Big Blue World

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – Although basketball is already big in China, Kentucky Basketball has yet to make a splash in the land of Genghis Khan and Chairman Mao. Beginning this upcoming season, however, that’s all about to change. Chinese fans from Beijing to Binzhou, from Shanghai to Shanxi, from Tiananmen Square to the Terracotta Army will now be able to tune in to Mandarin based broadcasts of UK Basketball games distributed through the JMI Sports Network.

How big is this news? It’s huge—let me tell you why. Chinese people have always loved basketball. Unfortunately, we’ve just never been any good at it. Most of us are short, slow, and we can’t create our own shot to save our life. Other than Yao Ming, name me one other Chinese player who made it to the NBA. Wang Zhizhi and Mengke Bateer were outright busts. Yi Jianlian and Sun Yue never panned out. Jeremy Lin was a flash in the pan, and many don’t even classify him as a real Chinese. Just by sheer numbers alone, a country of 1.4 billion people should have produced more than this small handful of professional prospects.

Despite our shortcomings, Chinese people are no different than anyone else. We all love a winner—and who better a winner than the school currently laying claim to the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball. You heard it here first. Once these audio game broadcasts are available, hundreds of thousands of Chinese basketball fans worldwide will flock to the antics of PJ, EJ, and DJ. They’ll learn all about our 8 national championships, the house that Rupp built, and the colossal devotion of the BBN. They’ll absolutely fall in love with Coach Cal’s magical touch as they quickly succumb to the Chinese version of his blue Kool-Aid.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. UK AD Mitch Barnhart has always claimed that his athletic programs serve as the front porch for those wanting to become a part of the University of Kentucky. If that’s truly the case, imagine all those future potential enrollees in China, developing an early allegiance to the Big Blue, while listening to the Wildcats claw their way to Championship Number Nine. They’ll be quick to learn that Lexington, Kentucky is also where their NBA heroes—such as John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, and Karl Towns played their college ball. Trust me, in subsequent years they’ll be beating down the doors to admission, adding to the coffers of the ever-growing UK treasury. Sponsors should also be forming a line as we speak. You think McDonald’s and Coca Cola would be interested in adding a billion people to their marketing base?

Don’t believe me yet about the magnitude of this broadcast reach? Let me introduce you to Haotian (Austin) Zhang, the talent who’s been tabbed to handle the primary broadcasting duties during these games. Some of you may already know Austin as the prominent Asian dude donning the Kentucky Jersey in the front row of the ERUPPtion Zone. Austin recently graduated from the school of his dreams with a business degree in management. Fortunately for all of us, he’s been accepted into the UK Master of Science in Finance program and will be around for quite some time. Already one of the biggest UK basketball fans I know, he’s looking forward to the challenge of being the first Chinese Cawood Ledford.

“Coach Cal and John Wall makes me know UK,” Austin enthusiastically answers, when asked about why he chose the University of Kentucky. “Anthony Davis makes me love UK. Karl Towns make me proud of UK.”

Austin recently gained fame by directly asking John Calipari during his Coach’s show why he didn’t recruit Chinese players to UK. Knowing Coach Cal, he’ll use these broadcasts to get tabs on the next great Chinese Lebron, currently oblivious to Wildcat ways—but through the magic of the world wide web, will soon be a passionate disciple of the BBN. Kentucky recruit James Wiseman allegedly also speaks Chinese. Are you listening, James?

Watch out Chinese world, Big Blue Nation is coming for you.

John Huang is Chinese. He currently covers University of Kentucky Sports for Nolan Media Group. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

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Jumping Off The Cliff

Dear Cliff Hagan Stadium,

Goodbyes are always difficult, but your final farewell seems especially sorrowful. After nearly half a century of UK Baseball thrills, chills, and spills, you’re being patronizingly jilted for a sleeker and shinier home venue right up the hill. You’re older than your more famous cousins, Rupp Arena and Commonwealth Stadium, with undoubtedly as many indelible memories—but like many other citizens of BBN, I feel like I barely knew you. Playing third fiddle to basketball and football, tucked away in campus purgatory, and forever compared to your fellow SEC brethren can saddle even the grandest and most regal of baseball complexes with their own complex of shameful inferiority.

And yet, you persevered. With your 3,000 sun-splashed seats and iconic center field Cliff, you’ve gallantly stood your ground. Hundreds of wins, thousands of hits, and multiple coaching regimes are now all part of your lasting legacy. Over the years, names such as Doug Flynn, Jeff Abbott, Collin Cowgill, and A.J. Reed have become forever etched in your prominent lore. Just the other day, I shed a tear or two listening to legendary Coach Keith Madison wax nostalgically about Jim Leopold’s spectacular center field catch, Bill Sandry’s four homerun game, and the time his team swept number one ranked LSU—all within the confines of your stadium walls. Through it all, you’ve been the home to hundreds of players who have worked their tails off practicing on your hallowed grounds on their way to prestigious academic degrees, spectacular athletic careers, and lucrative professional contracts.

I still don’t understand why the powers that be have planned for your untimely demise. In my mind, you’re still good for another fifty years. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with your playing turf, scoreboards, or your left field bleachers. OK, your elevator is a bit slow, finding a parking spot can be brutal, and the press box perpetually smells of fried food, but your mortgage is paid and your plumbing still works. That’s more than can be said of most of us of similar age.

Rumor has it that you’re being unceremoniously put out to pasture in lieu of a spanking new tennis facility. Seems like such a cruel ending for having poured out so many thrilling moments and memories. Forty-nine million dollars lavished on the girl next door while a fraction of that amount could have given you a makeover of your dreams. Such is life in keeping up with the Joneses in the collegiate sports world. I’ll never understand it. Seems like such a waste.

Hopefully in the end, you’ll provide us with one final shining moment—perhaps an unlikely victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. As a fulfilling coronation to fifty years of faithful service, I’d love to order up a walk off series winning homerun. Whatever happens, as you march off this weekend to join all the other baseball stadiums in the sky, it’s only fitting that a grateful Big Blue Nation bids you a resounding adieu.

Thank You. Goodbye Cliff. We barely knew you.

John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Media Group. 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 and other professional sports coverage at http://www.bluegrasssportsnation.com/category/writers/john-huang

Big Blue 4(0) Miler

Unlike Mitch Barnhart, I have no death wish. We’re both on the sunset side of our fifties, but unlike the University of Kentucky’s director of athletics, I’m not jumping out of perfectly good airplanes or scaling the heights of Mt. Kilimanjaro. I do, however, periodically participate in something many consider just as torturous—I like to run. I’ll tolerate all sorts of blisters, shin splints, and the occasional bout with plantar fasciitis just so that I can choke down that entire pepperoni pizza and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream guilt free. So when the opportunity came for me to participate in the inaugural Go Big Blue 4 Miler race, I eagerly plunked down my $30, laced up my sneakers, and showed up early on a blustery, overcast Saturday morning ready to see how fast and far my aging flat feet could still take me.

This isn’t just any ordinary, run-of-the-mill road race. Sponsored in part by Kroger, this unique run/walk event winds its way through seven different University of Kentucky south campus sporting venues. For die-hard, lifelong UK fans, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to actually be on the field of play—to retrace the footsteps of your Wildcat heroes, as you tread the same exact turf they did during all their glory years.

My race strategy is to start slow and ease back, but that’s easier said than done for this distinctive event. You see, I’m nowhere near my running prime, but I’m still prideful enough to want to show all these young whippersnappers a thing or two. I haven’t forgotten what it feels like to be sprinting so hard that your body goes anaerobic as you bust a lung and pull a hamstring. Sure, these young guns in their spandex suits can run six-minute miles now, but show up when you’re sixty and let’s see what you’ve got. Plus, they don’t know that I’ll be running for the old Blue and White–scoring touchdowns, hitting dingers, and winning gold in my wildest Big Blue fantasies.

As we gather together in the parking lot of Kroger Field for the start of the race, I’m surrounded by about 500 other bleary-eyed competitors. I glance around and see the usual assortment of muscle bound dudes in tank tops and hot chicks in running tights that invariably gather at these Saturday morning events. Supposedly Mitch is here also, together with Ryan Lemond and a few other luminaries who look as if they’ve had one donut too many. My adrenaline spikes as I prepare to kick their tails while sporting my newly customized Anthony Davis UK checkerboard jersey.

It’s a stampede out of the starting chute as everyone jockeys for position. I begin the race in a semi sprint as the massive pack circles around the perimeter of the stadium. As we cruise onto the Football Training Facility practice field, I know we’re all going way too fast, as if we’re somehow being chased by linebacker Josh Allen while Coach Stoops looks on mockingly.

It’s not a good sign as my lungs are already burning in mile number one as we head uphill under the towering silhouette of the newly rising baseball complex. The $49 million price tag of this Taj Mahal palace is enough to inspire me onward as I picture myself comfortably lodged on press row next year, snacking on gourmet nachos and popcorn while watching Coach Mingione work his magic.

The Bell Soccer Complex is next. This field is a lot bigger than I thought it would be and there’s a heck of a lot of running to do. It dawns on me why I never played soccer. In my mind, I hear Coach Carry and Coach Cedergren egging me on, but I’m already sucking wind as I mercifully exit the stadium.

Next up is John Cropp Stadium. I’m pretty familiar with this softball venue and immediately begin to get my second wind. I pass a nine-year-old track star prodigy and a John Candy lookalike as if they’re standing still. All of a sudden, I’m Bailey Vick, effortlessly chasing down a fly ball on the outfield warning track. I’m a legend in my own mind as scores of fans gather on the newly constructed outfield berm, cheering me on.

Entering Cliff Hagan Stadium, I’m more than half way home and a wave of nostalgia hits me squarely in the jaw. It’s UK Baseball’s last season here at the Cliff and I want to make sure I give it a good sendoff. I immediately pick up the pace and start gaining ground on the group in front. Giving Coach Madison a well-deserved salute, I’m suddenly transformed into Troy Squires, rounding the bases after my grand slam homerun propelled me into UK Baseball’s exclusive 100-hit club.

As I enter the track and field complex, my feet suddenly gain even more traction on the blue synthetic running surface. I’m—you guessed it—Sydney McLaughlin setting another world record as the Chariots of Fire theme reverberates in my imaginary headphones. Yep, I’m feeling it. These are the moments you live for—those fleeting seconds where running becomes effortless, and everything seems right with the world.

Heading out of mile three, I’m abruptly jolted out of my reverie by the piercing screams of the UK Women’s basketball team. They’ve gotten up early to lend their enthusiastic support. “He’s one of those media guys,” I hear one of them say as I pass by, obviously surprised that this old Chinese guy with a ponytail still has a functioning motor.

And then, just like that…I immediately hit the wall. Coming back through Cooper Drive, it’s a wind tunnel as my feet feel like they’re stuck in concrete. Four miles feels like forty and I’m praying for the racing gods to put me out of my misery. As I enter Kroger Field, I make one final push for the finish line. I channel Lynn Bowden, imagining myself returning a kickoff a hundred yards to beat Tennessee. Tom Leach’s call blares through the speakers as my 15 seconds of fame flashes across the video jumbotron. Touchdown Kentucky!

There you have it. Four miles in 31:36. Good enough for 36th place overall and 4th in my old man age group. Pass the ibuprofen, please. Donut anyone?

John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Media Group and Bluegrass Sports Nation. 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 and other professional sports coverage at http://www.bluegrasssportsnation.com/category/writers/john-huang

 

 

Wildcats, Mildcats, and Childcats

(BOISE, Idaho.) — A friend of mine from Boise described his hometown as the most desolate place on the face of the earth. It turns out that he was somewhat over embellishing, as I thought the snowcapped mountains provided for a gorgeously scenic backdrop to the bustling downtown vibe. But the reality is that Boise (pronounced Boy-see, not Boy-zee) IS a bit out of the way and difficult to get to. After three zigzagging flights across the country with a couple of harrowing connections in between, I finally found myself in the capital city of the potato state, following my beloved Wildcats through their improbable date with destiny.

Kentucky’s path through Boise was complex and fortuitous. In the first game on Thursday, it was Davidson versus Goliath as the 12th seeded Atlantic-10 Conference tournament champion Wildcats gave the 5th seeded and big-name SEC Champion Wildcats a run for their money. Davidson players, fueled by the proverbial chip on their shoulder playing against future NBA talent and a raucous “home” crowd, hit 11-33 three-pointers to nearly send Kentucky packing even before the tournament began. Kentucky, meanwhile, went 0-6 from behind the arc, ending their 30-year, 1047 consecutive game three-pointers made streak. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander saved the day with a 19-point, 8-rebound, and 7-assist performance as Kentucky narrowly prevailed 78-73. Kevin Knox led the team in scoring with 25 points on 8-16 shooting from the floor and 9-11 at the foul line.

Up next for Kentucky was a supposed date with the 4th-seeded Pac-12 Champion, Arizona Wildcats. Surprisingly, though, Coach Sean Miller’s team–fresh off FBI allegations regarding payments to star players–folded again like a cheap suit. So instead of the marquee, made-for-TV matchup with the talented mildcats from Tucson, substitute the Buffalo Bulls with their bombastic head coach—Nate Oats. Verbal sparring notwithstanding, when faced with the adversity of bright post-season lights on the big tournament stage, Kentucky’s Kiddie Cats rose to the occasion with a hugely inspiring 95-75 win. Gilgeous-Alexander and Hamidou Diallo played hero in this one, leading the team with 27 and 22 points respectively.

Let’s give John Calipari credit. He did everything he could to give this team a fighting chance—taking on the mantle of coach, mentor, and psychiatrist this season until he was blue in the face. From bringing in renowned sports psychologist Bob Rotella, to his shameless public encouragement of struggling superstars, to his assurance that he wasn’t cracking despite record setting losing streaks, Coach Cal poked, prodded, and pushed his childcats to reach for their full potential. I confessed to Cal that I had my doubts during the losing streak in February. “You doubted me?” he countered. “Why did you tell me? I didn’t know. Now I look at you different.”

In the end, Calipari’s Sigmund Freud impersonation overcame his team’s youth and inconsistency. “This team, the youngest, most inexperienced team I’ve ever attempted to coach and at times the maturity level is—there’s something to be desired there at times,” he lamented right as post-season play began. “I’ve tried to build the whole season towards this, talk about the NCAA tournament all season, but I really don’t know. I have no idea what will happen.”

What happened was Kentucky moves on to the Sweet Sixteen next week, sending all of BBN scurrying to book hotel rooms in Catlanta. The anticipated influx of the Blue Mist together with Virginia’s shocking tournament exit has cleared the way for another improbable Wildcat march to the Alamo. Plus, the Cats are peaking at just the right time—playing their best basketball when it counts the most. “You never know with a young group like this, they’re playing as good as they have all year,” Cal grudgingly admitted. “But they could go out this next game and be freshmen.”

Leaving Taco Bell Arena, I felt the usual sense of exhilaration reserved for fans of teams left in the Big Dance—the immediate relief of surviving and advancing, the wanton excitement of another Final Four run, and the joyful anticipation of perhaps another National Championship. There’s still a long way to go, but I like our chances. We’ve got the X-factor in Coach Cal. Shame on me for ever doubting.

John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Media Group. 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

Phooey, St. Looey!

(ST. LOUIS, Mo) – The airplane, the internet, and the Southeastern Conference Basketball Tournament are arguably three of the greatest inventions in the history of humankind. Nothing beats the speed of jet travel, the convenience of home shopping, and the excitement of BBN invading an unsuspecting post-season venue. Surprisingly, Kentucky men’s basketball head coach John Calipari still stubbornly refuses to acknowledge one of these three brilliant cultural innovations. We all know Coach Cal is completely dependent on his private jet to check on his recruiting pipeline, and I’m sure he frequently googles his favorite Italian restaurants to fill his ever-expanding waistline. So why in the world is Coach Cal so slow to accept the obvious advantages to his Wildcats playing in conference post-season primetime?

“You know I can’t stand tournaments anyway,” Calipari said with his usual frowny face. “I’m not a big proponent of playing three or four games in a row at the end of the year. We already have a league champ. What are we doing this for? So that’s me. But our fans at Kentucky love this tournament. They love it. So, we go in and try to play as well as we can for our fans. But the only thing we’ll use this weekend for is to prepare us for the next weekend. That’s it. I’m not a big conference tournament guy. I never have been. I never was at Mass. I never was at Memphis. The next tournament is the real one.”

Hmmm? Maybe after his recent march through St. Looey, Coach Cal may consider changing his mind. His Kentucky team took advantage of a great opportunity to work on some glaring deficiencies, garner some remaining quality wins, and reestablish themselves on top of the SEC food chain—all while giving their adoring and well-deserving fans a chance to party, gloat, and blow their hard-earned vacation dollars underneath the Gateway Arch. In my mind, the SEC tournament is a win-win for Big Blue players and fans alike. Why Cal continues to denigrate something that is obviously beneficial and here to stay is a bit baffling. His outward negativity could have easily rubbed off on his impressionable young talent. But that’s just me.

The results, however, speak for themselves. Fortunately, Kentucky blew past a tired Georgia team 62-49 in the quarterfinals, blitzed by a resurgent Alabama team 86-63 with a three-point semifinal barrage, and took a hard-fought, well-contested 77-72 revenge victory in the finals on a Tennessee team –that had defeated them twice in the regular season–to win their 31st conference tournament trophy. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was the tournament MVP, with Wenyen Gabriel, and Kevin Knox also selected for the All-Tournament Team.

For their efforts, the Wildcats were rewarded by the NCAA selection committee with an all expenses paid trip to Boise, Idaho as the 5th seed in the South Region. They’ll face Davidson in the first round. Kentucky was projected by many at the end of the regular season to already be a five seed, so someone please explain to me how winning the tournament championship of arguably the toughest conference in America could reap absolutely no benefit whatsoever.

“We’ll also use this tournament to see if we can improve our seed—which it never does,” Calipari had said presciently prior to the tournament. From that aspect, Coach was absolutely correct. However, in every other aspect, he was dead wrong. Kentucky improved significantly in their three-game stint in St. Looey. The Wildcats gained some much-needed confidence and momentum and subsequently set the stage in the only way they could for another improbable NCAA tournament run. This youngest of all Cal’s teams used the tournament to mature and hopefully, come of age. In addition, every single Cat fan, including myself, who made it to Scottrade Center also swears they had a fabulous time. Co-hosting radio, schmoozing with colleagues, and having my 15 seconds of fame behind the ESPN cameras–all while watching the team win another conference crown–is an experience I’ll forever cherish.

Here’s what I kept thinking on my eight-hour drive back from St. Looey through a blinding blizzard. If Kentucky makes it deep into this year’s March Madness bracket, they can thank the SEC tournament. Coach Cal will never admit it, BUT HE WAS WRONG regarding his negative tournament attitude. Phooey on him! He owes St. Looey an apology and a big debt of gratitude.

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

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/