Q&A with UK Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart

Mitch Barnhart and Joker Phillips talked before Big Blue U on Saturday, August 20, 2011 in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Latara Appleby | Staff

By Les Johns

UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart recently celebrated his 10th year of leading a department that now features 22 sports and a budget of more than $90 million. The Kernel sat down with Barnhart Monday to talk about John Calipari, football at Commonwealth Stadium and the university’s budget challenges.

Q. What has UK head basketball coach John Calipari’s impact been across the entire athletic department?
A. John cares about everybody. He has been a great CEO for men’s basketball, there is no question about that. He has made Kentucky basketball not only relevant again, but dominant again — to a spot where people fear playing us again. From a program perspective, he believes it is important for everyone to be successful, and he has done a nice job reaching out to other coaches and other programs to see what he can do to help them and to help them get better. He thinks about things at a 30,000-feet level, but he also is able to get down and deal with the details that allow him to be great. Both pieces of that he manages in a way that is unique to coaches at that level.

Q. What challenges does Calipari bring to the athletic department, when you consider how he is perceived, such as the recent “biggest cheater in college basketball” poll.
A. For me, not really any. We know what we are and how we run our program here. Sandy Bell (UK Athletics Compliance) and John have a great relationship and they work very closely together. I have been at this business long enough to know you can’t control what people say and what they do. In my opinion, people are going to say things and be hurtful if they want to be hurtful. If they have an ax to grind, they are going to do their darndest to make sure to find their agenda and get it done. I have never heard Cal out there bad-mouthing other coaches. Every coach that has been in Rupp Arena — almost without exception — he has complimented them, said that they have done a great job and has always been gracious about the other guy. I am amazed at the jealousy created when they say stuff about him, and that is what it is — it’s jealousy and people being hurtful wanting to be either where he is or to bring him down. What hurts him and the coaching industry most is that they have these polls. For a coach to even participate in a poll like that, I find almost unbelievably incredible.

Q. Why should students be excited about coming to Commonwealth Stadium in the fall?
A. We have a lot of new faces. I think that people immediately — it’s the world we live in — want to jump off and then jump back on. Fans get down quick. We had it going OK for about four or five years, gaining a little momentum every year, but we stubbed our toe the last year and a half. We have to get back to where we are growing again. This group of young people in this recruiting class gives us a chance to do that. We have some running backs that are big, strong SEC-looking running backs. We have playmakers in places that we didn’t have them last year. We have some people that can make some things happen for us — they are all young. That is part exciting, part scary that we are depending on young talent to make a difference in this league. However, in our basketball team, they made a difference. Can these guys step in an make the same kind of impact? It’s a little harder in football, but I think you will see some young guys that can make plays. Max Smith? Another year older, and he is working hard at our offense and I think he has a chance to be a really nice quarterback at Kentucky.
There are a couple of reasons why they should come. First of all, I think we have some good young players. Second is the social piece of coming to be a part of what’s going on at Commonwealth Stadium. It’s part of the college experience. Why not come and be a part of that? Watching it on TV and being there are two different things. You might as well go ahead and have some fun. What else are you going to do on a Saturday?

Q. Many of the offices in the Joe Craft Center have a placard that says “15x15x15” on it. What does that mean?
A. Two and half years ago we wanted to establish goals for the program. We wanted to have 15 national championships and be a top 15 program at the end of a year, by the year 2015. We are 11 championships into that — in some shape or form, conference or national champions. We still have two and a half years left. We finished 29th in the country in the Directors’ Cup poll. Track and Field is an important component of that. You can win six times — men’s and women’s cross-country, men’s and women’s indoor track, and men’s and women’s outdoor track. You have to figure out a way to score in track, hence the investment in our track program, trying to get it to the spot where it contributes significantly to what we do here. The other component, that is not listed on there — we weren’t sure how to make the numbers work — we want to have a department-wide GPA of 3.0. We gave gone over the hurdle a couple of times and then we drop right back. We’ve had a couple of teams in the 3.5 range as a team. For a team of relatively good size to put up that kind of GPA number and still compete with their schedules is just remarkable.

Q. What team will surprise fans this year?
A. I think men’s soccer has a chance to surprise some people. Johan (Cedergren) is one of our new coaches. He has a bunch of new players on his roster. They were undefeated in the spring, although that doesn’t mean anything. They are a talented group of guys. I love his demeanor when he’s coaching, the way he approaches our guys.
Tim Garrison and the women’s gymnastics team will surprise some people. I talked to him this morning, and he has a roster of 17 women including seven newcomers. Three of them are scholarship folks coming in our program. I think he has a roster that has a chance. Of all the girls that return, they have all competed in at least two events for us ­— which is significant.

Q. At what moment did you believe you had a “home run” hire with UK Hoops head coach Matthew Mitchell?
A. I don’t know if there is one moment, but I like it when people can look themselves in the mirror and self-evaluate. He did a great job of that after the first year or two. He was willing to change the way he did things, and said “This separates us and makes us different.” I remember listening to the game against Cal-Santa Barbara, during his third year. I remember hearing Neil (Price) call the game and announcing “turnover, turnover, turnover.” All of the sudden that game got out of hand in our favor, and from then on the program got a little energy and momentum. I remember thinking we have transformed ourselves into something different here.

Q. What is the biggest challenge facing you the next 12 months?
A. You are always challenged competitively. I would say the thing we should — and will — pay attention to is the culture of the world we live in. My concerns are trying to stay in step with the culture and social media that allow us to work with young people, never putting them at risk, being able to guide them and keep them out of harm’s way in everything they do. At the same time we have to manage that beast that has now become so difficult to manage in social media. And then by the way, we have to line up and play a game somewhere along the way. Trying to keep all that into perspective for kids who are 18, 22 or 23 years old gets challenging. We want to pursue greatness. If we fall short, so be it. At least we pursued it. That’s the ultimate goal for us — how we pursue greatness in all areas — not just the competitive piece, but also in the classroom and socially.

Q. The UK Athletics overall budget is on the rise, the department is building new facilities and some coaches received sizable extensions and raises. The university budget as a whole, however, is shrinking, tuition is increasing, teachers haven’t had merit raises in several years and layoffs have occurred. How do you explain or justify this?
A. Ironically, when I came here 10 years ago, our budget was 3.25 to 3.5 percent of the university’s budget, and it hasn’t changed. We are still 3.5 percent of the budget. Our growth has mirrored the university’s growth. There was obviously a pretty big decline in funding from the state this year, which created some challenges.
Our goal was to give back some of that money, to try and create a little bit of money to help those kids that are Singletary Scholars. So we gave an additional $1.3 million back. We have been giving $1.7 million out of our budget the last eight years. So, in total for the 10 years we have been here, we have given about $16 million in cash to the university. We want to be a good friend of the university. We pay our own way — we are self-sustaining.
As we succeed, we are able to do more. We want to help the music department. We want to help the school of business, just go down the list — we want to help all those folks. There is a limit as to what we can do. That being said, I think we are good stewards with what we have been given. We try to be great givers back to the university. When we succeed from a licensing perspective, we share that with the university half-and-half, which was a record number this year because of the championship. That’s just another way we can foster additional growth for the university and help plug some of those holes. We’re not the answer to all the problems. When you look at being a 3-3.5 percent piece of the total university budget and say “They’re the answer,” I don’t think that’s right or is it fair. I think there is a great piece of responsibility that we have to be the front porch of this university. If we mess it up, the front porch doesn’t look very nice. If we do it right and we paint a good picture and we win some national championships and we give the opportunity for the university to showcase itself, now when people walk in the house they say “Wow, what an amazing place.”

Phil Copeland says:

Thank you to Mitch for running the A Department in such a class way. We are fortunate to have him.