Every member of the Big Blue Nation has hear this same mantra from opposing fan bases: “All Kentucky has is men’s basketball.” Despite all evidence to the contrary, the notion that UK is a one sport school persists. The National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA) began partnering with USA Today in 1983 to rank the overall performance of college athletic departments. Basically, the NACDA sets how to find and recognize which schools are succeeding across a wide variety of sports. There’s certain criteria that they use because not all schools compete in all NCAA-sanctioned sports, i.e. Kentucky doesn’t have a water polo team but it doesn’t get penalized for not having one. UK Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart has made it his goal to move the Wildcats into the top 10 and 2018-19 may just be the year the Cats get it done.
Barnhart was hired at UK in 2002. For the 2003-04 year, the Wildcats finished 45th in the country. And then Mitch and his staff went to work. Coaches were hired for the non-revenue sports. Plans were set into motion to either upgrade or replace aging facilities. For the first time, the University of Kentucky made a concerted effort into all school-sponsored sports. By the 2008-09 year, the Cats finished 34th. By 2013-14, Kentucky was the 11th ranked athletic program in the country. In 2016-17, the Wildcats had their best finish at #10. Last year, 2017-18, the Cats finished 17th. Since the Director’s Cup Standings began in 1993, the University has had its highest rankings in three of the last five seasons. Clearly, Mitch Barnhart and his staff have done what it takes to make the Wildcats championship-caliber across the board (see complete Director’s Cup Standings here).
As far as facility growth, Softball, Men’s and Women’s Soccer and Baseball have all opened new stadiums in the last four years. Kroger Field (RIP Commonwealth Stadium) has undergone recent renovations for the Football team. Rupp Arena has been massively renovated for Men’s Basketball. And the plans are in place to revamp historic Memorial Coliseum for Volleyball, Gymnastics and Women’s Basketball. Every single home of the Wildcats has recently or will be shortly state of the art, improved for both student-athletes and the fans in attendance. Kentucky isn’t playing catch-up, Kentucky is leading the way. To quote men’s basketball head coach John Calipari, “Kentucky is the gold standard.”
Speaking of coaches, Barnhart has brought in quality coaches that have enjoyed unprecedented success for the Wildcats. Before leaving for Texas, Track coach Edrick Floreal led the the women’s team to an NCAA runner-up finish in 2015. Softball coach Rachel Lawson led the Cats to the 2014 Women’s College World Series. Volleyball coach Craig Skinner, 2017-18 SEC Coach of the Year, led the Cats to their first SEC title in nearly 30 years last season. The Gymnastics team lead, led by Coach Tim Garrison, had its best finish last season, reaching the Sweet 16 of the NCAA National Meet. And Coach Harry Mullins led the UK Rifle team to the 2018 National Championship. Women’s basketball coach Matthew Mitchell has a couple of Elite Eight finishes under his belt, Baseball head man Nick Mingione led the Cats to a Super Regional in his first season, Football coach Mark Stoops has his Cats off to their best start since 1977 (after back to back bowl appearances) and Coach Cal is Coach Cal.
I’d put the roster of Wildcat coaches up against any group of coaches in the country.
Right now, the Kentucky Men’s Soccer team, coached by Johan Cedergren, is undefeated (8-0-1) and ranked #4 in the country and dispatched #2 IU at home in front of a packed Bell Soccer Complex on Wednesday night. Coach Skinner’s Volleyball team is on a 6 match winning streak and have 9 out of 10 matches overall. The Volleyball Cats are ranked #10 in NCAA RPI. Coach Stoops’ surprising football Cats are 5-0 and ranked #17 in the country. With basketball set to tip off in a few weeks, and Coach Cal’s bunch figuring to be top 5, it’s entirely possible that four Wildcat teams will be ranked in their respective top 10s at the same time. While that’s no guarantee of a successful regular or post-season, the BBN has to like the odds of those four teams at least contending for championships.
In the spring, the Softball and Baseball teams figure to once again be Super Regional finalists or better and Gymnastics has all sorts of momentum heading into their season. The fact is this: the University of Kentucky should finish inside the top 10 in the Director’s Cup Standings this year, capping off the Wildcats best overall finish ever. Believe it or not, UK isn’t just men’s basketball and hasn’t been for some time. People will say different, but the numbers and the facts point out that 2018-19 could be the Year of the Wildcat.
*- strangely enough the Rifle team does not factor into the NACDA Director’s Cup Standings.