The Herald-Leader sat down with Mitch Barnhart on Thursday to discuss the problems in the women’s basketball program. Here is what the UK athletics director had to say about the direction of the program, the departures and Matthew Mitchell.
Q: Do you think women’s basketball is moving in the right direction?
Barnhart: “I don’t think there’s ever a time in journeys — that’s my favorite word in today’s world; most things are journeys — whether it’s in life or a program or a department. It’s about journeys. They’re never straight paths. What people think of what is supposed to be these really straightforward ascents to pinnacles of success and you never leave them, I don’t think that’s reality. The reality is the journey of what we’re on is always a winding road, ups and downs, blind spots, clear paths. Matthew is more than a women’s basketball coach for us; he’s an ambassador for the university who loves this place and has committed his heart and soul to this place. I don’t look at him as a women’s basketball coach. I look at him as a much different person for this university. That’s important. So is the program going in the right direction? I’m sitting here looking at statistics that are rather remarkable, and to say it’s not going in the right direction would probably not be accurate or fair. … The question is on the journey: Can we find our way back on the path we want to get on in terms of a little more clear direction? We’re not that far off. Transition, personalities, making sure that people that fit your culture and what you’re trying to create, that’s an ever-shaping kind of process. Matthew does a really great job of self-correction, whether that’s in-season adjustments, in-game adjustments, in-life adjustments. I give you examples to say I’ve watched the remarkable adjustments that he’s made with some of our female student athletes that we’ve had in our program and the transitions they’ve made in their lives have been because of that man. But when it doesn’t work out on the other side, everyone wants to point and say, ‘That didn’t work.’ So we can point to five or six or seven young women that it didn’t work for. I can point to 20 over here that he did remarkable things for and the good always gets lost amongst the other things.
“When Azia Bishop calls and says, ‘What’s the next John Maxwell book I need to read?’’ From Turkey she calls. Never would’ve saw that coming. She’s excited about learning even after she left here. I can point to different young people. I remember Jen O’Neill when she first came here and the remarkable young lady she is now. And the things she’s achieving. Amber Smith in the coaching ranks. Pretty cool stuff. Didn’t see that coming. A lot of things you don’t see coming, both sides. I want to makes sure we’re fair in all that.”
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Q: Does the sheer number of departures this year concern you?
A: “Yeah, I think you always want to be concerned about that. You always want to have a pulse on all of that for sure, there’s no question. But I will say this: Transfer rates are up at a level I’ve never seen before. … All sports. It’s all sports. You’ve got people coming for different reasons, they’re leaving for different reasons. Coming and going. You’ve got national committees talking about this stuff. You’ve got a committee on transfers, an outcrop of one of the NCAA committees that’s meeting on transfers. You’ve got national legislation being proposed to address the transfer situation. Freedom of movement for young people is one issue, holding coaches accountable for their movement is part of the conversation. It’s an issue. … Academically Matthew’s done a wonderful job making sure these young women are staying on task and getting their degrees. Our GPA in his group has been really, really good. He pays attention to that. I go on the road with them; I travel with them. I see them in study hall on the road. You walk in there and there’s a designated time for them to be in study hall. Why is that important? Because there’s not an issue with (departing players) saying there’s a lack of care. It’s not a lack of care. It’s an absolute care for what we’re doing and the process and sometimes personalities just don’t work. In a lot of programs, you go and you recruit a talent and try to funnel it into a culture. Sometimes you recruit a culture and try to grow it into the talent you want it to be. And every coach is unique in that. And what I’ve said to Matthew is I’m not so sure we’ve got to make sure right fit/right culture. And in my view, not anyone else’s, sometimes he’s been at his best when he’s taken a player he can mold into something special rather than taking really special and force it into a culture."
Q: Duke University recently had three women’s players transfer and their human resources department is looking into the head coach and treatment of players. Is there an internal investigation of any kind at UK?
A: “I’m not concerned. These were unique situations. I travel with the team. We have people around the program all the time. If there’s isolation around the program, I’m not addressing anything at their place, they’re going to handle it their way. I’m very confident we have enough people in our program that are very aware of what’s going on in our programs. I’m with them. We have a liaison that travels with them all the time. Anytime we’re on the road, so it’s not an issue of us not being aware of what’s going on around our program. So I’m not concerned with that.”
Q: On the importance of staff retention and how much of a concern is Mitchell’s inability to keep a staff together. Is that affecting player development?
A: “I can’t speak within his family. He’d have to address that and I think he sort of tried to address that. From my lens, I try and grow my staff up and kick them out the door. … I want people to learn and go achieve. I expect them to. I hope they’re all looking at their time at Kentucky as an unbelievable learning opportunity and after 4-6 years, I hope they’re saying, ‘I’m ready to move to the next spot. … As it relates to women’s basketball, the turnover in assistant coaches is not what you want, but I also think once you get something you’re comfortable with, you always try and replicate that over and over and over again, sometimes without success. Most great coaches coach teams differently. This team can’t be coached the same way as this team or the same way as this team. Different personalities on all of those teams; no different in coaching staffs or my administrative staff. … Matthew’s staff that he had early on looks much different. If you continue trying to replicate that, you’re going to struggle probably because it was special and it felt good and it felt right and then everyone goes and does these new wonderful things. And you say, ‘I want that again.’ But you can’t have it and you’ve got to find a way to adjust and coach. That’s where the struggle’s been. I don’t think there’s anybody that’s wrong; we just haven’t been right. At the end of the day, what I love most is when they leave the locker room, they found a way to go out and do some pretty special things. It’s the mark -- not the only mark -- of leaders. Leaders find a way to gather up their folks and say, ‘We’re in the boat together. Let’s go do this.’ He’s done that exceptionally well. And then he’s had to adjust. It doesn’t mean it’s a popular thing; it doesn’t mean it’s a fun thing to do. But you continue to adjust and work your way through that.”
Q: Are you talking to Mitchell about a need for stability again within the program?
A: “Yeah, of course. I want to be clear: I think we have a really special place here as an institution, as a department. We have a very special women’s basketball coach in Matthew Mitchell. We have a wonderful man. Again, he’s more than a women’s basketball coach. I want people to be at Kentucky that want to be at Kentucky and think it’s a really unique place and want to call it our place. … The successes are really fun and make it enormously enjoyable when we succeed. We play on a big stage whatever sport that is, whatever we do. The downside to it is that when you stub your toe, it ends up pretty public. And it becomes another issue. But we want people at Kentucky that want to be here.”
Q: Have you spoken with athletes who have left and parents who have left?
A: “We go through exit interviews. Not every one of them, but I have spoken to some of them.”
Q: And are you confident there’s not a systemic issue in women’s basketball?
A: “Yeah. I am. I’m fine with it. The funny part about it is the door’s always open and I tell our players that. I’ve met a bunch of them on recruiting visits and I’ve had parents in all sports come up to me and question me about, ‘Hey, what about this strategy for my team? Or why isn’t coach doing this?’ But I’ve been in this thing long enough to understand there’s always going to be opinions and what one person sees as an ongoing issue, use the word systemic, is not looked at the same as someone else. I look at the culture we’ve tried to create in Kentucky women’s basketball and I’ve been there. I travel with the team on multiple occasions. I sit in their meetings. I go on the bus, the postgame. I’m around enough that I have a pretty good feel for if it and if it was something that wasn’t where we want it to be.”