Mark Story: The battle of the boardroom: Barnhart vs. Jurich

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 26, 2013 

It often seems Tom Jurich can't lose for winning.

In the fall of 2011, the University of Louisville athletics director seemed to have taken a stinging defeat when the Big 12 Conference bypassed the Cardinals and invited West Virginia to join the league instead. With the Big East Conference a foundering ship, that decision appeared to leave Louisville without a home in one of the five major college-sports leagues.

What happened?

In mere months, Louisville would outmaneuver Connecticut to be invited to join the Atlantic Coast Conference, a league that seems a far better fit for the Cardinals than the Big 12 ever would have been.

Meanwhile, during the calendar year 2013, U of L saw its football team win the Sugar Bowl, its men's basketball team claim the NCAA championship, its women's hoops team finish as national runner-up and its baseball team play in the College World Series.

By this August, the New York Times was producing an expansive profile on the rise of Louisville athletics and the role of Jurich, who came to U of L in 1997, in engineering it.

Since he came to the University of Kentucky as athletics director in 2002, Mitch Barnhart has never received that level of acclaim.

Yet it is interesting to note that the tally of team NCAA championships won by Kentucky and Louisville in the years with Barnhart and Jurich both in place stands at UK 2, U of L 1. (Both won a men's basketball title; UK won the rifle title in 2011.)

Head-to-head since 2002-03, the overall UK record against the Cardinals in the four most visible sports — football, men's hoops, women's basketball and baseball — is currently Kentucky 30, Louisville 28.

On the week when the UK-U of L men's hoops holy war recommences, it seems an appropriate time to examine the legacies of the two men running our state's marquee athletics departments.

Tom Jurich

Setting aside what we will call the "Kragthorpian exception," the Louisville AD has been uncanny in hitting on his major coaching hires. Since 2005, head coaches hired by Jurich have taken Louisville to three men's basketball Final Fours, two women's hoops Final Fours, two BCS bowl games, two baseball College World Series appearances and one trip to the men's soccer NCAA championship game.

Potency at relationship building has allowed Jurich to consistently attract well-to-do individuals willing to pony up big bucks for athletic facility upgrades. At U of L, what was once the dreary, urban campus of a commuter school has been transformed by those new athletics facilities. Many of those venues — from Jim Patterson Stadium (baseball) to Dr. Mark and Cindy Lynn Stadium (soccer) to Ralph Wright Natatorium (swimming), to list only three — carry the names of their primary donors.

In April, I asked Jim Host, the Lexington-based college sports marketing guru, to explain the one thing he believes is most accountable for Jurich's success at U of L.

"Tom has just been extremely capable in identifying potential donors for particular projects and then selling them on becoming part of his vision," Host said.

Mitch Barnhart

Acting on the wishes of the man who brought him to UK, former Kentucky president Lee Todd, Barnhart has built Kentucky into a legitimate, all-around SEC athletics department for the first time in the school's history.

Playing in three women's basketball Elite Eights in four seasons, drawing in excess of 23,000 for a women's hoops game in Rupp Arena and having the UK softball team advance to NCAA Tournament super-regionals twice in three seasons would have never happened at Kentucky before Barnhart.

Said UK women's hoops coach Matthew Mitchell: "Mitch Barnhart said, 'We're going to have good sports across the board' and, in particular, (he) really invested in women's basketball in a significant way."

In a profession filled with glad-handers, Barnhart has never seemed particularly at ease with some of the public requirements of being an SEC AD.

Of his major coaching hires, Billy Gillispie in men's basketball and Joker Phillips in football crashed and burned. Conversely, Rich Brooks led UK football to four straight winning seasons; John Calipari has produced two men's basketball Final Four trips and the 2012 NCAA title; and Mitchell has turned a long-languishing Kentucky women's hoops program into a top-10 regular.

Barnhart's facility building has not been as flashy as Louisville's. A bid with college sports marketing concern IMG to privately finance a new basketball venue to replace Rupp Arena, a new UK baseball stadium plus major renovations of Commonwealth Stadium never got off the launching pad.

The Kentucky AD stuck it out on the football upgrades and eventually cut a deal with current UK President Eli Capilouto that saw the university agree to a $110 million renovation of Commonwealth with the Kentucky athletics department pledging to also provide the resources to build a new science building on campus.

Under Barnhart, Kentucky has already built a new softball stadium and a new outdoor track and field facility without taking on debt.

"Because I'm not out doing backflips every time we do something, everyone thinks we haven't done anything," Barnhart said. "I think that, very steadily, we have grown our facilities."

Bottom line

Across the years, Jurich has not been above sticking the needle to UK on the topic of which athletics department produces the most from its resources.

"If money won championships, Kentucky would win them all," Jurich said in 2006.

In 2006-07, when Louisville won the Orange Bowl in football, earned its first baseball College World Series berth and saw both its men's and women's hoops teams finish in the Top 25, the Cardinals' total athletics budget was $41 million, while UK's was $62 million.

In 2012-13, when Louisville enjoyed such epic success in its major programs, U of L's sports budget was some $71.5 million, UK's $91.9 million.

Still, it is interesting to note that in 2012-13, "The Year of the Cardinals," the final standings in the Learfield Sports Directors' Cup — a measure of the overall strength of an athletics department — saw Louisville finish 38th.

And Kentucky 25th.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com .

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