Kentucky's Barnhart thrilled to see Big Blue Nation get its banner

jsmith3@herald-leader.comApril 3, 2012 

NEW ORLEANS — Mitch Barnhart had a laundry list of reasons to be happy after Kentucky won its first NCAA Tournament title after 14 long years.

He knows it's been 14 years because fans constantly remind him of just how long it's been from 1998 until now.

The athletics director's inbox has been bogged down for nearly a decade with anxious Cats fans hoping to see an eighth title in their lifetimes.

So after Kentucky beat Kansas in Monday's national title game, Barnhart couldn't have been happier for the fans.

"We have a championship banner to hang, and that's really special," he told a small group of media outside of UK's celebratory locker room. "I'm happy for them, really happy for them."

He knew UK fans would travel to Louisville for the tournament's first two rounds. He knew they'd make a strong showing in Atlanta for the regionals.

He knew they'd make their presence known at the Final Four in New Orleans, but he had no idea how much of a presence it would be.

"When you sit there and they throw the ball up and we score a bucket and you hear a roar of the Kentucky fans, you shake your head and go, 'Wow,'" Barnhart said. "We appreciate them giving of their time and their money. More importantly, you don't want to let them down."

Barnhart, in his ninth season as AD at UK, found another reason to be happy Monday night: Coach John Calipari, who was able to punch through and win that long-elusive national title.

"He's given a lot to a lot of people," Barnhart said. "He's a great giver and we have a lot of takers in this business. He's been a great giver in a lot of different ways. He gives to our state; he gives to our university and he gives to these players. For him to enjoy being a national championship coach is really, really special."

That list of Barnhart's also includes the Kentucky players.

"We've got kids with the greatest sets of smiles in college basketball," Barnhart said.

"That's the beautiful part of my job, that I get to spend time with kids who get to achieve dreams and have fun. That's what we get in this business for. There's a lot of other stuff that happens along the way, but this is what you get in the business for."

He mentioned how happy he was to have his family nearby as UK celebrated its second national team title in his tenure (the other was in rifle). He was happy to have his wife, Connie, up on the big stage with the team to share that moment.

So that leads to the bottom of Barnhart's list. It was one he was reluctant to even talk about because he had "no idea what ADs are defined by."

But by the smile on his face and the relief that came from beating in-state rival Louisville in the Final Four to get to this moment, it was easy to see that Barnhart was at least a little bit happy for himself.

"I've been in (this business) for 30 years now," he said. "So tonight, I appreciate it. You don't know if you'll feel this again. You might not."

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader.,

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