University of Kentucky Director of Athletics Mitch Barnhart spoke hopefully of the 2016 football season during an appearance at the Lexington Forum on Thursday.
Veteran players and increased depth, he said, gave him hope for more success.
After his talk to an audience of about 100, Barnhart fielded a basic question that is pertinent to the upcoming season and decades of football futility: why has UK’s program struggled for so many years?
“I think there’s multiple reasons,” said Barnhart, who then methodically offered four explanations that suggested he had given the topic a lot of thought.
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1. Kentucky’s relatively small population means fewer potential home-grown prospects.
“Our state is producing ... in any given year between 12 and maybe 15 or 16 Division I football players,” Barnhart said. “And that’s Division I, not Southeastern Conference football players.
“So it’s a smaller number. So we’re having to recruit outside our boundaries a little bit.”
The schedule is daunting. It’s really, really difficult year to year. You drop a school like Auburn off your schedule last year, and you pick up Alabama. OK, well, OK, thanks.
2. The caliber of competition in the SEC makes improvement difficult to achieve. Kentucky has not had a winning league record since the first year of the Jimmy Carter presidency (1977).
“So the schedule is daunting,” Barnhart said. “It’s really, really difficult year to year. You drop a school like Auburn off your schedule last year, and you pick up Alabama. OK, well, OK, thanks.”
3. Kentucky has a scarcity of football tradition.
“You don’t have as much tradition as other folks,” Barnhart said. “So we’re having to create that. ... Some schools have a built-in tradition, and they can recruit to that tradition.
“We’re having to establish and create our own tradition.”
4. Facilities that pale next to the typical SEC football program.
Kentucky has addressed that problem during Barnhart’s time as athletics director. UK revamped Commonwealth Stadium and, most recently, opened a new $45 million practice facility.
“People can finally see that our program is invested,” Barnhart said, “and if they come here, they’re not getting short-sided in terms of facilities.”
Barnhart said he hoped those who attended the Lexington Forum meeting left with the understanding that UK athletic administrators and athletes are committed to high achievement in athletic competition and academically.
For instance, Kentucky athletes set a record with an overall 3.157 grade-point average in the 2016 spring semester. That was the eighth straight semester UK athletes had a GPA of 3.0 or better.
Kentucky finished 26th in the 2015-16 Director’s Cup standings, which measure overall athletic performance. UK was sixth among SEC schools.
Kentucky seeks to be No. 1. Barnhart called on his interest in mountain climbing to explain this quest.
“That last jump from high camp to summit is really, really hard,” he said. “And it takes incredible, incredible expertise, incredible effort, and then everything has to be right. You’ve got to have all the breaks. ...
“A lot of people are at the high camp level. And they’re all wanting to summit. You’ve got to make sure we’re in that group that gets to the top of the mountain occasionally.”