By Dalton Christopher
Football season is approaching in the bluegrass once again. As the Big Blue Nation examines and critiques every commitment, every statement from Coach Stoops and from SEC competitors, one man stands behind it all. He hears what is said on radio call in shows and he hears what the BBN is tweeting about. As much as he is excited for a new opportunity to push Kentucky Football to the next level, he is more invested in seeing that the overall Kentucky product is at its peak, and that may not mean what you think it means.
Mitch Barnhart is the Athletic Director at the University of Kentucky. In his sixteen years in Lexington quite a bit has changed, and it’s all by design. He has committed to a blueprint to maximize the potential that Kentucky holds. As I spoke with Barnhart, the football season had just concluded, and he spoke candidly about how he felt, and he sees a lot of promise in the future. His response is a perfect glimpse into his outlook with UK Athletics.
“I think we went through some interesting phases this season. Early on we didn’t have our identity well in hand. As the season got longer we got towards the end and suffered through some injuries and late season stuff. We were 7-3 going into our last games and didn’t finish the way we wanted to, but I was really proud of how we responded in the bowl game,” he said as he reflected on the progress 2017 brought.
When asked about his feelings on how the overall season delivered, he said he feels like some goals were left up for grabs, but the season wasn’t lost by any means.
“I felt like we didn’t get everything accomplished that we wanted to, we wanted to take the next visible step in terms of a record, but we got back to our personality of who we wanted to be in the bowl game,” he said.
Football has been one of the most visible markers of the Barnhart era at Kentucky over the last several seasons. With more sell outs, more signature victories and more attention to the program by national media and SEC opponents, Kentucky is no longer at the bottom of the rankings in the conference. That didn’t happen by accident. Commonwealth Stadium was renovated with a huge addition to the press box areas and suites in 2015. The renovations also included box seats, club seats, a recruiting room, renovated concourses, bathrooms, lights and cost nearly $110 million. The Stadium was then rebranded to Kroger Field in 2017.
While UK continues to invest in football, the Barnhart era also brought about new logos from Nike. A new wildcat was a bold step into the future, along with a slightly altered UK logo. Checkerboards adorn the new football and basketball uniforms.
While visible changes have been made to the appearance of the program, the on field presentation has shown prominently the commitment Barnhart and the University have made towards the program.
Head Coach Mark Stoops ranks eighth in the SEC and 22ndnationally in pay. He receives a raise each season of his contract through June 2022. Under Stoops, the Cats started at 2-10 in his first season as coach, and have improved to 7-6 the last two seasons. In 2016 Kentucky was tied for second in the division standings. The last time they were ranked that high was in 2006 under Rich Brooks when the Cats were 8-5 and won the Music City Bowl over Clemson. Progress has been made in recruiting, with the Cats being recognized for their recruiting classes over the last six seasons.
This is all part of Barnhart’s plan to compete. The Kentucky experience has been upgraded at every level. Non-revenue sports have seen attendance and performance improve steadily. The baseball Cats are preparing to move into a new $49 million dollar facility in August. Of all the new infrastructure and the improved performance athletically, Barnhart says non revenue sports have succeeded because of the work of the student athletes and everyone involved.
“People have begun to say there is a level of excellence expected here,” he said, “People trend towards success.”
The student athletes certainly have been putting the work in, both on and off the field. There have been eleven straight semesters of students above a 3.0 GPA. Last year Kentucky finished 10thin the Director’s Cup, the highest finish in school history, but Barnhart has a goal of being in the top five.
“The goal is to become more consistent and maintain that level of excellence,” he said.
All of this work is to create a culture of attraction and excellence.
“There are moments of greatness where we get to go grab the gold ring,” he said, “We want to become a destination place for our coaches and where people want to arrive.”
It is clear Barnhart is motivated to not only declare new goals for the University, but he is willing to put the work in to make sure those goals can be achieved, but why is that? People may see Barnhart standing by the goal post during a football game or in the stands for a baseball game, but what drives him to continue pushing so hard?
That answer is simple: passion.
“I love to compete. I competed growing up. I take joy in the competition, I don’t always find joy in the result. If we lose, I’m never happy, but I always want to lose with honor and humility,” he said.
Barnhart also loves to see young people achieve their goals, something he has grown to appreciate more and more during his tenure in Lexington.
“The one unbelievable joy is kids coming back with their children. How cool is that? We’re producing good fruit. We are getting to that spot where you get to see those things, it is genuinely good to see them come back and see where they have landed,” he said.
He compares investing into students like investing money into a bank, there has to be enough investment to cover a withdraw.
“In any job you have to have things deposited to withdraw from when things don’t go well. For me, the deposits are the education component, competitive component, watching them grow up, sharing their victories because there are some withdraws. Disappointments when things don’t go your way,” he said. “It is my job to make sure we have enough deposits for student athletes, coaches, staff, fans, the university, we have to fill up the buckets with deposits.”
When Barnhart leaves his position in Lexington, which he says isn’t approaching any time soon, he often things of his legacy as leaving it better than he found it.
“We want to say we went out to achieve cool and great things, things that have never been done before and we’ve done it,” he said.
Barnhart finds his personal legacy in his faith.
“First and foremost I am a believer of Jesus Christ. That has to be my legacy first and foremost. Everything rises and falls on that,” Barnhart said.
He finds his faith involved in all aspects of his day to day life, including on the job.
“I have an opportunity to get through the valleys and not get messed up with the peaks. I start every day in The Word. I’m not perfect, I’m just a guy trying really hard. My first five or six years were difficult because when you listen to the noise you let that become the conversation. Over time, my faith keeps me centered in the middle of the storm,” he said.
Barnhart has a lot of noise to listen to. The BBN can be one of the most passionate and demanding fan bases in the world, and Barnhart hears it all. He has learned to handle that immense pressure by constantly finding ways to improve, and by finding his peace in his faith and his family. While their expectations can be great, Barnhart wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’m thankful for what they have given us. Without their support we couldn’t do any of this. I want them to understand how important of a role they play,” he said. “You take care of 500 kids. What they generally see is football and men’s basketball, but understand the breadth and depth of the young people they are supporting.”
Barnhart said he wants more championships, not just for the school or the fans, but so that student athletes can have a life-long fire for competition instilled in them. To do that, they need the support of the fan base.
“We want more SEC championships, National Championships, I have plenty of championship rings at home. I don’t wear them because not one is more special than the other. I want it for our young people so they understand what it means to compete in life,” he said. “Understand it is broad, deep and wide what our fans support and we need that support. Come let those kids know you love them even when it doesn’t go well.”
Barnhart has carved out an excellent resume in his time at Kentucky, and has undoubtedly created a legacy that will last for a long time in the University, just as he plans to stay in the bluegrass for a long time. He and his wife of 36 years, Connie, plan to call Lexington home.
“I came here for a job sixteen years ago and now it is home. When we call it done this is where we will land. We want to stay here. I have a lot left to do, so I’m not done yet. This is a wonderful place.”
Follow Dalton on Twitter at @DChristopher3