Gene Sapakoff is the oldest, fastest, hardest-hitting sports journalist in S.C. As columnist at The Post and Courier he covers Clemson, South Carolina and other interesting things. He likes food and has won the prestigious Judson Chapman Award 3 times.

Rick Barnes, Dick Vitale

Former Clemson and current Tennessee head basketball coach Rick Barnes (left) has been sending daily prayer texts to iconic college basketball television analyst Dick Vitale (right) during Vitale's cancer battle. Tennessee plays an SEC game at South Carolina on Feb. 5. Provided/Tennessee Athletics/UTsports.com

Rick Barnes knew he had broken through to the big time at Clemson.

Not with a No. 2 national ranking in January of 1997 that remains the best in school history, or a rare victory at Duke, or three straight NCAA Tournament appearances. Not even with an ACC Tournament upset of North Carolina.

“It was seeing that Dick Vitale started doing more of our games,” Barnes said.

For 41 years, anything great or important in college basketball has required the two-word certification stamp from the mouth that roared until this season.

“AWESOME, BABY!”

“When Dick is in the building,” Barnes said, “it means something.”

That’s why Barnes, while head coach at Providence before his 1994-1998 stint at Clemson, staged a Vitale sound-a-like contest among students as part of a Friars’ Midnight Madness fest.

Vitale has been the most important figure in the sport for almost a half-century. He's a passionate promoter in his iconic role as an ESPN television analyst but also an utterly sincere friend of coaches and celebrities and the fan he just met. Always with a huge heart for cancer research.

Not surprisingly, Vitale long ago struck up strong ties to Barnes, whose No. 22-ranked Tennessee Volunteers play at South Carolina on Feb. 5. Barnes, too, has been heavily involved in charitable causes. That includes support for Tara Hall, a boys home in Georgetown County near the Barnes family vacation house in DeBordieu Colony.

The fine art of friendship is on display as Barnes provides comfort while Vitale takes time off to recover from cancer treatments. Vitale, 82, says that includes pre-cancerous dysplasia on the vocal cords.

He publicly thanked Barnes in a message sent Jan. 29 to 914,000-plus Twitter followers: “In my battle with Melanoma, Lymphoma & my vocal cords I have rec’d fantastic (prayers and love) from many on social media, texts, etc. but I’m going to share what @RickBarnesUT has done. Rick has sent me a PERSONAL (prayer) every day. His KINDNESS brings tears to my eyes when I read his daily text.”

Because that’s what friends like Rick Barnes do.

The daily routine

“I know what Dick is going through,” Barnes said from Knoxville.

Pause.

“Well,” Barnes continued, “I really don’t know. How can you? But I follow what he’s dealing with because Dick is very transparent.”

Oh, very.

Vitale’s voice may be on hiatus but he remains relentless in commentary shared with his followers on Twitter. He opines daily from his home in Lakewood Ranch, Fla., on topics ranging from the biggest basketball games on a given day to chemotherapy, doctor visits, Tom Brady’s retirement and Jim Harbaugh’s flirtation with the NFL.

The enthusiasm is boosted by Barnes. A daily prayer routine started a few months ago.

“It’s something I look forward to everyday,” said Barnes, 67. “It takes me deeper into my walk with the Lord. It’s just part of my quiet prayer time daily.

“Dick’s done a lot of wonderful things and I believe in the power of prayer.”

Barnes' prayer texts always include a Bible verse.

An example, as provided by Vitale: “Lord, we know Dick has been through a lot. Praying Father for you to give him rest for his mind, body and spirit from the fatigue he is facing. We pray for needed strength. Things sometimes in life feel impossible but God your word says that all things are possible with God (Matthew 19:26).”

SEC comes to Vitale

Only Barnes and Oliver Purnell (2008-2010) have taken Clemson to the NCAA Tournament three consecutive seasons. He took Texas to the Final Four in 2003 and has led Tennessee to the NCAA Tournament each of the last three full seasons (no Big Dance because of COVID-19 in 2020).

The Volunteers are a No. 4 seed in Joe Lunardi’s latest ESPN bracketology projection for the NCAA Tournament. But the SEC path is rugged.

The Sagarin computer has the SEC rated as the third-best conference in the country, just behind the Big 12 and Big Ten and slightly ahead of the Big East.

“I don’t care what anybody says, the SEC is the toughest league in the country this year,” Barnes said.

Auburn is No. 1 in the Associated Press poll. South Carolina (13-8, 4-5) got off to a 1-4 SEC start but won three conference games in a row before a Feb. 1 loss at Mississippi State.

“Mississippi State is good; it’s just that nobody knows it,” Barnes said. “And Frank (Martin) has done a really nice job with this South Carolina team.”

Next up for the Gamecocks is Tennessee, with Charleston’s Josiah-Jordan James, a Porter-Gaud graduate, averaging 7.4 points and 5.7 rebounds per game as a junior.

Barnes would love to hang out with Vitale and discuss a game like this while looking ahead to March Madness.

“I can close my eyes right now and think of how players’ faces light up when Dick walks into a locker room before a game,” Vitale said. “And people should know how hard Dick works in preparation for a game, calling and texting coaches. He really does his homework.”

That includes seeking out beat writers and columnists for info nuggets on players, and then crediting those journalists on-air. It was the same thing before a College of Charleston game in the NAIA Tournament in Kansas City in the 1980s as before a Duke-North Carolina clash in the ACC Tournament.

But in a season in which Vitale doesn’t come to basketball games, basketball games are coming to Vitale. Maybe Barnes will get a chance for a big hug when the 2022 SEC Tournament takes place in Tampa, 50 miles from Vitale’s Florida home.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff