UK Football

Kentucky’s Barnhart sends strongly worded letter to Pac-12 about bowl officiating

Stoops reacts to Snell’s ejection, final play call

Head coach Mark Stoops answers questions on the attempt at a two-point conversion and the referee's decision to eject Benny Snell Jr. from the Music City Bowl game at Nissan Stadium.
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Head coach Mark Stoops answers questions on the attempt at a two-point conversion and the referee's decision to eject Benny Snell Jr. from the Music City Bowl game at Nissan Stadium.

Kentucky’s athletics director didn’t just take to social media to voice his frustration about the officiating during the Music City Bowl two weeks ago, he also sent an official letter to the Pac-12 Conference.

“We feel great disappointment that what was supposed to be a quality bowl experience for our young people and our university was marred by these incidents,” Mitch Barnhart said in a letter he sent late last week.

There has been no response to the letter from the Pac-12, which supplied the officials for the bowl game against Northwestern, a UK spokesman said Thursday, the day the Herald-Leader acquired the letter via an open records request. Three days after the Music City Bowl, the Pac-12 told the Courier-Journal it stood by the postgame statement made by head official Chris Coyte.

In the letter to David Coleman, the conference’s vice president for officiating, Barnhart strongly disagreed with the ejection of UK running back Benny Snell from the game for contact with Coyte.

“The intent of the no-contact rule — protection of officials — was not adhered to in this case,” Barnhart said in his opening paragraphs. “Video of the incident does not support the call made on the field or the statement made by the officiating crew postgame.”

He added later: “The character and intent of a quality young man in our program have been unfairly called into question as a result.”

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Click here to read Mitch Barnhart’s full letter to the Pac-12

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Barnhart also wrote that the officials did not do what was required to protect UK’s athletes later in the second quarter when senior quarterback Stephen Johnson was hit by a Northwestern defender after throwing an incomplete pass.

The names of Johnson and Snell were redacted from the letter obtained via open records request, but the incidents have been well documented by several media outlets.

“Video clearly shows that he was not only hit after releasing the ball, but taken down and driven into the ground out of bounds by the defender,” Barnhart wrote of Johnson. “No penalty was called.”

As Johnson was being evaluated by medical staff right next to the sideline, officials demanded that play should resume.

The UK athletics director said that Dr. Darren Johnson, head of UK’s Department of Orthopedic Surgery and Sports Medicine, reached out to administrators and the athletic training staff to say he’d never seen such a thing in his many years of experience, “calling it a safety issue for both the player and those treating him.”

It was a “lack of care for the well-being of our players that I believe needs to be addressed,” Barnhart added.

Barnhart also asserted that as coaches and staff were arguing the player safety issue, line judge Tim Messuri did not meet standards of professionalism by yelling back at the UK sideline: “Do you want some more of this?” indicating that more unsportsmanlike penalties would be called.

In an interview with the Herald-Leader last week, Coach Mark Stoops voiced similar frustrations over the way the officials handled Snell, but especially the injury to UK’s quarterback.

“That was at a critical moment in the game,” Stoops said. “I had a quarterback that was injured 5 feet from the field that was in a lot of pain. And that explanation really disappoints me more than anything.”

Kentucky's Benny Snell Jr. responds to questions about his ejection at the Music City Bowl game at Nissan Stadium.

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader