You are probably familiar with the old saying about death and taxes being the only things that are certain in life. I’d like to add a third entry to that list: whenever any major college program is under NCAA investigation, the fans from that school, as well a few select media members will react by saying “You better worry about what’s going on at UK!” Of course, the inference is Kentucky must be cheating. Everybody knows Kentucky is a “dirty” program. While UK has had unpleasant dealings with the NCAA in the past, there has not been a single issue since 1988. It is interesting to note the same cannot be said for such schools as Kansas, Syracuse, Indiana, UConn, North Carolina, and of course, Louisville. Yet they still insist that the BBN should be worried about UK.
So what is going on at UK anyway? We could talk about the obvious: the UK Men’s Basketball team. Without question, basketball is the cornerstone of UK Athletics. Coming off a history-making 38-1 season, the Cats are primed again for another successful year. We could talk about 4 Final Fours in 5 years, a national championship, top recruiting classes year after year and record numbers of NBA draft picks. We could mention the fact that Kentucky Basketball is so hot right now that for the first time in history, Big Blue Madness will be televised nationally in its entirety. Or how about the fact that ESPNU will be televising a practice Sunday night? Yes, these are golden times in the rich tradition that is known as Kentucky Basketball.
But, contrary to a popular narrative, UK is not just a “basketball school” any more. Far from it, actually. You see, what’s going on at UK is a rise of all the athletic programs. Baseball, softball and soccer teams are enjoying success like never before. The baseball team has become a regular participant in the NCAAs while the softball team has qualified for 3 consecutive super regionals and made it to the College World Series once. Our Women’s Soccer team enjoyed its first ever preseason top 25 ranking and has worked their way up to their highest ever ranking at #9 currently. How about volleyball? After a few stumbles in the non-conference portion of their schedule, Coach Craig Skinner has his team on a roll, currently ranked 20th in the nation and sitting in first place in the SEC at 5-0. There’s also the Rifle team that starts their season this weekend after finishing last year ranked 6th in the country (and were you aware they won a national championship in 2011?) Track and Field deserves a nod as well, having finished 2015 as the National Runner-up.
Do you see a pattern here? UK Athletics is on the rise across the board. I haven’t even mentioned the UK Hoops program yet, nor our rising Football program. Coach Matthew Mitchell has developed the Lady Cats into a perennial contender for SEC championships and has been consistently making deep runs in the NCAA tourney each year. This could be the year they finally break through and get that elusive trip to the Final Four. And football? There is no question that Coach Mark Stoops has the Cats on an upward trend, bringing in more talent each year and reaching small milestones along the way. Currently sporting a 4-1 record, the remaining schedule for the Wildcats is rather favorable and Kentucky is almost certainly going to be bowl-eligible this season.
So you want me to worry about what’s going on at UK? Well, if you didn’t mean the athletic programs and their performance on the field/court, then I can only assume you were referring to their performance in the classroom. I submit for your review the following information from the UK Athletics website:
It is no coincidence that Barnhart’s multiple accolades came in the same year as the completion of his 15 by 15 by 15 Plan, an ambitious blueprint set in 2008 in which Kentucky would rank in the nation’s top 15 athletic programs and win 15 conference or national championships by 2015. At the same time, Barnhart set a goal of a 3.0 composite grade-point average for UK student-athletes and an even greater commitment to community service by Wildcat athletes and staff.
All of the goals presented bold, unprecedented challenges for UK Athletics. The academic goal was first achieved in the spring semester of 2010 and has an active streak of six consecutive 3.0 semesters, hitting a peak in spring 2014 with a school-record 3.218 composite GPA. Community service has risen to more than 4,000 hours annually and includes outreach to the Lexington area, the Commonwealth of Kentucky and as far away as Ethiopia.
Yes, there’s plenty going on at UK right now. Mitch Barnhart has methodically built this department from “just a basketball school” into a perennial top-20 finisher in the Director’s Cup standings, which determines a school’s overall athletic standing. Along the way, he has supported each program by working tirelessly to see that they get what they feel is necessary to compete for conference and national championships on a regular basis. The Joe Craft center, new softball field, the Bell Complex for soccer and new track and field facilities have been constructed. Of course, the crown jewel in facilities upgrades would be the just-completed renovation of Commonwealth Stadium. Add to all of that the current construction of the world-class practice facility being built and you have a lot of exciting things happening for UK Athletics across the board.
The most exciting thing of all? It’s Barnhart’s and UK’s commitment to be successful on the field, but even more successful off of it. The coaches for all athletic programs have been directed to recruit the best talent they can, but these prospective student-athletes must also have great character. Ideals such as “servant leadership” are taught, not just in basketball, but in all sports. Community service is expected and, quite often continues voluntarily once the required number of hours has been met. The culture at the University of Kentucky is one of great expectations, both athletically and academically. Any violation of team rules are dealt with swiftly and firmly by coaches. Each program is expected to remain in compliance with the NCAA and Sandy Bell is the great enforcer in this arena.
So, the next time your school is in trouble with the NCAA and your response is for me to “worry about what’s going on at UK,” I will happily oblige you. If what’s going on with the University of Kentucky is supposed to be worrisome, I’ll take this set of problems any day of the week. Oh, and you might suggest to your school to see what’s going on at UK. They might learn a thing or two.
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