Rod Barnes leaned back in his chair and reached into a work bag, which was perched on a desk in his office.
One of his players on the Cal State Bakersfield men’s basketball team, sophomore forward Taze Moore, had asked for a book recommendation. One that would provide introspective and insight for a student-athlete trying to find his way in college life, on and off the court.
Barnes pulled out "Surviving the Lights" by Tywanna Smith. The book, Barnes said, was about how to handle being a high-profile athlete: The glory, fame and — in a professional athlete’s case — money that comes with such a position. Understanding the lifestyle, how to take his craft seriously, and align his future appropriately.
“I’m trying to give him the perspective. It’s not just about basketball,” Barnes said.
“See a broader picture,” the coach concluded, with a smile and head nod.
It's typical Barnes, entering his seventh year in charge of the Roadrunners. He’s made his mark not just as coach, but as mentor to his players. Soft-spoken, yet commanding respect. Southern charm, yet full in presence.
A coach who stresses academics — “If you don’t go to class, you don’t play for us” — and teaches life lessons before all else on the college hardwood.
“We talk, first of all, about the human being,” Barnes said. “Whether they’re playing professionally or not, they still got to come back to these principles that we teach every day. Every conversation I have with players, with parents, with coaches, is that we’re coaching a person first. I’m hoping that we’re developing young men that will make their communities, their families, this world a better place.”
Issiah Grayson played for Barnes at CSUB from 2011-14, before taking the court professionally in Italy.
Grayson has since returned to Bakersfield in hopes of pursuing a coaching career. He’s currently an assistant at Bakersfield Christian High School, runs a youth basketball program in town, and is helping the Roadrunners as well.
Grayson said during his collegiate days at CSUB, Barnes took a collection of players from New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Texas and overseas, and made them a cohesive unit.
“He knows how to get a group of guys and make them come together,” Grayson said. “We’re strong with brotherhood. Everything we do is brotherhood. Everything is family-oriented.”
With that as the backdrop, Barnes has built a Division I college basketball program in Bakersfield.
When he arrived on the CSUB campus, the Roadrunners were four years in on the Division I level, operating as an independent program without conference affiliation.
Since Barnes’ arrival, the program’s facilities have taken steps forward, a greater academic support system is in place, and the college atmosphere surrounding a Roadrunners game has improved. They now compete in the Western Athletic Conference, and there’s a level of excitement in the air.
“To see where we were to where we are, first year that I got here. Anything you name, we were lacking in,” Barnes said. “We haven’t caught up, but we’re much farther along than where we were.”
The team has also won during the process.
CSUB has back-to-back 20-plus win seasons, recorded an NCAA Tournament berth two years ago, and an NIT Final Four appearance last year.
Such success has led some to wonder if Barnes has received coaching offers elsewhere.
“Interest and offers are two different things,” Barnes astutely pointed out. “I almost get interest every year.”
Still, Barnes said no overtures have been extended his way. And even if they were, he would have to think about it.
Barnes said while some jobs could appear appealing, others simply wouldn’t be the right fit at this point of his career. He also said when he came to CSUB, he didn’t do so with the intent of moving somewhere else.
His current contract at the school, which pays a base salary of $225,000 annually, runs through the 2023-24 season.
“I’m here because I love Bakersfield,” Barnes said. “I just feel like I’ve put a lot of work in it. We’ve gotten great results from it. And the people have been really good to me. I’m talking about the administration and the people here.
“We’ve gotten the support to move us forward. And we’ve done it together. It’s been teamwork with my AD, vice president, president, to put us in a position.”
Barnes said Kern County reminds him of his roots. A native of Yazoo City, Miss., Barnes played at Ole Miss from 1985-88 and eventually became head coach at the school from 1998-2006.
He also had stints as an assistant coach at the University of Oklahoma and then as head coach at Georgia State before arriving at CSUB.
Georgia State, located in Atlanta, was an anomaly compared to the rest of his journey.
“When I got here, they brought me in for my visit. And Atlanta was nothing like Bakersfield,” Barnes said. “As I was traveling in, I think they were concerned because of the perception. The ag town, it’s oil around, it’s hard-working, it’s truck drivers. It’s hot. The thing is, that’s where I came from. I worked as an ag on farms 'til I graduated college. I understand.
“Actually, I felt at home.”
As CSUB Athletic Director Ziggy Siegfried wrote in an email to The Californian:
“What coach Barnes has done with the CSU Bakersfield men’s basketball program has been transformational. I believe most people have seen the success we have had over the last two years on the court and by putting Bakersfield in the national spotlight, but that success came from coach Barnes doing things the right way, by focusing on graduating student-athletes, and providing a first-class student-athlete experience.”