By Les Johns
“Why would I want a good volleyball team?” a former UK athletic director is remembered to have said. “It will just cost me more money.”
Although the volleyball program eventually received the funding it sought, that statement is indicative of the mentality of many athletic programs — including UK — in the past.
UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart’s increase in focus and funding of sports other than basketball and football in his 10 years at the helm has led the Cats to championship-level competitiveness across the entire slate of 22 varsity sports offered.
“He has a tremendous motivation to have the kids in all 22 sports that the university offers to have that championship experience,” said UK rifle head coach Harry Mullins. “We all want to win, but he gives us the resources to continue to move forward.”
Barnhart has grown the athletic department at UK by communicating a vision, investing in facilities, focusing on regional recruiting, and securing and retaining top-level coaches.
Barnhart established the “15x15x15” goal of reaching 15 championships and achieving a top-15 ranking in the Directors’ Cup by 2015.
“The ‘15x15x15’ model he put in front of us a couple of years ago — everybody is expected to contribute to that,” Mullins said. “You can feel the excitement within the department with all the success.”
Former UK men’s tennis head coach Dennis Emery, who coached under four different athletic directors during his tenure, said Barnhart’s impact has been dramatic.
“Mitch expects to win. We didn’t used to be expected to win in these other sports,” Emery said. “He changed the culture within the entire athletic department.”
Despite a challenging economic environment, UK Athletics has found the resources to fund a new track and field complex ($12.7 million) set to open in the fall and a new softball complex ($7.4 million) that will open February and host the SEC Softball
Tournament in May. The department also has recently upgraded video boards or scoreboards for soccer, swimming and diving, softball, tennis, volleyball and women’s basketball.
“The great thing about Mitch is that the expansion of facilities has just been phenomenal,” said UK swim and diving head coach Gary Conelly, who also has coached for four athletic directors. “He has never pulled me aside and told me I was spending too much money. Anything I have really needed to do has been covered.”
Barnhart believes they have invested in a measured, intelligent manner in the non-revenue-generating programs.
“We’ve been smart about how we budget, we’ve not been crazy,” Barnhart said. “All the programs have things that are important to them, but they haven’t been over-the-top. We’ve had steady growth in our programs, so we’re not putting ourselves at risk.”
Barnhart said that he ensured that all the programs were fully funded from a scholarship perspective and staffed with the
maximum allowable NCAA-level coaches.
“He has made up his mind that he is going to put money in facilities and recruiting for the student athletes,” Emery said.
“Our assistant coaches (for tennis) used to be part-time, within a year or two Mitch made them full-time, which is what was needed to move the program forward.”
He instructed the coaching staffs to focus their recruiting efforts to a 6-hour radius around Lexington, including metropolitan areas such as St. Louis, Atlanta and Chicago.
“We wanted to at least get in to a competitive environment, from a SEC perspective,” Barnhart said. “We need to at least be in the ballpark. We don’t have to be first, we just can’t be last. We have to give our coaches an opportunity to recruit.”
One of Barnhart’s strengths, Emery said, is hiring quality coaches.
“He has hired really good coaches,” Emery said. “He has a knack for finding good, up-and-coming coaches — like Craig Skinner (volleyball) and Matthew Mitchell (UK Hoops).”
Barnhart hopes to retain top-flight coaches and has extended contracts and extended raises to several coaches recently, including baseball head coach Gary Henderson and Mitchell.
“I want to make Kentucky a destination where coaches want to come and stay. I don’t want them to come and then transition to other places,” Barnhart said about the coaching contracts. “We’re creating a destination for them and their families. We’re starting to put together a really good roster of coaches.”
The Bernadette Mattox led 2001-02 UK Hoops team finished 9-20 overall with a 1-13 record in the SEC. Last year, Mitchell led the Cats to 28-7, tying a program record for most wins in a season, winning the SEC regular season championship and making the NCAA Elite Eight for the second time in three years.
Barnhart gives all the credit to Mitchell and his predecessor, Mickie DeMoss.
“Matthew has amazing energy. He has done a great job of creating a different style of game in the SEC,” Barnhart said. “All the sudden here comes Matthew with this incredibly cool style that is going end-to-end, pressing you from the minute you get off the bus, fast-break and go as fast as we can for as long as we can.
“Nobody likes to play us, and style of play is a huge factor in that. Our fans love it, and it is extremely fun to watch.”
UK baseball was a combined 39-70 in 2001 and 2002, the two seasons before Barnhart’s arrival as AD. In 2012, the Cats finished the season with a program-record 45 wins and sat atop the NCAA rankings for several weeks, before ultimately failing to survive the Gary, Ind., NCAA Tournament Regional.
Barnhart credited the large group of returning players last season. Barnhart said the onus is on Henderson to back up last year’s success with another good year.
“Last year was the first time where almost all of our pitching and all of our main kids returned,” Barnhart said. “What you had in that locker room was significantly different than what we had the previous two years.”
Barnhart said he got conflicting answers from NCAA officials regarding why the Cats were not able to host a regional.
“Had we played in our ballpark, I believe the results would have been remarkably different,” Barnhart said. “I take nothing away from the teams we played up there, but I do believe that when you win like we won, you deserve that opportunity.”
UK volleyball posted four wins in 2000 and 13 in 2001. 2012 saw Skinner’s team go 28-6 and reach its seventh straight NCAA Tournament appearance. Barnhart gives 100 percent of the credit to UK volleyball’s turnaround to Skinner.
“Skinner is pretty meticulous in his preparation, has ratcheted significantly our recruiting and made us a consistent force in college volleyball,” Barnhart said. “He has clearly established himself as one of the finer coaches in the country.”
Barnhart is omnipresent, making the rounds to hundreds of UK sporting events yearly — including UK rifle’s second-place finish in the 2009 NCAA Championships in Fort Worth, Texas.
“I had never seen an athletic director from a BCS school travel to a rifle NCAA championship,” Mullins said. “You can’t say enough about that.”
Emery said Barnhart developed a close personal relationship with men’s tennis standout Eric Quigley when they regularly worked out in the same weight room.
“Mitch saw how hard Eric was working,” Emery said. “The confidence he gained led to what was certainly the best senior year anyone in UK tennis history has had.”
Emery said the rest of the nation is taking notice.
“The progress we have made in our spring sports is really quite a story from a NCAA perspective,” Emery said. “Everybody notices what we are doing and how we are coming on so strongly in these sports.”
Mullins said he was happy to have Barnhart as his athletic director because he gives all the sports the same care and attention that he gives the more high-profile sports.
“We will see great things from UK Athletics the next two years — things that will make the entire state proud, because of the commitment and vision of Mitch Barnhart,” Mullins said.