Despite his recent $195,000 pay raise, Mitch Barnhart still remains a man of mystery.
When he took on the athletics director position at the University of Kentucky back in 2002, few thought he would stay the course. With no previous ties to the Bluegrass State and previous stints at Tennessee and Oregon State on his resume, I thought UK would be just a short stepping stone on his way to AD stardom.
I pictured as a glad-handing, back-slapping, baby-kissing politician enamored with his position of power. Instead, he’s been just the opposite — humble, disarming and a bit shy.
Other athletic programs argue that the ultimate measure of success is determined by the number of victories on the playing field. This “win at all costs” mentality results frequently in hiring coaches with questionable morals and obvious character flaws. (You know who I’m talking about).
By contrast, Barnhart has worked hard to instill in his athletics programs a culture of servant leadership personified by all his coaching hires. Some may remember him personally drying off seats after a UK baseball rain delay. That image captures the essence of what he represents to many students, faculty, alumni and fans.
Barnhart, newly appointed chair of SEC Athletics Directors, is genuinely dialed into the guiding principles of character, integrity, education, stewardship and competitiveness.
That’s why a Nick Mingione ends up coaching baseball and a Rachel Lawson ends up coaching softball at UK. As long as Barnhart is around, BBN won’t ever have to worry about being disgraced both on the field or in the classroom.
Yet, not everyone’s a Barnhart fan. I can’t quite figure out why a segment of BBN still feels compelled to cast aspersions his way. Maybe it’s because he frequently appears awkward and aloof in public. Maybe it’s because hard-core basketball and football purists think he places too much emphasis on the so-called “minor” sports. Maybe his long-term critics still harbor residual bitterness as they stumble upon their stash of “Ditch Mitch and Rich” bumper stickers.
Perhaps some feel he caters a bit too much to the deep-pocketed donors while ignoring the needs of the average fan. Or perhaps disgruntled fans are just plain frustrated because they feel that UK football isn’t really any better than it was when he first came on board.
I know it’s difficult to compare eras, but practically speaking Barnhart has done more as athletics director than any of his UK predecessors. Just last year, Kentucky managed a 10th place finish — its highest ever — in the 2017 Director’s Cup standings. Barnhart has also raised enough cash to build new stadiums and pay his coaches handsomely (some would say exorbitantly) while simultaneously caring enough about each one of his student-athletes to recognize them by name.
UK athletes have tied or broken school records for graduation rates every year since the NCAA began charting that statistic in 2005. UK Athletics has also been scandal free during that period. In this day and age, that speaks volumes.
For that reason alone, his million-dollar salary is worth every penny.
John Huang, a retired orthodontist, covers UK sports for Nolan Media Group. Reach him at KYHuangs@aol.com.