Nearly any way you look at it, it's been a banner year for UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart and the athletic department.
The men's basketball team won a national championship while the women made another deep NCAA tournament run, the baseball team bounced back to contend for the Southeastern Conference title, the volleyball team hosted the NCAA tournament, and even tennis star Eric Quigley made a run to the NCAA championship match for singles.
With all that winding down as the school year is over, Barnhart sat down with Cats Illustrated to discuss the athletic department. In part one, he
How fun has the year been in terms of the rankings that show the kind of year you're having?
"I just visited with the president (Eli Capilouto) about that very thing. We were talking about how I've only been here 10 years, and I can honestly say I know in those 10 years we've not had this kind of overall success in our program. We had four SEC coaches of the year, four conference championships, almost a fifth. A national championship. Doing things that have not been done by UK athletes. It's been special on a lot of fronts. We had multiple SEC athletes of the year. Two of them are from our home state. It's just fun to watch those kind of things happen and it speaks, I think, volumes about the people we've got working in our department, our coaches and staff that are preparing them. But you have to have a little chemistry and you have to have a little good fortune. It's been a lot of fun. It's been an awful lot of fun."
One thing that probably wasn't much fun was that baseball selection show. How disappointing was that?
"Extremely frustrating. To think that we were 6-3 against what you would call the 'super seeds' of the country and we were literally one game away from winning the league regular season title, to think that's not good enough to host was, to be honest with you, a little shocking. It was disappointing. I felt like we deserved a better fate. But I've seen that happen to other schools. I've seen that happen where they didn't get selected to go and I've seen the disappointment. We struggled a little bit scoring runs at the end of the year but we were struggling against really good pitching. There are really good pitchers in our league, in case anyone hadn't noticed. Those guys throw it pretty good. The good news is we throw it pretty good as well. So hopefully there'll be a little burr in our saddle that will spur some people on."
Have you gotten an explanation for that?
"They said a lot of it had to do with they felt like our nonconference RPI wasn't as strong as it needed to be. I get that. But I've looked at some of the other nonconference RPIs of other schools who get to host and I'm not sure that there is great differences in a lot of that. I would also say an 18-12 team in the Southeastern Conference deserves to host. This is as good a baseball league as there is. The RPI between the ACC and the SEC are right there together, so for them to get five and us to get 3, I'm just not sure. We swept South Carolina, whose RPI I think was nine, and they got the last super seed. I've been in that room, I was on the baseball committee for three years and I know what that process looks like. I just didn't feel like we got the fate that we deserved."
The baseball narrative going into the season was whether this was Gary Henderson's last year. I imagine now, there will be some change. You might have to talk about a contract extension.
"I would think that's probably accurate. People have been around me long enough in my 10 years at Kentucky to know that I will be patient with our coaches and give them every chance to succeed. I don't want to give anybody to term me a quick-trigger guy. I think you guys have figured that out. I love our people. Gary is representative of the kind of person we want at Kentucky. I was just talking to our president about how I couldn't be happier for a person than Gary. He is great people, he and Vicky are wonderful. (Henderson's 9-year-old son) Ty is hilarious. It's a great family to have at our ballpark and we really, really enjoy them."
Do you have to talk contract when the tournament is over?
"Yeah, we'll get that done. I told Gary a couple weeks ago that we're working on some stuff and we'll see if we can get some stuff done. Hopefully we'll get that pulled together sooner rather than later."
You said people know you aren't quick trigger, which brings up another point. You were very patient with Rich Brooks at a time when that wasn't very popular. How are you going into football, evaluating it this year?
"I've said all along, we've got to have some progress. We had made really steady, methodical progress, then we took a little step back last year. We had a little momentum at the end of last season. We broke through the Tennessee streak and got that behind us. We've got a lot of good, young players. We have got to find a way to build off the people we've got in our program and we have to find a way to make some progress. How is that defined? I think I'll know it when I see it. As you guys know, I'm not a guy who will sit down and say it's a numbers game. But you'll know it when you see it, you'll know it when you feel it. I would hope we've earned enough credibility with the way we do our business that the fans can say 'We'll trust that decision-making. They've been there in the past, They've done it in the past and They'll do it again going forward.'"
Along those lines, where are you at on football season tickets now?
"We're off a little bit. I don't have the numbers right in front of me. What we do is we go through the renewal process and then we start calling everybody that hasn't renewed. That's not unusual, that's our normal process. We've got a date that we put down and a lot of people miss that date. They forget and do stuff. So we get on the phone and call. We spend about a month-and-a-half, two months calling people. We're in that process right now of calling and we'll get to a number by the end of June as to where we sit. That's the end of our fiscal year where we'll have an idea money-wise of where we're sitting. We'll have a better feel at the end of June and see how that plays out for us.
"We are off a little bit in terms of renewal. We've had some people say they aren't going to renew and I appreciate that. People have to make conscious choices about what they do with their monies and we've got some folks that have been with us through thick and thin, they never waver and they'll support Kentucky football and I'm very appreciative of those folks. There are some people who have said they're going to wait until we 'invest in football,' which is ironic because we've done a lot of investing in football. They'll say until we have what they would consider a competitive product in the SEC and we've been competitive and done some good things. We just have to get to a different spot that everybody wants to get to. We all want to get to that same spot."
You talk about fans and the perception that you don't invest in football. Does that perception and some of that negativity frustrate you?
"I don't think I'd say frustrated. I think it's hard for them to see some of the things we've invested in. Some of the things that we've done. The infrastructure for our players is sound. When people see stuff, they immediately equate it to stadium and fan amenities. That's immediately what they see. So even when you have a $7.5 million scoreboard expansion last year, which really dressed up our stadium well, everybody goes 'Well that was cool. What's next?'
"OK. Well, our goal, and that's part of the conversation I just had, was how do you get to the spot where we have the debt capacity and the bonds necessary to do something for our stadium. How do we do that? So that's the moving piece that we have to get done. That's when fans say you truly invested. It all comes down to fan amenities and stadium. That's what they actually see the investment. The rest of it, well, we have invested it and we've invested well. We pay for everything in cash, so no one sees any debt on our books. They can't say 'They have debt service that's hanging out there for football.' No, we don't. We've paid for everything in cash. Everything has been done and we don't have any debt hanging over it.
"Do I get frustrated? I wish people could see what we've done. I wish people could understand that our players don't want for anything. They've got what they need to be successful. We've got what we need at Kentucky. I was talking to Joker about two months ago and I asked him what his wish list looks like. He was joking around, he said 'What I really want is more guys that can make play.' And I said 'Me, too.' It wasn't about needing things. He said 'I've got what I need. What I need is guys that make plays.' And so the question then is how do you get those guys to come here? Is it the personalities and the relationships of the people involved, or is it the things you can offer? Clearly, those are all pieces of the puzzle. You have to get those sort of things rolling together at the same time."
With some of that negativity around the team, is it difficult for you because you want to remind them that it wasn't so long ago that the program was at one of its high points?
"Right. We were in a five-year stretch where we went to bowls and everybody thought that was pretty good. Then everybody says they want to go to a better bowl. They want to go to a different bowl. I think people, you guys, and the folks who have been around me, you know I want to win in everything. There's very little I don't want to win in. I want to win. There's no one walking in our department doors going 'Gosh, we're satisfied with this. We don't want to win the conference championship in that sport.' Most notably football. Boy, would that be special.
"I've been fortunate; I've won a conference championship in football every place I've ever worked. It's been pretty good. I would like to have that on our resume at Kentucky as well. There's nothing that would make me any happier than to say we won the Southeastern Conference championship and got to represent our league at a BCS bowl in football. That would be very special. No one wants that more than I do. Do I think it's possible? I think it's all possible. I think you can do it. If you can do it at Oregon State, you can do it at Kentucky. I truly believe that."
I hear that comparison to different places, such as Kansas State. The difference is the league is a monster. Hugh Freeze said the other day 'There is a difference when the other teams are spending what they're spending.' You may like your facilities, but somebody else has always got something that is going to be hard for you to get.
"You've got to establish your personality for what your place is and you have to be able to stick to a personality and a game plan with what you've got. That doesn't mean you accept mediocrity. It doesn't mean you accept being below standard. It does mean you've got to identify who you want to be and stick with it and understand you might not be able to be everything everybody else is. There are some regional limitations as to what we've got in terms of number of athletes in our state, in terms of number of football players we can bring out of our state, the way we have to recruit versus some of the other schools and how they can recruit. We don't have the luxury to do some of the things that schools in the states of Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Texas, some of those schools have got.
"They have some regional pieces that are a little different than ours. But we've got to identify what our personality is and then go play to that personality and do what we do.
You've got to, whether it be baseball, if it's baseball you say 'This is how we're going to attack Southeastern Conference baseball. This is how we do our deal. This is who we're going to be. Go be that team.' We have to do the same thing in football. You say 'This is who we're going to be and go be that team, and not veer from it and stick to our plan.'"
Check back tomorrow for part two, where Barnhart discusses the IU basketball series, Commonwealth Stadium's debt bonding issues, and more.
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