Music News & Reviews

Mark Story: How 'dancing Matthew Mitchell' became an unlikely Big Blue Madness staple

In a bid to lure a recruit to UK, Coach Matthew Mitchell did The Dougie at Big Blue Madness  in 2010. The recruit went to Rutgers anyway.
In a bid to lure a recruit to UK, Coach Matthew Mitchell did The Dougie at Big Blue Madness in 2010. The recruit went to Rutgers anyway.

Matthew Mitchell was trying to impress one recruit.

With his now-annual dance number at UK's Big Blue Madness, the Kentucky women's basketball coach has created a monster he keeps having to feed. After you've done The Dougie, impersonated Michael Jackson, MC Hammer, James Brown and Bruno Mars, how do you top yourself?

"It really is unbelievable what this has become," Mitchell said.

Yet what has become an unlikely staple at Kentucky's annual preseason hoops pep rally began because of one person: Betnijah Laney.

In the fall of 2010, Laney, a 6-foot forward from Clayton, Del., was the 11th-ranked high school prospect in the country. Because her mother, Yolanda Laney, had been a star player at Cheyney State under current Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer, the conventional wisdom was the Scarlet Knights would sign Betnijah.

"Everybody was saying 'Hey, it's a losing battle. She's going to Rutgers,'" Mitchell recalled. "But it seemed like we were in the lead and really resonating with her. I really felt like if we could do a good job with the (on-campus) visit, we could get her. So we were trying to pull out all the stops."

In that vein, then-UK assistant Kyra Elzy came into Mitchell's office and said she thought there was an unorthodox way Kentucky could show Laney how much it wanted her in blue and white.

Says Mitchell: "Elzy said 'Hey, they've got this new dance and she's really into it. And you can pull it off. If you'll even just try it, it will be fun and just another little layer of trying to get this kid.'"

Mitchell pondered the fact that Laney would have been, at the time, the highest-ranked player he had ever signed at Kentucky. Not exactly bashful, the coach decided if it took dancing in public to pull that off, he could manage that.

So after two weeks of secret dance instruction with then-UK point guard Amber Smith, Mitchell unveiled The Dougie in front of 23,000-plus in Rupp Arena at 2010 Madness.

"I did it absolutely with no thought of anything else but Betnijah Laney," Mitchell says.

After all that, Laney signed with Rutgers (and became a star).

Yet the day after The Dougie, Mitchell was entertaining guests at Keeneland and saw first hand that a lot of other people seemed enamored by his performance.

"This lady who could have been my grandmother came up and said 'Coach, I loved that dance last night,'" Mitchell recalls. "I didn't think anything else about it. Then, 15 people later, I'm like 'Uh, this may be something more.'"

On Friday night, those in Rupp Arena for Madness as well as those watching on the SEC Network will see Mitchell bust a move for the sixth straight year. "I do have something in mind," he said, declining as he always does to reveal his routine ahead of time.

Already, Mitchell has worn the Michael Jackson glove and danced to Billie Jean. He's put on the MC Hammer pantaloons and been 2 Legit 2 Quit. Donned a James Brown wig and "felt good" impersonating The King of Soul.

Last year Mitchell added singing, wore a pompadour wig as Bruno Mars and belted out Locked Out Of Heaven.

Mitchell, 44, says he now dances at Madness for the fun of it. He says current recruits don't seem any more swayed by his performances than Betnijah Laney was.

"To me, it seems like more the parents and coaches who are kind of more my age, it seems they get the bigger kick out of it," he said. "I'm not sure how impressed the recruits are with it — it's not very good dancing."

As you see, Mitchell shrewdly preempts critical assessments of his performances by making fun of himself.

He loves to tell of turning on a replay of the TV broadcast of one of his Big Blue Madness dance numbers and hearing Kyle Macy — who played for Joe B. Hall, the coach who began the tradition of Midnight Madness at Kentucky — forced into "dance analysis."

Says Mitchell: "Kyle Macy said 'Do you think Joe B. ever thought (Madness) would come to this?'"

Actually, Joe B. didn't.

"If I'd have tried dancing, I would have looked like a hog on ice," Hall says.

Yet Joe B. is A-OK with Mitchell having turned dance into one of the more anticipated components of Big Blue Madness.

"I think what he does represents the spirit of his program and his players," Hall says. "I think it's great."