John Clay: Barnhart hopes Kentucky football's time has arrived

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 18, 2012 

UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart, left, shook hands with new football coach Mark Stoops on Sunday as Stoops was introduced as UK's new football coach. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff


The way Mitch Barnhart sees it, there are three stages for any athletics program, much less a football program. There is belief. There is hope. And there is no hope.

"We needed new hope," Kentucky's athletics director said Tuesday in a 50-minute interview inside his office at the Joe Craft Center. "You go from believing you're going to win to hoping you're going to win to no hope. We've got to reverse that and go from no hope to having hope again to believing you're going to win. I think our fans have hope again."

The reason behind the hope is 45-year-old Mark Stoops, the former Florida State defensive coordinator Barnhart picked three weeks ago to replace Joker Phillips as head coach of the Kentucky football program.

Since Stoops' arrival, there has been a groundswell of enthusiasm from a football fan base that had suffered through a 2-10 season, a drastic drop in home attendance and the firing of the head coach, himself an alumnus.

Firing Phillips was not easy for Barnhart. The two men had grown to be friends during their tenure together at UK. At one point, Barnhart had said he wanted Phillips to succeed as much as any coach he had ever hired.

"It was really hard," said Barnhart of the firing. "You get around a guy for seven, eight, nine, 10 years, it gets to the spot where you're saying, 'We've done a lot together.' ... You see how much he had invested in this and wanted his alma mater to be successful. I hurt for him. I hurt for our players. I don't want to sound dramatic in this thing, but I wanted them to succeed."

When that didn't happen, Barnhart began a search that resulted in the hiring of Stoops, a longtime assistant who wanted the Kentucky job from the start.

"A chance," said Barnhart when asked what Stoops asked for during the hiring process. "He just wanted a chance. He was ready to go. Every text I got from him, every call I got from him, was 'I want the job. I want to come.' That was important to us at Kentucky.'"

Now that Stoops has put in place the major pieces of his staff — former UK wide receiver Neal Brown as offensive coordinator, former Florida State defensive ends coach D.J. Eliot as defensive coordinator — the next step is to capitalize on the early momentum in ways that will improve the program.

That means enhancements to Commonwealth Stadium, enhancements to other facilities, items that cost money.

To this point, the state legislature has not been willing to authorize the bonding needed for such expenditures.

It's also an issue complicated by the fact that UK President Dr. Eli Capilouto would also like to upgrade on-campus facilities and dormitories on the academic side.

"In basic terms, we're part of the university structure," Barnhart said. "That has got to fit into the state structure. That's our opportunity and our obligation and we've got to make that happen. There are limitations at every level and we've got to make sure that we fit into those pieces. It isn't from a lack of wanting to do that. It's an important part of what we want to be about."

Here, Barnhart listed three components — the fan experience at Commonwealth Stadium, the competitive entity for the student-athletes and making sure the financial aspects are affordable and make sense.

That means having amenities such as suites that will help pay for the improvements made in other areas.

Long story short, the funding necessary for those upgrades is out of Barnhart's hands. The university needs help from the state in terms of bond authorizations in several areas, not just athletics.

It is a process that has been ongoing. It is a process that takes time. But it's also a process that Barnhart hopes has reached the right time.

"We have to make sure we're a part of every phase, and we think we're gaining ground on that, but time will tell," he said. "Timing is everything, and we're at a moment in time where we're hopeful that the stars will begin to align for us in many areas. And that's one as well."

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog:

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