UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart sat down with Cats Illustrated for an in-depth interview to discuss the athletic department. In part one, Barnhart discusses the progress of the women's basketball program, the status of a renovation to Rupp Arena and his decision to support football coach Joker Phillips in a losing season.
One of your hires, Matthew Mitchell, has his program at what might be the highest level it's ever been at. How excited are you about what you see there?
Well, Matthew has done a great job. It's been an awful lot of fun. The style of play is really fun. Our fans enjoy it, the crowds are great, the girls are incredibly energetic, and they're a good group, they're a fun group to be around. The level at which we're playing is clearly a high level.
We have a huge game on Monday night with Tennessee. If you win that, you put yourself in position to win a conference championship. We have a one game lead with I think five to play and so the opportunity is in front of us to do something we haven't done in three decades. I'm awfully happy for him and happy for the girls. The good news is it's a really, really young team on paper with a very talented player sitting on the bench coming into the roster next year.
It seems like every time outsiders pick the program to take a step back, such as a couple years ago or after Victoria Dunlap left, they continue to move forward. What does that say about Coach Mitchell?
I think two things. One, recruiting continues to get better for us. He is recruiting some really dynamic players. And he's recruited to a style that I think kids want to play. You have a really talented athlete like Bria Goss who is a freshman and is performing at a really strong level for a freshman kid. Having a few dips that freshmen are going to have, but by and large, incredibly athletic. You have a transfer that comes in, Samari Walker, and she does a good job of gaining ground as the season is going, about learning the game. It took her a little while to get her sea legs, but once she has, she's starting to make a real impact on what we're doing. He's finding a nice blend of people.
Then you have the gal that everybody seems to, I won't say overlook, but you've got A'dia, who just sits there and quietly, because she's not real demonstrative, because she's not real flashy in terms of her personality, she just sort of goes about her business and does her thing and everybody forgets about her. And I think we forgot we had her and then she comes out and pops whatever she does against Tennessee and helps us win the game. She's a heck of a player.
With that kind of success, there are going to be questions about Matthew and his future here. Have you talked about that?
Yeah, he and I have talked about that and he wants to be a Wildcat. We need to make sure that he's a Wildcat for a long time. That's the goal and to make sure that we ensure that, we'll work with Matthew and work our way through those conversations. Usually those occur more towards the end of the year. It's important for us. He's built something very, very special here.
It is his legacy here. And that's real important for us and I think that's important for him. He's putting 8,000 people a game or 7,500, whatever you want to call Memorial Coliseum, and this is his legacy and this is his program. I think that he appreciates that and I think that we certainly want him to stick around here and continue to grow it. I think the best days are still to come.
I know you said a moment ago that it's the kind of thing you usually talk about toward the end of the year, but is an extension something you'll talk about at the end of the year?
Oh, yeah. We always talk about those kind of things. Matthew and I are always in conversation, so I would anticipate that we look at that at the end of every year. We just did something new I think two years ago, and we'll continue to make sure we examine that. He's a very important person at the University of Kentucky. He does a great job representing Kentucky - more than as a basketball coach, he does a great job representing UK.
You said he wants to be a Wildcat. Most of the time, I wouldn't ask about another school, but with the possibility that the Tennessee job could open up this year or in the near future, do you think he might have interest in that? He was a graduate assistant there early in his career.
You know, I don't ever speak for anybody else. I think that's not my spot to do that. Having said that, you know, that is clearly a job that Pat Summitt has held for an awful long time and she's an icon in women's basketball and you respect that. She's going through a tough time right now and trying to work her way through the health challenges that she has and is doing so very courageously.
Where that all lands and what that means, who knows? I think what we have concern ourselves with is Kentucky and making sure that we create an opportunity for these to be destination jobs. When we get good coaches and good people, we want them to be at Kentucky. With the exception of my staff, where everybody keeps leaving me (laughs), I would like to keep everybody else at Kentucky. So that's my goal.
Is there any chance that a few years down the road, maybe after the renovation, that the women might consider playing more games at Rupp Arena or moving there full-time?
I think that's a Matthew question. I think he likes playing occasionally in the big arena, because it gives you a feel for what it might look like in postseason play and those kind of things. The atmosphere at Memorial is pretty hard to beat. It is a special atmosphere and I told him that. I said 'I get it, we can go to Rupp and put more people in seats.'
However, Memorial is hard. It is hard to play in Memorial Coliseum. Let me do math for everybody who has failed to pick up on those numbers. About five weeks ago, I was telling Tony (Neely) and about half of our media relations staff, 'What's our record at home the last three years in men's and women's basketball?' So we started checking it out and I said 'I know it's got to be pretty good. I can only remember two losses.' So we started doing the math and through the last 96 games, we're 94-2. There's a reason for that. Rupp Arena is a really difficult place to play in men's basketball. John's done a great job on the men's side, Matthew has done an equally great job on the women's side and Memorial Coliseum is a very difficult place to play.
We've only played one game out of there, and that was that Duke game. We played Tennessee and Georgia and lost here at Memorial last year, so we're 94-2. I'm not sure you want to mess with that. I've been through a lot of streaks in my career. I've been through a lot of really good, cool winning streaks and stuff like that. 94-2, I haven't seen that in my career. Not in my career.
I remember some time ago you said that if the process to renovate Rupp Arena was a marathon, you were at mile one or two. Where are you all now?
I don't think they're much further along than that. I think that they may be at mile five or six. I have no idea where that would be on the continuum, I guess. But I think there's a long way to go. And I'm not sure that there's anything that's been locked in from anybody's perspective. Clearly there are a lot of things from a campus perspective that Dr. Capilouto is concerned about and how that impacts what goes on at the University of Kentucky. We have to insure that is something that we are comfortable with; that it doesn't impact the university adversely in the higher education funding process and capital funding processes on campus.
Secondly, we have to make sure that whatever happens is for the financial stability and benefit of what we do in the athletic department. We cannot have a bad financial deal for our basketball program. There are two things that feed our entire athletic department: football and men's basketball. Those two things have got to be right for us. Cannot afford to take a step backwards in terms of what we're doing and certainly we anticipate that if we were moving into something different, we would be taking a step forward financially. We're not going to take a step forward unless there's a reason to do that.
You just mentioned some things that Dr. Capilouto would like to do on campus. Is that why the university has decided not to lobby the state for funds for Rupp?
Yeah. Clearly, he feels like and has been told that there is one pool of money and multiple things can't be taken from that pool of money and still do everything that everybody wants to do. So his concern is making sure that there is some physical capital expenditures on this campus that need to be taken care of and that is a priority for everybody at the university. We want to make sure we honor that. We're a part of the general university and the greater university vision and we have to make sure that we're aware of that.
Having said that, we've also got to protect Kentucky basketball and we have to make sure we have a vision for that as well. So that doesn't necessarily mean there's no plan, it just means we have to make sure those visions can coexist.
That doesn't mean that 10 or 20 years down the road, you all might consider an on-campus arena?
Great question for the next athletic director (laughs).
So that's a 'No' for right now.
For right now.
Some of the reports about the renovation at Rupp Arena said that the lower bowl's seating capacity could actually be increased. How much of a priority is it to keep capacity at what it is now or at least as high as it can be?
It's important to have the capacity where it is. At least. At least where it is. Our fans are coming in normal numbers I would say, pretty solid, normal, maybe a little above normal. We've been rock solid in our attendance and I don't see that changing. Kentucky basketball is a very special thing, and we want to make sure that we don't lose sight of the people who want to come into Rupp Arena and watch the Cats play. Our goal is not to reduce size and tell people they can't. We want to make sure that they have a chance to come watch us play.
So it might be expanding even?
Based on some of the numbers they gave us, that was what it looked like on paper. I have not seen any final architectural plans. Those were things they had hoped to do. Clearly, you never no until you get down to the nitty gritty that that's exactly what's going to happen, that it's the direction it goes.
So what's the next step in that process and what role will you all have?
What I understand is that the city is trying to gather up enough money to continue the study, take the plans that they've got and continue to foster plans. I would assume that they have to come back to us and say 'This is how it's going to be funded.' That's the challenge from Dr. Capilouto's perspective, to make sure that if there is a funding mechanism that it doesn't adversely affect the university so we can support it or not support it.
We'll go from there. Then obviously, if you go through with that, we'll have to look at new lease agreements and those kind of things if that was going to take place because obviously you'd have a whole new set of circumstances. Our lease runs through 2018, so we're comfortable sitting there for a while. We can wait it out. We're not hurting for a place to play right now and that's a very important part of that process. We can never be impacted where we're put out of the building. We have to make sure we have a place to play.
It sounds like you all are taking a hands-off approach for the most part.
Yeah, I wouldn't say hands-off, I'd say more of a wait-and-see.
Changing gears to football. Obviously there will be differences, but there were some similarities with the 2005 and 2006 seasons and this year. Some of the fans were displeased with Rich Brooks at the time and you stuck with him there. What did you learn from that year?
I've always been a patient person, I guess. I don't know if that's the right word. Some would call it stubborn, maybe. I think in today's' world, we want to change for change's sake. If we don't like something, we need to change and go on to something very quickly. And I don't know that that's the healthiest thing. We've got as a society or as athletics, whatever you want to call it, we got into change for change's sake. If we don't like it, change quickly.
I don't know that at Kentucky in our football program, that a lack of stability is what we need. We need some stability. We just finished recruiting and I thought we had a really good, really solid recruiting class with some wonderful young men coming into our program. Guys that I think will represent Kentucky well and have a chance to be really good players for us.
I think the things that people enjoy initially, they lose sight of rather quickly. Wesley Woodyard, the Jacob Tammes, the Randall Cobbs, all those kind of folks that we cheered and we thanked the coaches for bringing those people to our program and watched and enjoyed and then they've gone on to the NFL and they're doing remarkably well, we said 'Yeah, you did really good with those. But you didn't do so good with those (others). We don't like how the rest of that turned out.'
I think there's a perception that we don't want to pursue greatness in football, that we're not concerned with contending for the SEC championship. We're very much concerned with that. The goal is to compete for the SEC East crown, to get to a spot where we can play for something in Atlanta and then have a chance to do some really cool things in college football. That's the goal.
So my patience level, my desire to give Joker Phillips and his staff an opportunity to see through some of the changes, I don't care whether they've been here or not - transition is hard. It is a hard deal, whether you're moving from head coach in waiting to head coach or associate athletic director to athletic director. Those transitions, I don't care whether you've been there or not, it's a tough transition. And you've never been a head coach until you've been a head coach. Your first year is sort of working your way through that, and then you begin to have your footprint that you put on it.
To say that that whole process is completed after two years, I just don't think is fair. I don't think it's a good message for college football, I don't think it's a good message for Kentucky and honestly, I didn't think it was right. I believe the staff has brought in some wonderful young talent. We've redshirted a group of guys that I think will help us next year and the combination of that with the guys that we've got coming in, we're going to try and grow it and have some fun again.
We won some games, we stopped the streak last year, which was good to get that one off our chest. We have to get a couple of things done but the most important thing is to make progress and get back to going to bowl games and moving our way up that ladder a little bit and getting some championship opportunities.
It seemed like you were asked about Joker's job security every week and you were steadfast in your support. Do you see any similarities with the program now to where it was in 2005 or 2006? Or is it different?
Well, it's different in that I think we're further along as a program than we were with Rich. Everybody said if you look back at '05, '06, I don't think we had as much talent as we do now. I think we've got more talent on our team now in terms of overall. There may have been better pockets but I think overall, we're in a little better shape. I think our recruiting has really stepped up a notch or two, and that's a good thing. We can be top 50 in the country, top 35 in the country, whatever poll you look at for recruiting and still be 12th or 13th in our league. Our league is that good. It's really, really hard when you add the two new teams.
So it's a hard place to live. I see similarites. I'm hoping that we can bounce back and have similar results that we can get back to postseason play and not just be satisfied with six wins. We want to reach out there and try and grab eight or nine wins and if we can make progress towards getting there, that's terrific. What I want to see is our young players begin to develop like they began to develop in those years. If we can see that development and win some games, that gives me the feeling that we're going back the right way.
All that said, do you still have to call this past season a disappointment?
I don't ever like to lose. I think Joker would tell you 5-7 is not where we want to be. Losing is not fun. It is disappointing. Losing is disappointing. I wouldn't say it's more disappointing; I don't like to lose. It's as simple as that. Losing is disappointing.
And what I want young people to understand is you have a very limited time to get to play the game that you love and when you give up a year where you say 'I just wasn't focused,' or 'I didn't give the effort I should have,' or 'I had other things on my mind,' you just gave away an opportunity to do something that you love. Because there is no church league football like there's softball and baseball and other sports. You don't have that. When college football ends, if you don't go pro, you're done. It's the end of the deal. The last time you put on the pads and the helmet will be your last game in college. That's it. At 22 years old, your career is over. Done. So I want guys to understand the finality with which you play the game and understand that there is a piece to that that they can never get back once they give it away.
So is it disappointing, yeah. Disappointing from a lot of fronts. Young people give up something they don't even know they're giving up. We do not have the opportunity to do what we want to do and at the end of the day, we lose. I don't like losing. I want to win. So that's the disappointment in it. I don't care if it was 4-8, 5-7, or 6-6. If it was 6-6, I'd be just as disappointed in the six losses as if it was four losses or eight losses. Losing is losing. I don't like that.
Check back on Tuesday for part two. Barnhart continues to discuss the football program, along with potential new facility upgrades, members of his staff leaving to become athletic directors, and much more.
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