Barnhart deserves congrats for new investment in football program



By Les Johns | @KernelJohns

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Auburn University officials were on the hook for $11 million in buyouts when they released football head coach Gene Chizik and his assistants.

University of Tennessee administrators owed so much money in football buyouts that they had to “reallocate” funds originally designated for academic scholarships back into the athletics program.

Then there is Big Blue Nation United.

UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart is charting a path of enhanced commitment to the football program, and partnering with the university like never before while maintaining fiscal responsibility.

And somehow he has UK fans excited about football in the middle of January.

Barnhart beat the football-search crowd and made a fan base-uniting hire of new head football coach Mark Stoops ahead of 28 other schools in a tumultuous year of coaching turnover.

The early decision to dismiss Joker Phillips led to Barnhart getting ahead of the curve and avoided a potentially embarrassing search, as was the case at some programs.

Prior to eventually hiring former Cincinnati head coach Butch Jones, Tennessee was reportedly turned down by both Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy and U of L’s Charlie Strong. Twitter ridicule ensued, leading to “#turneddownUT” being a top-trending topic.

Barnhart made the replacement and has committed a substantial increase in assistants’ pay for the staff, without backing away from pledges made to the university as a whole.

“The stupidest people on a college campus are college presidents. They are the guys that are hiring these athletic directors, who turn around and dish out millions of dollars to these coaches,” said Oscar Combs, founder of The Cats’ Pause and member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. “They are going to turn around and fire a couple years later because they couldn’t evaluate them. Just look at the situations at Tennessee and Auburn.”

Upgrades to Commonwealth Stadium are now on the horizon, with the announcement last week that the Kentucky General Assembly plans to approve the bonding necessary to finance the work.

The bonding UK athletics will receive will pay for luxury boxes, a recruiting room and … a science building?

Some may argue that UK athletics had to step up and contribute some to the campus at large in order to get approval for what it wanted to accomplish, and there very well may be some truth to that.

The fact of the matter is, however, UK athletics is one of the few programs in the country that is self-sustaining and virtually without debt.

When the Wall Street Journal ranked the worth of FBS college football programs, the Cats were No. 26, at a value of $202.7 million, despite little recent success on the field.

UK athletics earned the approval for these plans because of its responsibility. According to’s Eric Crawford, the yearly debt payment for these enhancements will run UK athletics between $3 million and $5 million, an amount it can be trusted to pay.

Just a few months ago, the Kernel ran a series about the UK football program chronicling investment shortfalls on facilities, coaching and recruiting.

Commonwealth Stadium upgrades will be completed by 2015, coaches’ salaries have increased by more than $800,000 annually, according to numbers published by The Courier-Journal’s Kyle Tucker, and the Cats are on track to have their best recruiting class ever.

All that while also increasing the athletic department’s commitment to the campus as a whole — a Big Blue Nation United. Congrats to Barnhart and UK President Eli Capilouto for accomplishing in January what looked impossible last September.