(LEXINGTON, Ky.) — Mitch Barnhart remains a man of mystery. When he took on the athletics director position at the University of Kentucky back in 2002, few thought he would stay the course. With no previous ties to the Bluegrass State and previous stints at Tennessee and Oregon State already on his impressive resume, I thought UK would be just a short stepping stone on his way to future AD stardom. I pictured Mitch to be a glad handing, back slapping, baby kissing politician enamored with his position of power—kind of like his namesake in the United States Senate. Instead, he’s been just the opposite—humble, disarming, and a bit on the shy side. A couple of years earlier, I spent a few weeks with Mitch in Bible Study Fellowship. After one semester, I determined it was a bit too structured for my liking and subsequently dropped out. Mitch has faithfully persevered. That should tell you something about his character (and mine too).
Recently, I caught up with Mitch at one of his rare appearances chatting directly with media. Despite his low-key mannerisms and soft-spoken speaking style, his time in front of the microphones still always provides for some pretty good theater. This proved to be especially true this year as Kentucky managed a 10th place finish—its highest ever– in the 2017 Director’s Cup standings. (The Director’s Cup measures competitive success for all Division-I schools.) Kentucky finished second to only Florida in the SEC with 21 of 22 of UK’s varsity sports adding points to the tally.
Other athletic programs argue that the ultimate measure of success is determined solely by the number of victories on the playing field. This “win at all costs” mentality results frequently in hiring coaches with questionable morals and obvious character flaws (You know who I’m talking about). By contrast, Mitch has worked hard to instill in his athletic programs a culture of servant leadership personified by all his coaching hires. Some of you remember Mitch himself personally drying off seats after a UK Baseball rain delay. That image captures the essence of what Mitch Barnhart represents to many of the students, faculty, alumni, and fans of the University of Kentucky.
When I asked him if he’s surprised at how much has been made of that now iconic moment, Mitch predictably heaped all the praise on his subordinates. “That’s indicative of our department,” he said. “I love our people. There were a lot of people out there (drying off seats) that night. I love the heart of our Kentucky staff. It’s who our people are, and we’ve tried to be intentional about hiring those kinds of people. I think we’re very fortunate. I’m just one of them. I don’t look at myself any differently than anybody else. I’m glad that we could help. I think that’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to show up and help out.”
For the newly appointed chair of SEC Athletics Directors, it’s obvious that it’s NOT just about wins on the field that matter. He’s genuinely dialed in to the guiding principles of character, integrity, education, stewardship, and competitiveness that have become part of his creed. That’s why his hires are always high character servant leaders. That’s why a Nick Mingione ends up coaching baseball and a Rachel Lawson ends up coaching softball at the University of Kentucky. Granted, the Billy Gillispie and Joker Phillips boo-boos were not his finest hour. But Mitch recovered nicely with his subsequent hires. Plus, everyone deserves a couple of mulligans in the course of a long and distinguished career. Be assured that as long as Mitch is around, BBN won’t ever have to worry about being disgraced both on the field or in the classroom. I’d be shocked if a sordid stripper scandal or a bogus African Studies curriculum festered under his watch.
Despite his successes, not everyone’s a Mitch Barnhart fan. For the life of me, I can’t quite figure out why a segment of BBN still feels compelled to cast aspersions his way. Maybe it’s because Mitch frequently appears awkward and aloof in public. Maybe it’s because hard core basketball and football purists think he places too much emphasis on the so called “minor” sports. Maybe his long-term critics still harbor residual bitterness as they stumble upon their stash of “Ditch Mitch and Rich” bumper stickers. Perhaps everyone feels he caters a bit too much to the deep pocketed donors while ignoring the needs of the average fan. Or perhaps disgruntled fans are just plain frustrated because they feel that UK football isn’t really any better than it was when Mitch first came on board.
I know it’s difficult to compare eras–but practically speaking–Mitch Barnhart has done more as athletics director than any of his predecessors at the University of Kentucky. In addition to the Director’s Cup achievement, he’s raised enough cash to build new stadiums and pay his coaches handsomely (some would say exorbitantly)—while simultaneously caring enough about each one of his student athletes to recognize all of them by name. Academically, UK athletes have tied or broken the school record for graduation rate every year since the NCAA began charting that statistic in 2005. UK Athletics has also been scandal free during that period. In this day and age, that speaks volumes about Mitch in his role as AD. Love him or hate him–in my opinion—he’s the most accomplished director of athletics in my fifty years following UK Sports. Help me out here please. In this world according to Mitch, tell me why he’s not getting more love.
Check out his most recent UK Sports coverage at http://www.themanchesterenterprise.com/category/uk-live-breathe-blue/
Check out his most recent Cincinnati Bengals coverage at http://www.bluegrasssportsnation.com/category/writers/john-huang/