KNOXVILLE — Mitch Barnhart didn't literally have his back to the wall Saturday afternoon.
Instead, the University of Kentucky athletics director stood in a dark hallway below the end zone grandstand of Neyland Stadium, just after his football team's season-ending 37-17 loss to Tennessee, surrounded by cameras and tape recorders and media people.
It was obvious he didn't want to be there.
He didn't want to fire his friend Joker Phillips three weeks ago, making the decision he knew had to be made, that the time had come to pull the plug on Phillips' three-year tenure as football coach.
He didn't want to be standing in front of the media, talking about a search he didn't want to conduct, taking questions he didn't want to answer, careful not to give out any inside information.
In fact, Barnhart's mere media availability had been something of a battle. Since firing Phillips three Sundays ago, he had rejected all media requests. Saturday afternoon, however, he appeared on the Big Blue Network's pre-game radio show to talk about the coaching change and the search criteria — no "quick fix" and character does matter.
That prompted the Kentucky media covering the game at Neyland to renew their requests. After pushing, prodding and complaining, Barnhart agreed to a "brief" post-game interview.
And Barnhart was brief. He didn't come inside the interview room, where a table and chairs awaited. He conducted the "update" out in the hallway, surrounded by an impromptu scrum.
There were no revelations. No names, of course. No insight into who is helping with the search. No timetable. Not even an answer to a question about what he might be looking for in a new coach.
"We're working at it," said Barnhart. "We won't short-circuit the process. I don't see any reason to do that. We'll let you know when we get done."
He did seem intent on refuting any notion that coaching UK football is not a good position to have.
"It's a good job," he said. "People are excited about the opportunity to coach in our league and coach at the University of Kentucky. We'll continue to work at that. That's sort of where we are."
Barnhart insisted potential candidates have been more responsive than they were 10 years ago when he replaced the departing Guy Morriss with Rich Brooks.
"It's much different than last time," said Barnhart. "We were on probation looking at 19 scholarships down and there weren't a lot of folks thinking it was a real great opportunity. Coach Brooks came in and took it by the horns and fought through really, really difficult times."
This one isn't much easier, however, not for the AD at least.
Behind the scenes, working with programs and athletes, Barnhart may be the best athletic director in UK's history. And yet for whatever reason he has never been able to truly connect to the fan base.
That's especially true among the hard-core football fans. The faithful regard Barnhart as the AD who lets basketball take the spotlight, who didn't give Brooks proper financial support, who put in place the coach-in-waiting process that brought the Phillips hiring and then firing.
Among the faithful, there is a (fanatical) faction that adamantly wants disgraced former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino. There is a faction that wants the administration to throw the same kind of money the school threw at John Calipari to get him to coach basketball at UK. There is a faction that wants a name coach, any name coach, that would constitute a "home run" hire.
That puts Barnhart in a no-win situation for a football program that many credible candidates see as a no-win situation. Consider: Saturday put the wraps on an 0-8 SEC season, the 14th in Kentucky football history.
Barnhart has to hire a coach anyway.
There were Internet reports Saturday that talks with Butch Jones had broken down and the Cincinnati coach was no longer a UK possibility. It stands to reason that if Barnhart had his man, he wouldn't be talking to the media now. He'd wait for the introductory press conference.
Instead, like it or not, the search goes on, as do the questions.
Mitch Barnhart may not literally have his back to the wall, but it sure feels that way.
John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com