two parents that are battling for their lives and you’ve got the health issues and then you’ve got the pressure of this team’s expectations — I mean, that’s a lot for any human being to deal with. So it wasn’t a surprise to me.”
Barnwell initially coached football at Lenoir City. He said Turner got him involved with basketball in 1993 when he went to Unicoi County, where he assisted Turner’s varsity boys team a year and coached the eighth grade three or four years.
“I knew right away how hard Darrell worked and how detailed he was and how committed he was,” Turner said. “There was no doubt early on that he’d make a great head coach.”
Bill Smith gave Barnwell that opportunity at University High. Barnwell took the UH girls to the regional semifinals in 2000, then coached three years at Page (Franklin) and one season at Independence before taking over at Science Hill in 2005 when Turner hired him.
“One of the first things I noticed when I came over here was, I felt like, girls basketball was a gold mine,” said Turner, who coached many of Science Hill’s current juniors and seniors in offseason when they were in junior high.
Barnwell went 218-63 at Science Hill. The Lady ‘Toppers were 106-9 over the past three seasons and have currently won 39 straight Big Eight Conference regular season games.
“I’m thankful for what Darrell’s done for girls’ basketball at Science Hill,” Turner said. “I knew it could be done, but getting it done’s another story, and it took a lot of patience. It took a special skill to coach the girls that he’s had, and he didn’t get enough credit.”
Despite his current league winning streak, Barnwell wasn’t chosen conference coach of the year by his contemporaries. He was criticized for not worrying enough about the margin of victory in a 104-10 win against David Crockett this season. Many rushed to defend Barnwell’s handling of the mismatch, too.
“Seasons like that are great, but they’re not always easy either, because of the pressures and the stress of trying to stay on top of your game and having the kids always focused and ready,” Barnwell said. “To go 35-4 and play for the second consecutive year for the state championship, I mean, it’s great. But you add all of the other things that’ve gone on since January, I guess, and it made it tough.”
Despite losing key contributors in Shy Copney, Enjelica Reid, Morgan Knack and Shae Smith, Science Hill returns excellent personnel. Point guard Tianna Tarter and center Gabby Lyon, both rising seniors, are considered Division I talents, and rising junior combo guard Keisha Gregory could be, too.
“We’ve got a solid core returning from teams that’ve gone to three straight state tournaments,” Barnwell said. “That’s another thing about me resigning now, it gives whoever the new coach is an opportunity to come in and, you know, the cupboard is definitely not bare — as it sometimes is when (coaches leave). It gives them an opportunity to come in with a good base to work with and put their system in, and by doing it now, it gives them plenty of time to be able to do that before the season comes up.”
Science Hill boys assistant John Good probably could land the job, but isn’t interested in leaving the boys game. Other names that came up in passing conversation Monday were former Science Hill girls coach Greg Goulds and DeShawne Blocker, an assistant at East Tennessee State under Karen Kemp, who resigned last week. Gregory is Kemp’s daughter.
“I think there’ll be a lot of interest,” said Turner, who wouldn’t mind coaching again himself if not for the enjoyment of his current position. “There are some nice pieces there. We have a good shot to get back down there (to the state) next year.”
Lyon was sorry to see the only varsity coach she’s known step aside.
“I feel like he made the best decision for his self and his family, but it was very emotional,” she said. “He’s the coach you’ve had for so long and you know what to expect from him and you know how he’s gonna coach. It’ll be my senior year and it’ll be a whole different coach. We’ll just have to come together as a team and work through it.”
Lyon appreciates Barnwell’s commitment, which included coaching in the regional championship game on the day his father died.
“I think he’s a very strong man,” Lyon said. “A lot of people couldn’t have dealt with the situations he went through this year the way that he did.”
Lyon just hoped there was unfinished business that she started the first time she met Barnwell when he was eight years old.
“I was like, ‘Hi Coach Barnwell, I’m Gabby Lyon. One day I’m gonna get you a ring,’” Lyon said. “And he said, ‘You’re gonna get me a ring?’ And I said, ‘Yes sir, I am.’ And he was like, ‘Hopefully, one day you can.’ But unfortunately he’s not gonna be there next year for us to try and get him that ring.”
Barnwell doesn’t expect to second-guess his decision. Wins are forgotten more quickly than friendships.
“Obviously, we would’ve liked to have come out of one of those (state tournaments) with a gold ball,” Barnwell said. “But still, what they’ve done is an accomplishment they’ll always remember. We’ve had so many good players and good teams, but the thing I’m gonna miss the most is the relationship with the kids.”