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Adia Barnes recounts fist fights, bad culture in first year coaching at Arizona

NCAA Womens Basketball: Final Four Semifinal-Arizona at Connecticut Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Adia Barnes has spoken about the bumps and bruises that went with inheriting the Arizona job in 2016.

Some of those growing pains, it turns out, were all too real.

Barnes went on Channing Frye, Richard Jefferson and Allie Clifton’s Road Trippin’ podcast this week where she disclosed the struggles she experienced as a first-year head coach of the Wildcats.

“There’s more pressure (returning to Arizona) but people don’t think that because when I was here (as a player), we sucked when I first got here (but) we were like a top 10 team my last couple years,” Barnes said. “So everybody expected when I got here, ‘oh we’ll just be that.’ And I was looking at them like, ‘it’s going to take me like 10 years here.’ Because when we were like 300 in the RPI.”

Arizona went 14-16 in Barnes’ first season, but that record didn’t tell the whole story. The challenges she faced off the court were far worse than she anticipated when taking the job.

“We were like having fist fights in practice,” she said. “I was actually really sad because when I first got here, I was like, ‘this isn’t how it’s supposed to be, this is not normal.’ But the kids didn’t know what normal was. To them the things that were happening were normal and to me it was like, ‘okay you can get mad and talk crap and you can do all that, and I like that. But then you don’t actually go to blows. You don’t actually square up and like actually get ready to fight.’ I was like wait, we’re like fighting? Come on.

“And then we separated people and then they went in the hallway and fought again. I was like, you can’t make this up. I just wasn’t used to that, but to them that happened every year. It wasn’t a thing. But to me it was devastating. What did I get myself into? What is going on here? They’ve always been on teams like that.”

Barnes said they couldn’t run certain drills or else they would get into fights. However, she credits the 2016-17 team for playing hard “because they were ready for a change.”

“I think after that what I realized is that culture was everything,” Barnes said. “I had to change the culture. So the following year, I made some changes, didn’t ask some people to come back, and I knew we were going to suck. I knew we were going to take a step back because I had to for the culture because I knew I wasn’t going to coach certain things.”

The conversations telling players not to return to Arizona were difficult for Barnes, who had never been in that position before as a coach.

“One girl, it took me like the whole day to talk to her,” she recalled. “I was so nervous because I was like, ‘oh my gosh, what if she drops out of college?’ It was like firing someone. I was so devastated to tell her. My heart was beating out of my head.”

The entire interview between Barnes and the Road Trippin’ crew is an entertaining listen. Barnes is known to be candid, but even by her standards she is extraordinarily open here about the joys and struggles of leading her alma mater to the pinnacle of college basketball.

The episode can be found on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.