Kentucky is a basketball school. It must be true because I’ve read it on the internet for years. Well, that’s the popular narrative, especially from rival fan bases. It’s also a very lazy and inaccurate narrative. Take a look around at UK Athletics; in case you hadn’t noticed, while basketball may still be the crown jewel, other programs are making strong statements of their own. Yes, Kentucky may be a basketball school but during the tenure of Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart, UK has become so much more.
Perhaps for the first time in the University of Kentucky’s history, we have an Athletics Director who embraces his job title: Athletics Director. When Barnhart was hired in 2002, there were many discussions on UK message boards about him. Some felt he was too inexperienced and in spite of the many positive things he had done at his previous job at Oregon State, that would not translate to him being successful at Kentucky.
Barnhart proved the doubters wrong. For 15 years, Barnhart has dedicated himself to making the University of Kentucky one of the best athletic programs in the nation. It was not enough for him to have Kentucky thought of as “only” a basketball school. Mitch talked the talk and promptly backed it up by walking the walk.
If you haven’t noticed, Kentucky has moved up to #7 in the standings for the Learfield Director’s Cup. (If you’re not familiar with this award, you can read more about it here.) While the spring sports are still up for grabs, UK is in a great position to finish in the top 10 this year. Performing strongly in the Director’s Cup competition validates the University of Kentucky as a school with a strong athletic department, and that makes it an attractive option for more student-athletes.
So how exactly has Barnhart accomplished what seemed to be an impossible feat in making UK such a strong athletic program?
Perhaps most visible would be the improvements in facilities since Mitch has been at the helm. The Joe Craft Center, Bell Soccer Complex, the massive renovations to Commonwealth Stadium, the Joe Craft Football Training Center, and now construction on a new baseball stadium are all great additions to the university. Future plans include a new tennis center as well as a facelift for the Joe Craft Center (basketball). Top of the line facilities attracts top tier coaching talent. The commitment UK Athletics has shown to all sports and not just the 2 revenue cash cows has slowly but surely made Kentucky a destination job for talented coaches rather than a stepping stone to get experience for a better job.
Barnhart has been pretty amazing with his coaching hires. Admittedly, he had a couple of missteps (Joker in football and He Who Shall Not Be Named in basketball), but both situations were rectified fairly quickly. While some fans like to focus on the mistakes, it’s not fair to emphasize those blips on the radar unless you also acknowledge the success stories: Matthew Mitchell, John Calipari, Rachel Lawson, Edrick Floreal, and Nick Mingione. Mark Stoops is also looking to be another of the successful coaching hires assuming the Cats continue to build on the improvement they’ve made since Joker departed Kentucky.
As for academics, Barnhart set a goal in 2008 to reach a 3.0 composite grade-point average for all student-athletes. That goal has been met, for 9 consecutive semesters to be exact. Beyond the emphasis on academics, the student-athletes are a constant presence in the community, at children’s hospitals, soup kitchens and any other number of places displaying true servant leadership. UK Athletics is no longer just paying lip service to all the sports outside of basketball and the student-athletes are the true winners. They are being prepared for successful lives no matter what profession they pursue.
So the next time someone tells you “Kentucky is just a basketball school,” enlighten them to what UK really is — one of the best all-around athletic programs in the nation. And while you’re at it, you might want to say “thank you” to Mitch Barnhart.
Follow me on Twitter @ForeverBigBlue