Resiliency

(KRABI, Thailand) – If there’s one key attribute still in question for a successful run by this Kentucky basketball team, it has to be their resiliency. After demoralizing back-to-back losses to Missouri and Tennessee, BBN is wondering whether John Calipari’s crew can somehow regain that bit of an edge—that toughness and bounce back ability—desperately required to steal some remaining conference games and salvage the rest of the season. Coach Cal claims the ceiling remains as high as ever for this team. We’ve had glimpses of their raw talent along the way, but these kiddie Cats have been beaten, battered, and bruised in the arduous learning process. Can they recover and pull it all together in time to make that deep run into the NCAA tournament? I don’t know. It depends on one thing—their resiliency.

Resiliency definitely applies to the people of Phi Phi Island. This tropical paradise located in the Andaman Sea off the southern coast of Thailand was wiped off the map by the Tsunami of 2004. On December 26, at 9:45 am local time, a massive 15-foot tidal wave swept over the island, killing nearly 2000 inhabitants, and decimating the entire island infrastructure. I was on Phi Phi exactly one year before the Tsunami hit. Now, nearly fifteen years later, I’ve returned to check out what has changed since then.

Amazingly, everything has been rebuilt and looks exactly the same as I remembered it. There are the same cluster of food stalls, the same open-air shops, the same tourist agencies hocking long boat rides to Monkey Island, the same restaurants selling Thai seafood delicacies at unbelievably reasonable prices, and the same resort hotels offering five-star comforts for fifty bucks a night (breakfast included). It’s a testament to the resiliency of the Thai people and their unending quest for the tourist dollar. I guess if you rebuild Shangri-La, the people will come.

And come they do. On this random weekend in February, I’m surrounded by hordes of vacationing tourists from all different continents looking for some fun and sun in this mecca known for its natural beauty by day and manufactured debauchery by night. I’m simultaneously awed and perplexed by the contrast. The rich turquoise water surrounding the towering limestone karsts makes for idyllic cinematic backdrops perfect for Hollywood. In fact, Leonardo DiCaprio’s movie, The Beach, was filmed here back in 2000. Unfortunately, on this day, Maya Beach bears no resemblance to the one on the silver screen as I’m packed shoulder-to-shoulder with more Chinese visitors than in Tiananmen Square.

At nighttime, the bars are hopping—sunburned Scandinavians looking to cap off the perfect day of scuba diving with a nightcap of Singha and karaoke. The world-famous Reggae Bar even has a regulation Muay Thai Boxing ring where drunken revelers can volunteer to punch each other’s lights out for a free round of Mae Khong whiskey. Being neither a drunk or a reveler, I politely and wisely pass on this one as an inebriated, overweight English bloke gets his face pounded like a puff of Beef Wellington pastry.

Meanwhile Slinky’s on the beach offers free buckets of booze for “naked boys and topless girls.” I’m still not sure I understand the premise as the crowd cheers on the Aussie frat boy doing the limbo to ear-splitting electronic dance music with his glorious manhood on full display for the world to see.

What I do understand is resilience. It’s not just the toughness required for a basketball team in turmoil or the indomitable spirit of native peoples rebuilding their island livelihood. No, it’s more about everyday persistence—being able to take a punch and just trying to hang on when fate sends you reeling. It’s about keeping the faith and clinging onto that morsel of hope when it’d be so much easier to just simply walk away. It’s about pressing on with life after you’ve gotten a bad diagnosis or lost a loved one to tragedy. Resilience is about the persistence required to fight through a bad relationship, financial ruin, drug addiction, or mental illness. It’s about Jimmy V saying, “don’t give up—don’t ever give up.”

As I walk hand in hand on the beach with my lovely bride watching another jaw-dropping Indian Ocean sunset, I’m reminded once again that resiliency is hard, but it definitely has its rewards. I’m cherishing this time together because who knows if and when we’ll be able to experience it again. But at least for one glorious month in a land half way around the globe, I got a fleeting glimpse of the other side of heartache. I pray that you’ll experience it too. Whether cheering for the Wildcats or for something else nearer and dearer to your heart, here’s to resiliency and the bounty it can bring. Thanks for letting me share. I hope you enjoyed the ride.

John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

Check out his most recent UK Sports coverage at http://www.themanchesterenterprise.com/category/uk-live-breathe-blue/

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Christmas Without Christ

(BANGKOK, Thailand) – On countless occasions in the past, I’ve heard Kentucky Basketball referred to as a religion. Hopefully, that’s more a validation of our basketball identity than a trivialization of our lukewarm faith. Here in Thailand, basketball disinterest notwithstanding, there’s absolutely no ambivalence about the identity of its citizenry. The Thai people are Buddhists through and through–over 64 million of them accounting for nearly 94% of the entire population.

The Thais wear their religion on their sleeve–praying, giving alms, and worshipping much more genuinely and fervently than what I’ve experienced with their American evangelical counterparts back home. Monks in their saffron colored robes walk the streets every morning, receiving offerings from a dutiful and reverent population. In Thailand, the landscape is dotted beyond description with a myriad of ornately decorated, jaw-dropping temples. Each of these opulent palaces are chocked full of buddhas—all sorts of emerald buddhas, golden buddhas, and even reclining buddhas—stark and ever-present idols vexingly vying for everyone’s adoration and adulation.

I’m no expert on Buddhism, but from what I’ve learned, it seems to be a belief system devoid of much optimism. The endless cycle of reincarnation and the near impossibility of attaining nirvana are complete opposites of the unconditional love, everlasting hope, and eternal life promised to all those who believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. With that said, I still find it hard to accept that the millions of people so committed to their own belief system in this part of the world may likely all end up perishing in eternal fire. Who am I to question God’s sovereignty, but it doesn’t seem quite fair to be placed squarely behind the eight ball just because you were born into a culture that proudly identifies themselves as followers of the Enlightened One. Face it, if you were born here, you’d also be lighting candles, burning incense, and pressing gold foil on the next random buddha icon that came your way.

If only Christians in America identified with Jesus with similar devotion and vigor—or simply identified themselves with half the zeal we usually reserve for our basketball team. I’ve learned on this trip that I’m as guilty as anyone in that regard. I love Thailand and could easily stay here forever if not for one thing—the land formerly known as Siam is simply NOT part of Big Blue Nation. During my entire stay in Bangkok, I haven’t encountered a solitary soul who gives a hoot about Kentucky Basketball. Regular Thai citizens couldn’t pick John Calipari out of a lineup. They wouldn’t know PJ Washington from George Washington, Kevin Knox from Fort Knox, or Malik Monk from a Buddhist monk. They think Matt Jones once sang Delilah, and that Meisterbuerger is a low-end sandwich chain. It bothers the heck out of me that they’re ignorant to the winning ways of BBN.

It’s humbling for UK fans to admit that 99.9% of the people in Thailand (or the rest of the world for that matter) care absolutely nothing about that which makes us so passionate. They simply can’t understand why I’m walking around looking for passable WIFI connections at 7 am in the morning just so I can pick up Tom Leach on his iHeartRadio broadcast in real time. They have no earthly idea why this idiot in blue is so jacked up on a floating market boat ride as the final seconds tick away in Kentucky’s massive win over West Virginia. They can’t imagine anyone in their right mind going bonkers over a sport other than soccer or boxing or badminton (yes, badminton). Did it really take me traveling halfway around the globe to finally realize that whether Kentucky wins or loses makes absolutely no difference in the overall world order?

But that doesn’t stop me from cheering like a madman for the Big Blue 9000 miles from home. That’s still a huge part of my identity. It’s who I am and a defining part of my history. It can’t be manipulated, or suppressed, or faked, or erased—just as the Laettner shot can’t be erased. It’s as real as Kyle Macy’s socks, or Antoine Walker’s shimmy, or Jamal Murray’s bow and arrow. It’s why I can’t stand Duke, or North Carolina, or Indiana, or Digger Phelps for that matter. It’s why my moods fluctuate based on the shooting percentages, turnover to assist ratios, or girlfriend problems of 18-year old prodigies who are blessed with the ability to dribble and dunk. Sure, all True-Blue fans always want Kentucky to win every game by twenty points, but whether Kentucky winds up on the NCAA bubble or wins the NCAA championship shouldn’t ever diminish our passion and zeal for simply cheering on the Blue and White.

At least that’s what I keep telling myself. If you’re a true Wildcat fan, rooting wholeheartedly for your team—win or lose–is inherently a part of your identity, a part of your DNA. Coach Cal says relax and enjoy the process. But just like the Thais and their religious fervor, there’s been something inherently missing for the past few years in our Kentucky Basketball worship experience. A season without a championship is like Christmas without Christ. I want the prize. After Kentucky pulled off a miracle 17-point comeback against Huggy Bear in Morgantown on Saturday, we’re suddenly back in the hunt. Championship number nine can’t come soon enough.

John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media and Bluegrass Sports Nation. He’s currently trying to cover University of Kentucky Sports while traveling abroad. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.Huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

John Talk Thai

(Bangkok, Thailand) –When Kentucky Men’s Basketball coach John Calipari recently told media that we “don’t know sh@#,” he was only partially right. For you see, I do know “sh@#” because I’ve had the trots ever since I landed in Bangkok. I understand it’s mostly my fault, though. The food is fantastic here and I just can’t help gorging myself. The problem is that the Thais like their food laced with chilies that could choke a Chinaman, so my bowels are more exhausted than Shai Alexander.

There’s food everywhere in Bangkok. From high-end eateries to run-down food stalls, you can find anything your palate desires 24 hours a day. I’ve already gulped down oysters as big as my fist, prawns the size of lobsters, and all sorts of slippery, slimy, fruit and veggie type things that wouldn’t make the cut in America. Street food is outrageously cheap, but like anything else in life, you pay your money and take your chances. The smells emanating from these food kiosks can be somewhat overwhelming. I don’t want to sound like the ugly American, but on the list of smelliest cities, Bangkok would rank near the top. It stinks here! The combination of fried grease and exotic spices mixing together with diesel fuel and auto exhaust is ever present and distinctly pungent. It’s similar to the Cats’ second half meltdown against South Carolina–not necessarily nauseating at first, but bothersome and irritating nonetheless.

What is nauseating is Bangkok traffic. I’ve driven in LA and it’s much worse here. Gridlock everywhere for hours at a time. It’s not chaotic like Cairo, nor brutal like Beijing. It’s actually quite orderly as Thai drivers are surprisingly courteous, there’s virtually no horn honking, and zero apparent road rage. It’s just that crawling along at two kilometers an hour on an eight-lane highway makes me want to gouge my eyes out and shove bamboo shivers up my fingernails. Patience is said to be a Fruit of the Spirit. It’s something I’m sorely lacking when it comes to sitting in Bangkok traffic.

Getting in my morning runs here in Bangkok has been a bit of a challenge also. In addition to the usual uneven pavements, potholes, and overhanging tree limbs encountered along urban sidewalks, you also have to dodge the omnipresent food stalls, motorcycle swarms, and the occasional strolling Buddhist monk—all while breathing in the suffocating auto exhaust. Kind of defeats the purpose of attempted aerobic exercise if you ask me. I also miss my dog on my runs. Every dog I’ve seen in Thailand appears lethargic and listless, beaten up by life and waiting to be featured on the next bootlegged Chinese restaurant menu.

Outside of Bangkok, it’s much more pleasant. My sojourns along the beaches of Hua Hin provided me ample opportunities to relax and recharge. Imagine waking up to glorious 80-degree temperatures and a fabulous sunrise, with someone to bring you a tropical drink or to trim your neglected toenails at every beck and call. Check your modesty at the door if you choose to get the herbal body scrub and exfoliate treatment. You’re getting EVERY part of your body scrubbed and exfoliated.

And now, a word about Thai massages—they are grossly overrated. First of all, they hurt. You know you’re in trouble when you pay for the session behind the curtain. Having the Thai version of Attila the Hun slapping my calves with impunity, poking wooden rods up my insoles and making my vertebrate pop like firecrackers on the Fourth of July just wasn’t my cup of tea. At one point he performed a move on me worthy of any WWF escape maneuver—probably classified as chiropractic malpractice in the States, but here it’s just comic amusement at the poor foreigner’s expense. You’ve been warned.

And finally, nobody with obvious Kentucky ties has yet approached me on this trip. I’ve been sporting the BLUE every single day trying to attract fellow citizens of BBN for some engaging conversation. So far, no takers. The cute couple with matching Lebron jerseys and the Thai dude shooting hoops in Kyrie Irving gear were oblivious to my braggadocio about reppin the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball. Now after the Cats’ crushing loss to the Gators, I’m just looking for someone to commiserate with in the worst way.

Sigh! Such is life in this part of the world, where no one cares but me. Go Cats!

John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media and Bluegrass Sports Nation publications. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

Something to Smile About

(Chang Mai, Thailand) – I fought the cold and the cold won. After weeks of battling sub-freezing temperatures, weather advisories, and storm warnings back in my old Kentucky home, I stepped off Korean Air Flight 7917 at Bangkok International Airport and immediately surrendered myself to the sultry sunshine and tropical humidity bathing my pasty winter skin. I’m jet-lagged beyond comprehension by my 32-hour flight from Hell, but still manage an ear-to-ear grin thinking about the sand, sun, and surf that surely awaits me in this exotic Thai kingdom.

If Thailand is the “Land of Smiles,” then Shai Gilgeous-Alexander should feel right at home here. “That kid smiles,” said Coach John Calipari when asked about his freshman point guard earlier this season. “I don’t know if it’s a Canadian thing. I don’t know what it is. But every Canadian that I’ve coached has fun and smiles and doesn’t feel the weight of the world on them.”

Calipari has reason himself to smile after Kentucky’s hard-fought 74-67 victory over the Vanderbilt Commodores. The aforementioned smiling Gilgeous-Alexander led the Wildcats with 22 points and six assists in 39 minutes of intense action, the third time in the last six games he’s scored 20 or more points. Kentucky shot 53.5% from the field while holding Vandy to 38.2% for the afternoon. With the win, the Cats improve to 14-3 overall and 4-1 in conference play.

Forgive me if my coverage of this game appears somewhat untimely and a bit mechanical. There’s a twelve hour time difference between Memorial Gymnasium in Nashville and the city of Chang Mai in the northern part of Thailand where I’m currently visiting. So, I was up early on what was a Sunday morning searching for a Starbucks with enough bandwidth to watch the game on my computer tablet. You’ve probably already guessed that college basketball isn’t a top priority of viewers in Southeast Asia and not coincidentally, this effort to watch my Wildcats was met with limited success. In fact, I may be the only component of the Big Blue mist trying to penetrate into this remote outpost at the foothills of the Himalaya mountain range.

Since arriving four days earlier, I’ve donned my UK gear hoping to draw out other displaced Wildcat fans in this country of Buddhist temples, floating markets, and pad thai noodles. So far, I’m not doing very well–batting zero if truth be told. Rather than being viewed as a respected ambassador of the Big Blue Nation, I’m sneered at as if I’m the village idiot—a simpleton clothed entirely in Blue with a fried chicken franchise stitched across my chest. To the untrained Western eye, I may look slightly Thai, but the minute I open my mouth, there’s no doubt in the native’s minds that I’m not from their neck of the woods. Nevertheless, I’m on a mission to make converts out of the ignorant masses, with “Calipari” soon to be a well-known and awe-inspiring household moniker.

Next up for the Wildcats is another tough road encounter against the South Carolina Gamecocks, followed by the colossal ESPN Gameday tilt at Rupp against the Florida Gators. I’m not sure where I’ll be then or whether I’ll procure any video access. But I want this to be clear to everyone back home–whether I’m watching Muay Thai Boxing in Bangkok, or drinking mai tais on a secluded beach—I’ll be tuned in somehow. Perhaps it’ll just be me alone on another early Sunday morning, 9000 miles from Lexington, with the familiar banter of Tom Leach and Mike Pratt on iheart radio playing soothingly in the background.

I’ll leave you with this for now. My 26-year old daughter Katie flew over from Los Angeles to meet us here on this grand adventure. As we were stalled in traffic watching the ever-present tuk-tuks weaving in and around us, she asked me, “Dad, can you take me on one of those?” For a brief second, my mind flashed back 15 years, longingly lamenting how all that precious time had fleetingly flown by. It dawned on me that just like basketball, travel’s not solely about wins and losses. It’s not about the number of destinations reached, or peaks climbed, or refrigerator magnets accumulated. But rather it’s about the experiences gathered and emotions garnered with strangers and loved ones along the way. “It’s a process,” as Coach Cal has been apt to say when referencing this particular Kentucky team. On this particular personal journey of ours, I couldn’t agree more. Stay tuned.

John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media and Bluegrass Sports Nation. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

You Can’t Get There from Here

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – The Kentucky Basketball team’s performance during the first half of this regular season reads like the proverbial roller coaster. The Wildcats started off with an early season stumble to perennial powerhouse Kansas. Then John Calipari’s squad ran off a string of less-than-spectacular victories over a bevy of Popcorn States. A hard-fought victory at Rupp over a solid Virginia Tech team suddenly sent the team trending upward. Then a pre-Christmas trip to New Orleans and a disappointing loss to UCLA brought everything crashing back down to earth. A surprising 29-point blowout win over a Pitino-less Louisville team sent spirits skyrocketing again. Now a couple of muddled efforts into the conference portion of the schedule and everyone is wondering where indeed this team is headed. With Kentucky’s performance being all over the map, I’ve decided to spice things up and do a little traveling of my own.

I’ve heard it said that with modern commercial aviation, you’re now only two consecutive airline flights away from anywhere in the world. Whoever made up that saying has obviously never been to Southeast Asia. Because that’s where I’m headed–to Thailand specifically–and I’m totally convinced that no matter how hard you try, you simply can’t get there from Lexington, Kentucky.

You see, I’ve made this trip several times before. In the past, I’ve flown east over Europe, west over the Pacific, and even supposedly the shortest route over Alaska and Siberia. Every single time, the trip has been INTERMINABLE. There’s nothing like the deflation of traveling for sixteen hours to Narita Airport in Tokyo, only to realize that a seven-hour flight to Bangkok still awaits your already dehydrated and jet-lagged body. Remember also that this isn’t Coach Cal sacked out on a Sleep Outfitters mattress in his private Lear jet. This is John Huang flying basic economy on some low budget airline out of Korea.

So why am I doing this you ask—especially smack dab in the middle of basketball season? The answer is simple. My wife is from Thailand and this is a long-overdue trip for her to visit her family back home. Those of you who have been following along on my blog know that Kanisa has dealt with some serious health problems for the past several years. She also lost her mom recently, so this is a trip full of recovery, redemption, and closure for her. Sure, I’ll miss some games in Rupp Arena but the trade-off is that I get my beloved bride of 32 years back again. Plus, I’ll still be covering the Wildcats—only now it’ll probably be from some back-alley dive bar in Bangkok. I guarantee it’ll provide a totally different perspective from the standard write-ups you’ll see from your scribes sitting courtside.

The route for this trip includes the short hop from Lexington to Detroit in the standard puddle jumper before the transcontinental flight to Seoul. I consider myself a pretty seasoned flyer, having made numerous trips to China, Taiwan, Australia, and New Zealand in years past. I won’t think twice about flying out to California to meet my daughter for lunch and I’ve racked up enough frequent flyer miles to go to Mars and back. Still, I get a bit nervous when sitting in those metal tubes, especially on long international flights. The thought of a crying baby, the threat of deep vein thrombosis, or a wayward Kim Jong-Un missile is always a bit unsettling. But throw in a little turbulence, some bad airline food, and the seatmate with B.O. and you can certainly understand my edginess.

I should be 40,000 feet over Siberia when Kentucky tips off against Texas A&M next Tuesday night. I’m wondering if I’ll be able to dial up ESPN on my tablet, or if WI-FI will even be working and available on my flight. If not, I guess I’ll just have to wait to check my Twitter feed during my five-hour layover in Seoul before the final leg of my journey to nowhere. Should I happen to drop off the grid temporarily—no worries– just keep checking back and I’ll eventually resurface.

Trust me, I’m not abandoning the Wildcats. With the rejuvenated SEC, it’ll be one of the more challenging conference gauntlets in recent history. I hope you’ll stay tuned for my perspective from the other side of the globe—just a mere 8,853 miles from my usual seat on press row. Like I said, this should be interesting.

John Huang is a retired orthodontist and avid Kentucky Wildcat fan. He works as a columnist for Nolan Group Media and Bluegrass Sports Nation. Be sure to follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs for the latest in his travel adventures.

 

Missing Rick Pitino

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – What a difference a year makes. This time last year, immediately after Louisville upended Kentucky 73-70 in their annual Armageddon basketball showdown, Rick Pitino was toasting himself in his palatial YUM Center media room, basking in a rare conquest over his arch nemesis, John Calipari. Pitino was nearly giddy with ecstasy, admitting to reporters how great this win felt after being dominated so long by the blue-clad mongrel hordes from seventy miles up the Interstate. Although it took Quentin Snider’s game-of-his-life to pull the Cardinals through, this was supposedly a season defining victory that would propel the Cards on to another championship banner, and Pitino to sainthood status within the River City.

Almost exactly one year later, as the Wildcats and Cardinals prepare for another hard-fought Battle of the Bluegrass, times have definitely changed. Pitino now finds himself engaged in an ugly lawsuit with his former employer, having been abruptly fired from his dream job for conduct unbecoming of a leader of young men. Marital infidelity, strippers in Minardi Hall, and bribes to shoe companies have banished traitor Rick hundreds of miles away from the state upon which he so pompously preyed. Meanwhile, Coach Cal prepares to light up another victory cigar, once again rekindling the domination of his Wildcats over their petulant little brother.

I’ll be completely honest, though, I already miss Rick Pitino. I miss his demonic scowl, the spittle flying from his lips, and his deathly pale countenance as he prances along the Rupp Arena sidelines. I miss him and his custom Armani suits, the brazenly red tie, and his perfectly dyed hair yelling animatedly at his minions while condescendingly berating the men in striped shirts. After another devastating loss, there’s something gratifying about watching his obligatory post-game handshake with Calipari—envy, resentment, and bitterness oozing out from every one of his jealous pores. In fact, I miss all the vitriol, venom, and vindictiveness suddenly absent from one of the best rivalries in college basketball. Because without Rick as the villain, you simply can’t hate Louisville anymore.

You can’t hate interim U of L head coach David Padgett either. At this point in the season, he might as well be Scott Padgett. I’m sure he’s a decent coach, but he’s no crypt keeper. He hasn’t snobbishly mocked Kentucky fans while flipping off an entire BBN on his way out of Rupp. He hasn’t showered his team with outlandish hyperbole while simultaneously dissing the city of Lexington, its working-class citizens, and its entire restaurant scene. He hasn’t come close to mimicking his predecessor by sweating through a gaudy white suit or squeezing into a skin-tight shirt and making a bon-a-fide mockery of himself. Bravo Pitino he’s not.

Let’s all face it–a victory over the Cardinals just won’t be the same without Rick. It won’t be as satisfying because it just won’t be as personal. In past years, when the Wildcats won, it was more or less a vindicating coronation—a validation that good still can triumph over evil. This year, a win will still be nice, it just won’t be totally fulfilling. It’ll be more like an appetizer in preparation for your football cousin’s main course later in the day down in Nashville.

After the disappointing performance in their loss to UCLA though, a Kentucky victory over Louisville suddenly takes on added significance. Coach Cal warned everyone in his post-game presser that, if his team plays like they did against the Bruins, the Wildcats could possibly lose their next four or five in a row. If that does indeed happen, then we’re talking about a marginal team destined for the NCAA bubble. Now’s the time to right the ship, build up some confidence, and go on a nice little mid-year run. It all begins this Friday at Rupp with a big victory over the Louisville Cardinals. It’s just a dad-gum shame that Rick Pitino won’t be there to experience the pain.

John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

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

The World According to Mitch

(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.

John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

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/