AD Barnhart pleased with the progress and success of ‘Olympic’ sports at UK

The Kentucky volleyball team celebrates after their victory against WKU during the second round of the NCAA tournament on Saturday, December 2, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 3-2. Photo by Arden Barnes | Staff

It’s clear that at most universities around the United States, two sports take most of the popularity and make the most revenue for its athletic department.

That narrative is true at UK, as its football and men’s basketball teams far and away attract the most fans and attention compared to other sports programs in the athletic department.

“Clearly we have two sports that take care of 20 other sports; football and men’s basketball help us provide opportunities for probably close to 375 young people in our program,” said UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart. 

While the football and men’s basketball teams both had good seasons this year, the smaller, or otherwise known as “Olympic” sports as Barnhart puts it, have excelled for UK this year by accomplishing things that have not been done in a while.

The volleyball team won the SEC Championship for the first time since 1988 and made it to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight for the third time in program history.

The rifle team won its second national title in school history over a powerhouse West Virginia squad that had beaten them at the conference championships two weeks prior.

The women’s track team placed third at the NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships, which is the highest finish the team has ever had at the championships. Heptathlete Tim Duckworth also won the heptathlon at that meet, becoming the first Wildcat male to win any event at indoor nationals since 1996.

“When you look at the runs of the Craig Skinners and the Harry Mullins and the Tim Garrisons and what we’re doing in gymnastics, they’re remarkable stories,” Barnhart said. 

However, getting to the level where UK was competitive on many sports platforms, and not just men’s basketball, was not easy.

When Barnhart first took the athletics director job in 2002, a lot of the Olympic sports’ programs did not have what they needed to compete at a high level.

“When we came here, I would say that our resources did not match expectations as to what we wanted to have happen in all of our sports programs,” Barnhart said. 

Barnhart said that some programs did not have a full coaching staff, or did not reach the limit of scholarships a certain team could give out to athletes. Since programs were understaffed and underfunded, some programs had limitations of places they could travel to compete and recruit.

During the interview process in 2002, Barnhart made it known that the smaller sports on campus deserve equal opportunities and should be competing on the same level as the sports considered bigger or more popular. 

“If we’re going to do this, either we’re going to do it well or we’re not going to do it, we’re going to make an attempt to do it well or we’re not going to do it and we attempted to do it well,” Barnhart said.

Barnhart definitely did it well, as over a span of years since accepting the athletics director job at UK, Barnhart has filled the coaching staffs and made sure the full amount of scholarships was getting used. This opened the doors to progressions in the athletics department, such as better recruits coming to UK, more funding and better results. 

The success is evident in recent Directors’ Cup standings, as UK has finished in the top 30 of the Directors’ Cup in each of the last seven years. Before the seven-year span of top 30 finishes, UK had only placed in the top 30 twice in program history. 

“Getting to Oklahoma City in softball, winning national championships in rifle, having national championships in swimming & diving and track & field and getting on the platforms and getting trophies for those, those competively change your mindset and it allows you then to be able to recruit a different level of an athlete to come to the University of Kentucky,” Barnhart said. 

UK fans have taken notice of the success and come to sporting events other than men’s basketball and football games. Other sports teams have broken attendance records and hosted postseason championships that brought in massive crowds. 

“An overarching piece to all that has what’s been – really cool to watch our fans embrace that,” Barnhart said. “Record setting crowds at baseball, record setting crowds at softball, filling up Rupp Arena – 10,000 people for a gymnastics meet, really really cool attendance at the volleyball playoffs we had here.”

The Cats still have a chance to make more noise in the postseason before the 2017-2018 athletics year is over. Gymnastics will compete in its first NCAA Championships ever in under two weeks and UK’s baseball, softball and outdoor track & field teams still have their postseason to go, which they usually excel in.

UK used to not have all this success in the postseason from Olympic sports, but thanks to the efforts of Barnhart and the handwork from the Olympic sports teams on campus, competing for titles is starting to become the normal for UK’s athletic department.

“I don’t think we take it for granted, but I think we are trying to think about championships and how we put rings on fingers and how we make runs to national finals and those kinds of things, and the mentality of some of our teams have changed that,” Barnhart said.