Men's Basketball

Ex-Barnhart assistant Mullens thriving as AD at Oregon

Rob Mullens was Mitch Barnhart's top assistant at UK before becoming AD at Oregon in 2010. "Not only is he a friend and mentor, he's also a cheerleader," Mullens said of his former boss.
Rob Mullens was Mitch Barnhart's top assistant at UK before becoming AD at Oregon in 2010. "Not only is he a friend and mentor, he's also a cheerleader," Mullens said of his former boss. AP

INDIANAPOLIS — Mitch Barnhart and others tried to warn Rob Mullens.

"They told me the first 18 months is going to be a blur," Mullens said with a smile. "That's been extended."

Ah, life as an athletics director, or in this case the University of Oregon's athletics director.

"It's been fifth-gear non-stop," Mullens said Thursday.

It's been less than three years since the former deputy athletics director at Kentucky, Mitch Barnhart's top assistant, left Lexington to take over the high-profile and high-octane job of running Oregon's high-profile athletics program.

In that time, Oregon has played in three straight BCS bowl games in football, won a fourth straight indoor track title, won a cross country championship, finished second in the NCAA volleyball tournament, made the softball World Series and come within an out of making the College Baseball World Series.

"We've been fortunate to have a lot of success," said Mullens, the 43-year-old West Virginia native whose strong background in finance helped manage and expand UK's resources during his nearly eight years in Lexington.

Part of that success being the reason Mullens was in Indianapolis over the weekend with the Oregon basketball team, which reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2007 and met Louisville in a Midwest Region semifinal game on Friday.

Not that Mullens is taking credit for that success, the foundation for which was put in place before he arrived and was aided by the financial support of Nike and its founder, Phil Knight.

Someone has to manage and expand those resources, however, and for Mullens that has been the task of a first-time athletics boss.

"It's always something and most of it is positive," he said, "but not all of it."

Take just two months ago, for example, when Oregon lost its popular and highly successful football coach, Chip Kelly, to the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles.

Fortunately for Mullens, it was not the first time he had to face the possibility of a Kelly departure. The year before, the coach seriously considered an offer from the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"I was in London with Nike at the time that happened so I had a miserable 13-hour flight back wondering what was going to await me," Mullens said. "Fortunately he decided to stay, but that did tip us off. Chip is very candid and we have a great relationship, still do, and the NFL was something that intrigued him."

Before the Eagles came calling this year, Mullens sought the counsel of people like Tony Dungy, whose son is on the Oregon football team, and had a plan to promote offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich to the top spot.

"We have a very unique culture, a very unique system, we practice in a very unique way," Mullens said. "We still have four guys on the staff as assistants who were there when Rich Brooks was (head coach). We only lost one assistant this year. We think we have the right guy."

He believes the same about basketball coach Dana Altman, who was hired three months before Mullens' arrival but has greatly impressed the new boss.

"He may be the best I've ever been around at taking something raw on October 15 and just constantly refining it," Mullens said. "We've been far better in March than we were in October all three years. He knows how to adjust his system to fit the parts."

Mullens knows how to build a "broad-based" sports program, something he helped build at UK under Barnhart's leadership. The two still talk or text usually a couple of times a week.

"Not only is he a friend and mentor, he's also a cheerleader," Mullens said. "I always get the text message or the call from him not just to congratulate, but he's also the one who calls when something is not going great and he's there to offer some wisdom."

Kentucky doesn't quite have a Phil Knight, however.

"Phil and Penny Knight have been tremendously generous to the university," Mullens said. "Our relationship with Nike has certainly elevated the brand. Those are great things. We embrace those.

"But we have a lot of donors who have given for an awful long time through the Rich Brooks years and beyond to really help make this something special. It's been fun to see the people who have come through the football success and the track success really attach themselves to the volleyball success and the softball success."

Fun, and eventful.

Said Mullens, "I love it."