In his first public comments about the swirling problems within the women’s basketball program, Mitch Barnhart referenced journeys.
“They’re never straight paths” for a team, the Kentucky athletics director said. “The reality is the journey of what we’re on is always a winding road, ups and downs, blind spots, clear paths.”
Barnhart believes that Coach Matthew Mitchell, going into his 10th season at Kentucky, is dealing with an inevitable detour followed by a fork in the road.
But the head of UK’s athletics program said Mitchell will straighten things out despite the departures of two assistant coaches and the dismissal of a third as well as the transfers of five players this season and the discharge of another.
Mitchell, who took 100 percent of the blame for the upheavals in a series of media interviews Wednesday, also has had a McDonald’s All-American signee ask to be let out of her national letter of intent and a 2017 commitment balk this week.
“To say it’s not going in the right direction wouldn’t be accurate or fair,” Barnhart told the Herald-Leader on Thursday. “The question is: On the journey can we find our way back on the path we want to get on in terms of a little more clear direction? We’re not that far off.”
To say it’s not going in the right direction wouldn’t be accurate or fair. The question is: On the journey can we find our way back on the path we want to get on in terms of a little more clear direction? We’re not that far off.
The two men also are at an intersection contractually, with Mitchell’s seven-year deal calling for the school to look at his salary using a “market analysis” of the top eight women’s basketball coaches in the country to determine what he should make as of May 1. That date has been pushed back while Mitchell looks to fill two of his three assistant coaching openings, Barnhart confirmed.
The seven-year contract — with its sliding salary scale that paid the coach $775,000 this season with $375,000 additional in endorsements and media agreements — calls for Mitchell to make no less than $825,000 (plus the $375,000) for the upcoming season.
If Kentucky were to part ways with Mitchell before the contract expires in 2019, it will be required to pay him 75 percent of his agreed-upon salary through the end of his deal, roughly $900,000 a year or more.
And even though the women’s program has hit a bit of a speed bump off the court, Barnhart said he hasn’t ever considered that an option. He expressed full confidence in Mitchell, who stands to make an additional $250,000 if he finishes out his contract at UK.
“Matthew does a really good job of self-correction, whether that’s in-season adjustments, in-game adjustments, in-life adjustments,” Barnhart said of the head coach, who has seven straight 24-win seasons.
There have been seemingly endless transfers within women’s basketball nationally in the past few years, Barnhart noted, adding that the NCAA has formed committees to discuss the issue as a whole because of the increase.
After three players requested transfers at Duke this season, the school’s human resources department said it was going to do an internal investigation. There is no need for anything like that at UK, Barnhart said, noting that he personally spends a great deal of time with the team.
“I’m not addressing anything at their place, they’re going to handle it their way,” he said of Duke. “I’m very confident we have enough people in our program that are very aware of what’s going on.”
In his news conference Wednesday, Mitchell noted that every practice is open to the public.
“We are an open book from that standpoint,” he said when asked if he’d been too hard on players. “There are no hidden tapes or secret practices that I am having. You can come and watch us practice any time that you want to.”
As for the coaching revolving door, which has included eight different assistants in the past three seasons, Barnhart said it isn’t an ideal situation for anyone involved, but he thinks Mitchell will fix it.
“The turnover in assistant coaches is not what you want, but I also think once you get something you’re comfortable with, you always try and replicate that over and over and over again, sometimes without success,” Barnhart said, mirroring Mitchell’s comments about trying to recreate his early staff that included Kyra Elzy, whom he rehired this week.
We are an open book from that standpoint. There are no hidden tapes or secret practices that I am having. You can come and watch us practice any time that you want to.
Matthew Mitchell, on whether he’s too hard on his players in practice
And even though the staff chemistry hasn’t been where it needs to be, Barnhart said, there’s still been success both on the court and off, including a 25-8 record this season and a trip to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 for the fifth time in seven years. Only seven other schools can claim that kind of recent sustained success.
“At the end of the day, what I love most is when they leave the locker room, they found a way to go out and do some pretty special things,” Barnhart said.
Off the court, Mitchell has had 100 percent of his players who stay until their final season of eligibility graduate, and the team had a 3.12 combined grade-point average the last two semesters.
Lost in the departures and personality clashes is the good Mitchell has done as an “ambassador for the university,” as Barnhart called him, and for the players in UK’s program.
“We can point to five or six or seven young women that it didn’t work for,” Barnhart said. “I can point to 20 over here that he did remarkable things for, and the good always gets lost amongst the other things.”