Matthew Mitchell has his fun side.
The University of Kentucky women's basketball coach hams up his weekly TV show with cooking segments and guitar "tips."
Mitchell said he rarely walks through an airport — sometimes even in Chicago or Seattle — without someone stopping to ask him about his show.
His cooking show.
"Nobody ever calls it my coach's show," Mitchell said, looking pleased.
Matthew Mitchell has his driven side.
At age 42, Mitchell is about to become the all-time coaching wins leader in UK women's basketball history. Starting with Sunday's visit to LSU, one more win by No. 8 UK (23-3) will allow Mitchell (137-59) to tie the late Terry Hall (138-66). Two wins will put the name "Matthew Mitchell" at No. 1 in the Kentucky record books.
Just four years ago, Mitchell had a 33-32 record at Kentucky and feared he was far closer to losing his job than ever becoming UK's all-time winner.
"We didn't have the greatest start, one game over .500 after two years," he said Thursday. "There wasn't a lot of optimism or buzz around the program. I really felt like my back was against the wall after that second year because it didn't seem like a whole lot was happening for us."
What's happened for Mitchell and UK women's basketball since is one of the more dramatic turnaround stories in the history of Kentucky college sports.
Mitchell implemented a new system of play built around suffocating pressure defense. A long-slumbering Kentucky women's program caught fire and has reached the NCAA Tournament round of eight twice in the past three seasons.
The head coach who ignited the transformation is an unusual combination of zany entertainer and driven, coaching survivor.
As a little boy, Matthew Mitchell already had his fun side.
John and Carol Mitchell raised a family of four boys outside the small Mississippi town of Louisville (pronounced Lewis-ville). The three oldest brothers, David, Mark and Stephen, were each born a year apart. The youngest, Matthew, did not come along until four years after Stephen's birth.
Whatever his older brothers did, Matthew wanted to try. If they loved the character Fonzie from the sitcom Happy Days, so did he. If they played baseball all day, he wanted to join.
At the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, John and Carol always had their family sit up front.
One Sunday, as John led his family to their normal pew, he noted something odd: Laughter kept building the farther the Mitchells walked inside the church.
Turning around, he saw that little Matthew was doing the double thumbs up Fonzie gesture "Heeyyyyyyy!!!!!!" from Happy Days as the family walked down the aisle.
"Shyness, that's not a problem Matthew has ever had," John Mitchell said.
As a little boy, Matthew Mitchell had his driven side.
Once in a baseball game, his older brother Stephen was swinging the bat. Matthew wandered into the path of his backswing and got plastered.
"There was blood everywhere. It broke his nose," John Mitchell recalls. "But the thing was, Matthew was not discouraged or intimidated by what happened. As soon as he could, he got right back out there and competed with his older brothers."
A prayer for guidance
Midway through his second season (2007-08) as Kentucky head man, Matthew Mitchell's driven side was telling him his UK coaching tenure was not headed for a fun ending.
When he was chosen to replace Mickie DeMoss as UK coach, Mitchell inherited a veteran team led by seniors Sarah Elliott and Samantha Mahoney. He thought it should be an NCAA Tournament team. "We had some talent," he said. Instead, it finished 17-16.
The following season, a less-talented UK roster went 16-16.
By then, "I was really uptight, really afraid this was not going to work," Mitchell said. "There in December 2008, right there at Christmas, I kind of turned it over to God and said, 'Listen, if You could lend me some strength and help me make some good decisions, I just really need clarity.'"
Mitchell decided that trying to emulate the paths to success of traditional SEC titans such as Tennessee and Georgia was not working at Kentucky. "In recruiting at that time, we could not get the traditional power center, the traditional power forward to come to Kentucky," he said.
As he often does, Mitchell consulted with coaching mentors. Ultimately, he chose to recruit athletic guards and employ pressure man-to-man defense. Initially, the plan was not full-court pressing, though it morphed into that.
"Nobody in our league was really playing that way," Mitchell said. "We just decided we would take the kids who did want to come to Kentucky and figure out a way to play with them."
Mitchell's first team (2009-10) to employ the new frenetic style was picked to finish 11th of 12 in the SEC. Instead, it reached the NCAA Tournament round of eight.
"Where the style was born from, was just me wanting to be here," Mitchell said now.
The Coach's Kitchen
Matthew Mitchell has his fun side.
As TV programs go, the weekly college coaching show tends to be drier than a tumbleweed.
Not The Matthew Mitchell Show.
"It's the funniest thing I've ever seen," said UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart.
Mitchell branches far from hoops. In the weekly Coach's Kitchen, Mitchell's wife Jenna — a former caterer — prepares a recipe (healthy no-bake cookies, anyone?) while the coach mugs for the camera and generally gives her a hard time.
The origins of the segment go back to when Mitchell and Jenna were asked to tape a tailgating segment to be shown on Commonwealth Stadium's jumbotrons.
"We shot that one day and I was like, 'We can do this, it would be good for the coach's show,'" Mitchell said. "Now, Jenna threatens to strike every year. She's like, 'I'm not doing this again.' Now, she's trapped."
Mitchell's show also features guitars — not to be confused with guitar music. The Guitar Tip of the Week began because Mitchell, who once sang in a rock band, wanted to learn to play and had a player on his team, Carly Morrow, who knew how.
"The original idea was that I was going to teach him to play the guitar, one chord a week for 14 weeks," Morrow said. "He realized pretty quick he didn't really have time to learn to play the guitar. So then it turned into what it is now, the Coach Mitchell Comedy Show."
Those who see Mitchell's fun side on the television must wonder how that guy could ever be a hard-charging coach. Those who have played for Mitchell say he leaves the gags outside the gym.
Former Kentucky forward Chelsea Chowning remembers "a day in practice when I was really struggling, just kept missing layups. Coach finally told me to go get on the treadmill. He said, 'If you can't learn to make a layup, at least you can learn how to run.'"
Ex-UK point guard Amber Smith said Mitchell tossed her from a practice when she lost focus and let the ball get through her hands after she realized during a timed drill the team was not going to finish in time. "He definitely got his message across, that I needed to keep my head in the game no matter (the circumstances)," Smith said.
Keyla Snowden, the former Kentucky shooting guard, said Mitchell does bring his sense of humor into the practice gym at times. "To try to get under your skin, make you mad, really push you to do more," she said.
On the verge of becoming UK's all-time winningest coach of women's basketball, more is what Mitchell wants for the Kentucky program.
"I try to have perspective and be thankful for what we have done, but we think we can be the best basketball program in the country," Mitchell said. "When you are trying to be No. 1, No. 8 seems a long way away."
For Matthew Mitchell, winning it all may be the only place where his driven side and fun side can ever fully converge.
Starters: A'dia Mathies, 5-9, Sr., G (15.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 2.3 apg); Kastine Evans, 5-9, Jr., G (4.5 ppg, 1.9 rpg); Jennifer O'Neill, 5-6, So., G (10.1 ppg; 2.2 rpg, 2.6 apg); Samarie Walker, 6-1, Jr., F (9.5 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 2.0 spg, 1.6 bpg); DeNesha Stallworth, 6-3, Jr., F (12.7 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 2.2 apg, 1.6 bpg).
Key reserves: Bria Goss, 5-10, So., G (9.4 ppg, 3.0 rpg); Bernisha Pinkett, 5-7, Jr., G (3.5 ppg, 1.7 rpg); Janee Thompson, 5-6, Fr., PG (4.0 ppg); Azia Bishop, 6-3, So., F (3.5 ppg, 3.1 rpg); Samantha Drake, 6-3, Jr., F (2.4 ppg, 1.3 rpg); Brittany Henderson, 6-2, Sr., F (1.2 ppg, 2.6 rpg); Jalleah Sydney, 6-2, So., F (1.8 ppg).
Starters: Danielle Ballard, 5-9, Fr., G (12.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg); Jeanne Kenney, 5-8, Jr., G (4.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 4.5 apg); Adrienne Webb, 5-9, Sr., G (14.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg); Shanece McKinney, 6-4, Jr., C (4.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg); Theresa Plaisance, 6-5, Jr., F (17.7 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 2.8 bpg).
Key reserves: Bianca Lutley, 5-11, Sr., G (9.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 3.0 apg); Derreyal Youngblood, 6-4, Fr., C (2.8 ppg, 2.4 rpg); Anne Pederson, 6-1, Fr., G (1.5 ppg).
UK women's coaches
Coach (Years) Wins
Terry Hall (1980-87) 138
Matthew Mitchell (2007-13) 137
Sharon Fanning (1987-95) 134
Bernadette Mattox (1995-03)91
Debbie Yow (1976-80) 79
Mickie DeMoss (2003-07) 71
Sue Feamster (1971-76) 64