I didn’t mention to Mitch Barnhart right away that the first time I listened to Rachel Lawson at a press conference, it struck me almost immediately that Kentucky’s softball coach had a lot on the ball. I didn’t have to, UK’s athletics director beat me to it.
“She’s really smart; that’s what impressed me,” Barnhart said. “A lot of times you interview people and you get stock answers. She had a plan.”
This was Wednesday morning in Barnhart’s office at Commonwealth Stadium — he now has one on either side of campus. Last Sunday night, UK’s softball team earned a No. 9 national seed, best in school history, for the NCAA Tournament. Friday, UK plays host to Butler at John Cropp Stadium in a first-round game of a regional that also includes Illinois and Utah.
We’re talking about when Barnhart interviewed Lawson for the job back in 2007. I’d heard the AD was all set to hire another candidate, only to get a last-second case of cold feet. Lisa Peterson, then an associate AD at UK, now at Oregon, suggested Barnhart talk to Lawson. I wanted to confirm the story.
“I wasn’t 100 percent on anybody, to be honest with you,” Barnhart said.
So he invited Lawson, then coach at Western Kentucky, to his house for an interview. Lawson remembers it well. In the background, kids were running around the house yelling at the dog. Lawson could tell Barnhart was a committed family man, one who wanted women’s sports to succeed. Lawson thought to herself, “I could work for this guy.”
“The first thing I really, really appreciated was she didn’t see impediments,” Barnhart said.
Others saw plenty of impediments. By Barnhart’s own admission, the school’s softball facility was the worst in the league. Kentucky was the northern-most school in the very competitive SEC. The state didn’t produce a high number of college softball players. You know, the usual suspects.
“People thought I was crazy to take this job,” Lawson said this week, but she liked what she saw and the people she met during her visit. Then, during the actual job interview, Barnhart slid a piece of paper across the table. It contained the numbers for the school’s softball budget.
“It was definitely good enough to support traveling, going anywhere we needed to put the schedule together,” she said. “When I took everything together, I knew that I could win here.”
Lawson has won, and won and won some more. You can make a strong case that outside of John Calipari, who may have been more of a collaborative hiring effort, Lawson is the best coach Barnhart has hired at UK.
After all, this is Kentucky’s eighth consecutive appearance in the NCAA Softball Tournament under Lawson. The Cats made it all the way to the College World Series in 2014, but that wasn’t some flukish, one-hit wonder. They’ve reached the super-regional round four of the last five years, including last season when they went just 5-19 in the SEC.
They bounced back in a big way this year, going 43-12, finishing second in the league with a 17-7 mark, earning Lawson SEC Coach of the Year honors.
“We’re truly a program that has climbed,” Lawson said Tuesday. “We haven’t had one thing or one event. We’ve had a number of really good players here that have helped put us on the national stage. But it’s been a gradual climb.”
So how did Lawson engineer that climb? Barnhart points to her ability to adapt. The SEC is a brutal league, especially in softball. You recruit for next season, you’re too late. You must recruit for three, four years down the road. Not just recruit, but evaluate. Lawson has done that, with a keen eye and an organized mind.
“When I want to gain intelligence — and I need it often — I go find her,” Barnhart said.
Each year during the football season, Lawson holds a tailgate event for the softball alumni. Barnhart says it’s one of the neatest events he’s ever seen in all his years in athletics, just the way Lawson interacts with former and current players, the atmosphere she has created for the program. He thinks that has a lot to do with the success UK softball has enjoyed.
“She’s got a real inner drive that makes her unique,” said the AD. “She loves the university. She’s a great ambassador for us. And oh, by the way, she’s a really good softball coach.”
Rachel Lawson’s record at Kentucky
NCAA super regional
NCAA super regional
Women's College World Series
NCAA super regional
NCAA Softball Tournament Lexington Regional at UK
All games at John Cropp Stadium
Friday, May 20
Game 1 – Illinois vs. Utah – 11 a.m. ET – ESPN3, Watch ESPN app, ESPNU Whip Around
Game 2 – Kentucky vs. Butler – 1:30 p.m. ET – ESPN3, Watch ESPN app, ESPNU Whip Around
Saturday, May 21
Game 3 – Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2 – 1 p.m. ET – ESPN3, Watch ESPN app, ESPNU Whip Around
Game 4 – Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2 – 3:30 p.m. ET – ESPN3, Watch ESPN app, ESPNU Whip Around
Game 5 – Loser Game 3 vs. Winner Game 4 – 6 p.m. ET – ESPN3, Watch ESPN app, ESPNU Whip Around
Sunday, May 22
Game 6 – Winner Game 3 vs. Winner Game 5 – 1 p.m. ET – ESPN3, Watch ESPN app, ESPNU Whip Around
Game 7 – (If necessary) – 3:30 p.m. ET – ESPN3, Watch ESPN app, ESPNU Whip Around