I'm a lifelong University of Kentucky fan from Eastern Kentucky, where blood is as blue as it is thick. The day I was appointed to the UK Athletics Board was one of my proudest.
Recently, I began receiving mail about Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart, part of a campaign by fans who hate football losses as bad as I do. The gist of them is, "We give generously; we expect more."
Barnhart's been an easy target because he's visible and quietly stoic. But I share fans' frustration enough to tell them the truth I've learned behind some closed doors: Our problem isn't in the AD's office; it's three blocks away where bonding decisions are made.
Barnhart was hired to be a human shield, to protect UK from NCAA firepower with a clean program. He soon learned that his biggest threat was friendly fire from an entrenched fan culture. In much of the state, UK tickets are a medium of exchange, their location a statement of status; ethics have been overcome by less.
President Lee T. Todd Jr. knew it would take a rare man to stand against those forces with good judgment and integrity. He chose well. UK has had no probation threats on Barnhart's watch for one and only one reason: He has trained every person in the program, set a clear standard of good-faith compliance from the top and had a president who insulated him from UK politics.
There's a reason the NCAA prefers oversight of athletics by a president with a career on the line, rather than trustees with less to lose.
Barnhart soon learned that integrity and independence, however necessary to his job, made him few friends. He hasn't had much of an entourage on his way to an enviable record:
■ First-ever SEC championships for baseball, women's tennis and men's golf.
■ Five straight football bowl games.
■ Four SEC championships, three Elite Eights and a Final Four in men's basketball.
■ Two SEC runners-up and an Elite Eight in women's basketball.
■ National championship in rifle competition.
The entire program ranks in the top 10 percent of Division I, with the SEC's lowest student ticket prices and fees. Enough for the Big Blue nation? Never.
But more than we could have expected under the circumstances.
Few know that Barnhart pulled all this off with proverbial hands tied. Most SEC teams are profitable and totally self-funded, but only at UK is athletics required to help fund the university at its own peril.
Where most college sports programs are supported from the general fund — University of Louisville sports receive about $4 million a year — UK's does not get a cent.
Instead, the athletics department pays over $20 million of its $85 million revenue to the university.
Among SEC athletic departments, only UK has to go to trustees for permission to take on its own debt — debt that the athletics department alone would repay — for facilities construction. In the decade of this AD's tenure, the trustees received $820 million in bonding debt authority. Athletics got a whopping $7 million.
Ironically, in that same decade, athletics gave over $160 million to the university. Only at UK is athletics treated like a cash cow and then kept on restricted feed.
In that decade, Barnhart heroically pulled off $100 million in debt-free construction and upgrades out of private donations. It was all that could be done without bonding authority.
Enough to give us a five-star football program? No way. Go visit the football facilities at any other SEC school and see what it takes to attract the coaches and recruits that assure football programs on par with UK basketball.
I did, and it answered all my questions about why UK football isn't UK basketball. Arkansas did, and just announced a $300 million expansion of its athletic facilities.
The trustees are within their rights to pick winners and losers in the competition for bonding dollars. I love football, but acknowledge plenty of competing needs. Have we starved the goose that lays $20 million in golden eggs annually to help fund those competing needs? Maybe the question deserves some public discourse.
And Barnhart deserves better than the public thrashing we UK fans give him out of much frustration and little knowledge of UK athletics and its unique funding problems.
As a member of the athletics board, my concern is that if Barnhart leaves UK, he'll be headed to a competing school that's only too happy to equip him with normal bonding authority for competitive facilities.
They know what the Kentucky faithful deserve to know — that it's been the only thing standing in his way at UK.