Mitch Barnhart has been in this place before.
Three years into a losing football tenure with Rich Brooks, Barnhart heard the fan rage and the hot-seat talk and all of the things that come with a coach who hasn’t been successful enough.
“Folks that rebuild stuff have got really hard jobs,” the Kentucky athletics director told the Herald-Leader on Tuesday during a wide-ranging interview. “It takes an amazing tenacity and an ability to block out the noise and some patience to do those things.”
So Barnhart pleads for patience with Coach Mark Stoops, who has a 12-24 record after his third season, just one win short of where Brooks was after three years.
But at the same time, Barnhart understands the fan frustration after a second 5-7 season for the Cats, who started the year in such a promising way before losing six of their last seven.
The way UK lost its season finale — coughing up a 21-point lead to Louisville at Commonwealth Stadium — has only added to the fan frustration.
Barnhart admitted he shares in that frustration.
“We all wanted to be in postseason play, that didn’t happen,” he said in his office. “Clearly everyone’s got some skin in the game in terms of accountability. We want to make sure we address those pieces and how we get better. Everyone’s frustrated.”
Kentucky, which hasn’t been to a bowl since 2010, didn’t take that next step.
“We were sort of flat from where we were last year,” Barnhart acknowledged. “There’s some things we did better from last year, some things we did worse from last year. We sort of just held ground, which is not where we wanted to be overall.”
The athletics director kept going back to that word patience, which paid off for him with Brooks in year four, with the Cats going 8-6 with a win over Clemson in the Music City Bowl, the program’s best finish in 22 years.
He urged frustrated fans to stick with Stoops and Kentucky football.
There have been facilities upgrades to the tune of $135 million-plus at Commonwealth Stadium and the $45 million new practice facility that UK will move into in July. Those things are helping Kentucky recruit better talent, which will lead to better results, he said.
“I’d ask them to keep fighting with us, keep battling with us,” Barnhart said of his message to fans. “They’ve been there. We ask them to continue to do that. I understand they’re frustrated. We’re frustrated, too. And disappointed and mad. All of those things. Nothing they’re feeling isn’t what we’re feeling.”
This doesn’t mean that things will stay stagnant in those shiny new facilities. There likely will be some changes in personnel and staff, but Barnhart said he leaves that up to each head coach.
“Those are Mark’s calls,” Barnhart said, saying his role as AD is to ask pointed questions and be an adviser. The two spoke a couple of times Saturday and briefly Sunday.
They will have more discussions soon.
“We’re not going to make any decisions in emotion,” Barnhart said. “We’re going to make decisions after it’s calmed. … Let’s make sure we’re making decisions after we’ve let it settle and then work our way through it.”
Kentucky wasn’t without its positives this season, Barnhart said, pointing to wins against then-No. 25 Missouri and at South Carolina.
The Cats, who still struggle with depth at key positions, weren’t helped by injuries to running back Boom Williams or senior defensive tackle Melvin Lewis.
“We’ve got to have our best players on the field at the end of the year, or at least people that are close to in terms of experience and skill, to compete with those guys,” Barnhart continued.
The athletics director acknowledged that there are plays that he’s sure coaches and players would like to have back, adding that almost all seasons ultimately come down to 15-18 plays.
“And more often than not, those plays did not go our way this year,” Barnhart said, noting that field position and ball possession (turnovers forced and turnovers made) hurt UK at critical times.
But that doesn’t mean those 15-18 plays won’t go in UK’s favor in the future.
Some of that’s up to Stoops, whom he said he supports 100 percent, and some of that is up to the players coming back.
The Cats, who will have just three scholarship players left from the previous regime, will have to find their own way to get over the 5-7 hump.
UK needs to find its new crop of Jacob Tammes, Keenan Burtons and Wesley Woodyards, Barnhart said.
“When Rich was here, we fought through an awful lot,” he said. “What we found was our players in the locker room were strong and wanted to win. … They controlled that locker room and said they were going to win. And they did.”
It looks less and less likely that Kentucky will be invited to a bowl game this season despite the lack of six-win teams necessary to fill spots in the available bowls.
The NCAA announced Monday that it would determine which 5-7 teams based on Academic Progress Rate.
“We’re on that list; we’re a few removed,” Barnhart said, noting that several teams above UK on the APR list would have to decline invitations, but that a bowl is still a remote possibility.
If Kentucky were to be invited to a bowl later this month, the Cats will jump at the chance, he said.
“We’ll be a part of that. If we had an opportunity, we’d certainly be a part of that.”