University of Kentucky women’s basketball coach Matthew Mitchell spoke with the Lexington Herald-Leader on Wednesday morning about the season-long spate of player and coach departures that have plagued the program and led to doubts about incoming recruits.
Mitchell, contrite and quiet in the interview, has watched three assistant coaches and two players depart in recent weeks. He rehired friend and former assistant Kyra Elzy on Wednesday and expects more familiar faces to return as he attempts to put the program back on solid footing.
Here is some of what he had to say to the Herald-Leader this morning:
Q: Has lack of staff continuity led to player departures and how much of that is your fault?
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A: “It is all 100 percent on me. It doesn’t matter what happens. It’s all on me. But this is what I’m telling you: I am learning, learning lessons through all of the adversity. When Matt (Insell) left. Kyra (Elzy) and I had a great working relationship. Matt was a part of that staff and that staff had great chemistry. Kyra, Matt, Shalon (Pillow) and I think that impacted me on really trying to re-create that. Since Matt walked out the door, that has been elusive to recapture. So one person leaves, you bring another person in to those people and that has really been hard. After Matt leaves, I’ve got an idea of what I need. I need an older, established coach. I’m having a baby — well, Jenna’s having a baby — in October. I want to try to be connected to the baby and Jeff’s (House) an older coach. I thought that was going to work out and it didn’t work out. He’s a good man; a good guy. But that didn’t work out. We were not going to be good together.”
Q: Are you bad at hiring coaches or was it that you were just trying to re-create that old staff like you discussed?
A: “I have thought long and hard about ‘How have you not been able to get this right?’ I promise you I’ve thought about that. If anybody said that, I don’t know how you could argue with that, that I have had trouble meshing a staff together. There are events that happen in life. … Suffice it to say, trying to recapture that great chemistry has been elusive and I think it’s been impactful and I think it’s impacted everyone. … I started having to come out on the court (before games) just to get them warmed up properly and that’s no one’s fault but mine because we’re one coach down. … All good people that it did not come together. So now what I have to do is the person who’s walked in the door (Elzy) is the person that I’ve had a great, great relationship with. Was devastatingly sad, didn’t want her to go. I thought we were clicking and rolling and we were. But life happens and you can’t fault her for the situation that was going on and her feeling of obligation to go back there. I was hurt by it, but now as we come back together that’s what gives me the greatest confidence. Now we have a great appreciation for each other and this is the start of a move forward.
“But what’s been happening the last two weeks is Camryn (Whitaker) and Tamika (Williams-Jeter) both trying to figure out how they, what they wanted to do. Clearly it was a great experience on the court. We got a lot out of the team. I had a great experience coaching the team. We spent over 200 hours together as a coaching staff planning practices. I think we had a great time in those team rooms talking about basketball. The other behind the scenes and them meshing together as a staff, that just didn’t work out. So the last two weeks, those two coaches have been trying to decide what they’re going to do. I haven’t been public about that. Those are their lives they’re trying to figure out. (Saying) ‘Do I want to stay here and integrate?’ It’s just been so much upheaval. … I just think it’s so fatiguing that they’ve had to make decisions about whether they want to come or go. And so Camryn had decided that she was not going to return, but she was up for some head coaching jobs. … All of it happened at one time. … She’s been very honest and open but I can’t reveal that to the public.”
Q: On former players discussing difficulty of staff upheaval and if he’s communicating with current players to help them move forward:
A: “It is real difficult for the players. There’s no denying it. That’s what my focus has been on who is in the room right now. Makayla (Epps) is going to be under new coaches for her time here. She was so frank, open and honest, ‘This is hard. We’re losing coaches and teammates, but we want to be at Kentucky.’ And Kentucky is more than Matthew Mitchell. It’s more than one player and it’s more than one coach. This is a great place to go to school, to grow up, to play basketball. There’s no greater place in the world to play basketball, where people appreciate you. So that’s really I think stability in the coaching staff is so important for the players. Coaches leaving for a head coaching job or you’re a third assistant going up for a recruiting coordinator job, that happens. But this amount of upheaval I take responsibility for, it’s not been the best situation for our players and our players deserve some stability. I feel like we have strong character people in that locker room right now and I’ve had tremendous support from their parents. …
“If we can put the staff together, it’s going to be that same sentiment, that this is now happening. This is not going to be a launch board for someone. This is going to be a staff that’s like, ‘Hey, we want to be together. We want to be at Kentucky. We’re all invested in this. We’ve all had a hand in building this thing.’ So I think that right now the most critical thing is the players have to see a path forward. … I’ve spent a majority of my professional career at this school, in this community, in this university and I just as a man of faith believe this is all coming together for our good. I think this is going to work out. It’s unclear now and I understand the speculation. I really can’t do anything about that. But I can signal over the coming days to our fans and people that care about the program that we are firmly in place, firmly in belief that our principles are going to see us through here. … As tough as this has been, I’m so excited for our future because I think the end of last year, we said we were making some changes (offensively). We saw the results of that at the beginning of the year, but the 10 kids that were on scholarship, I thought we saw some signs of working toward a tough team. I thought we were really resilient when we bounced back from four of five losses to 10 out of 12 wins to get to the Sweet 16 with a really young inexperienced team, that’s some good stuff to build on. …
“When we say six kids leave in a year, that’s factual, but we made a lot of progress during the year with the 10 kids who wanted to be here. We’ve got seven who are in that locker room now and one signee we have a core of eight. Would we like to have more? Would we like to have more certainty there? Would we like to have nine -- and we’re going to try to have nine.”
Q: On if there will be any additions of junior college players, transfers that could still happen beyond trying to re-recruit McDonald’s All-American Lindsey Corsaro (who de-committed on Tuesday):
A: “That’s a work in progress. It’s something that Kyra and I are working on. We’re not going to sign somebody just to sign somebody. We have a plan going forward. 2017 is important. We’ve got two commitments there to build off of. If they stay solid, we’re in a spot in 2017 where we feel like we can put together a great class. So if there is someone we can add who is valuable for a two-year term or a four-year term — we’re not going to sign somebody just for a year.”
Q: If you lose any more players, you’ll barely have enough to field a team. Isn’t that a concern?
A: “I’m concerned about everything right now because of the uncertain situation. I’m in total communication. I’m not doing a lot of recruiting outside the building right now. I’m recruiting inside the building, trying to settle them down. I’ve had good conversations with all of them. I spoke with every one of them last night. If I don’t respond well and show them a path forward, there could be more attrition. But I’m going to respond and show them what it looks like. We will have a team next year. We will have a tough Kentucky team next year. We will have a good Kentucky team next year. And it’s up to us to decide how great we want to be. No one needs to be worried about that. We’re going to -- those are good kids in that locker room.”
Q: How can you recruit with all of this turnover and turmoil?
A: “Show them a path forward. I’m not concerned about recruiting. What I have to do is show these seven, these eight, a path forward. That’s a really good eight we can go with. Over the coming weeks, you’re going to see a staff, that’s attractive to people and we’re going to come out swinging. It’s a great place. It am so grateful to be here. We have had great success. This is a really rough time, but we’re getting better through it. We’re learning. I’m responsible for everything that’s gone on, but we’ll improve. I’m taking in every bit of information -- all the people who are leaving are giving me information that’s going to help us improve -- we’ll work to be our very best.”
Q: On what he’s going to do specifically to make sure this doesn’t happen again and if he’s grown from this:
A: “Absolutely. This is a dynamic time period in history and the culture is evolving and the way we communicate is evolving and if you’re not evolving with that, you’re going to get left behind. The players become each year more and more locked into information and communication. And you have to work really hard to make sure your message is getting across. If you think your message can get across the same way as it did five years ago when we were coaching the SEC championship, you’re mistaken. If I’m sitting here thinking that because we have been to five Sweet 16s or better in the last seven years -- there’s only seven schools who have done that -- and we have operated at the very upper echelon of the game. It’s not like we’re sitting here in a trash dump and we don’t know what we’re doing. We’ve had some great success. This is a very, very difficult time but this is not bringing me down thinking we haven’t had success and I’m not able to relate to players. But the amount of effort you need to give and the amount of time you need to listen and really figure out what each individual kid needs. … One person will never be able to give 10 or 12 or 15 (the attention she needs) that’s why you’ve got to build a staff out that everybody’s on the same sheet of music, everybody’s bringing the same message forward, everybody spends time together and figures it out. I’m responsible for making sure that message is in the staff’s possession and to make sure that everybody is getting the right message.
“That’s what I’m learning is I have to continue to grow. I have to continue to communicate with our players. … I cannot sit here and say, ‘Well, I’m Matthew Mitchell. I’m the winningest coach at UK. We’ve done things that only a few schools have done and they need to adjust to me.’ That’s not how this works anymore. I’m learning all the time. I think we all have an idea of who we are or how we see ourselves. So it’s hard sometimes when you see yourself as someone who is really caring, you can’t just think about that caring, you have to make sure you do everything possible to always make your kids know you care. …
“You’re never going to get to a spot where transfers stop. That’s going to be a part of college athletics it looks like and it’s a growing trend, but my responsibility is to make sure I do the very best job to communicate to these players and that’s what I’m learning. There’s always a need for constant improvement on that. That would be the biggest thing: I feel like I know how to coach basketball. I feel like I got better as a basketball coach this year. But I need to get better at communication because that’s the key. That’s the key. And clearly that is an area for me to improve in.”
Q: Have you been spread too thin or absent for your players and staff over the past few years?
A: “That is a fair question. I think the X-factor for me over the last four years that was different from the first five years was Jenna and I didn’t have kids and anybody that has kids that really wants to -- I have no desire to be an absentee father. I think that’s a great example for our players here to be a loving father and someone who is there. Has that been an adjustment? I don’t know that I’d ever be prepared to say that has caused us to not be successful. We’ve been very successful the last four years since I’ve had kids, but that’s a part of my life.
“Kentucky’s a very high profile job and it’s definitely possible that I have to pay more attention to where I am and if it’s sitting in this seat more regularly. I have a TV show to do; I have obligations outside of coaching basketball that I have to make appearance and promote the program. I have to be involved in the marketing of the program. That’s just the reality of my job. I need to make sure I am not spread too thin and that’s on me to make sure that I’m not. Every coach has challenges, but I think it’s a unique challenge when you have young children. People that can’t relate to that haven’t had young children. People who have had young children understand it’s a hamster wheel you’re in just running all the time. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I think it’s a beautiful part of this program that we have kids running around all the time. … It’s a fun part of it. I do not feel like I’ve been spread too thin to not be effective. Can it get better and can I do a better job of managing my schedule? I think that’s always challenging in this environment and I’ve certainly learned a lot about that.”
Q: Is bringing in Kyra Elzy is a smokescreen to cover up all of these underlying issues within the program?
A: “Our program has always been open. We grant every interview request. We’ve never stonewalled. You can come to any practice. The practices are open to the public, you can call the office. … We are wide open. If it’s a smokescreen, we’ve got some bad stuff on the horizon and we’ll really have a field day and have some fun on social media with that then. Everybody can weigh in. I don’t know how to respond to that. I’ve not been perfect, but I’ve really tried hard to be a good partner with the university, a good mentor to these players and stress the importance of honesty, hard work and discipline in their life. … I’ve really worked hard to try and invest in kids lives and help them move forward. Over nine years, not every one of them has seen it my way and we’ve had departures, but we’ve had a lot of kids graduate, move onto success. We’ve had a lot of fans come through the door and watch our teams play. I don’t know how else to respond to people. My track record I will stand by in being a good partner in this community and to the university and this program. All I want to do is learn the lessons as we’re going through this so we can improve and become a better program. We want to strive for perfection knowing we will never reach that, but we want to get as close to it as we can. That’s part of that process.”
Q: Do you still want to be coach at Kentucky?
A: “Oh, gosh, yes. People don’t even call me about jobs anymore because they know this is the only place. Who’s in charge of my life? I’m not going to drive it down people’s throat, but I’m not ashamed. God’s in charge of my life. That’s how I’m directed and I have no indication from him that he wants me to do anything else in life but coach Kentucky right now. That’s it. That’s my calling. The last three weeks have done nothing but strengthen me to the lessons he’s trying to develop me, not defeat me. This is one of the most valuable moments for me. This is a serious trial we’re walking through. This is an important lesson I need to learn here.”