John Clay

Mitch Barnhart, yes Mitch Barnhart, is nation’s best athletics director

Barnhart wants UK to climb to athletics summit

Mitch Barnhart proud, not content with Kentucky's place in athletics nationally.
Up Next
Mitch Barnhart proud, not content with Kentucky's place in athletics nationally.

When Mitch Barnhart arrived at Kentucky 17 years ago, he operated in the shadows of the athletics director up the road. Tom Jurich was the national star, deservedly so for his job of turning Louisville’s sports program into a national force. Less than two decades later, however, oh how the tables have turned.

Jurich is the one out of a job, fired by U of L for a collection of scandals within the department. And Barnhart is the one now recognized officially as the best in the business. The latter happened Wednesday night at the New York’s Marriott Marquis hotel when the 59-year-old Barnhart was named “Athletic Director of the Year” by Sports Business Journal.

Deservedly so.

Now I’m not naive enough to think everyone agrees. These days, few ADs are terribly popular. Higher ticket prices? Blame the AD. Parking pass problems? Blame the AD. Bad season in football or basketball or baseball or women’s tennis? Blame the AD.

And I’ve tossed my share of bricks Barnhart’s way. I was so hard on Mitch his first couple of years on the job, then sports information director Scott Stricklin arranged for me to ride with Mitch on his way to a speaking engagement at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes event in Somerset so I could get to know the AD a little better.

To be honest, I thought it was a setup. I was for sure that when I arrived at Barnhart’s office, then at the bottom of Memorial Coliseum, three of his associates would suddenly appear to corner me with coverage complaints. I was wrong. It was just Mitch and myself. Just talking. Debating. It was interesting and, yes, enjoyable.

What I discovered then holds true today. Basically shy, Barnhart is more comfortable in a smaller setting than a big crowd. It’s one of the reasons he has not been more out front when it comes to dealing with the public during his tenure. He leaves that to the coaches. They are the faces of their programs.

It’s the hiring of those coaches on which an athletics director is judged. There Barnhart has had a couple of missteps — Billy Gillispie in basketball; Joker Phillips in football. But he has produced far more victories — Rich Brooks and now Mark Stoops in football; John Calipari in basketball; Rachel Lawson in softball; Craig Skinner in volleyball; Johan Cedergen in men’s soccer; Edrick Floreal in track and field; John Cohen in baseball; Matthew Mitchell in women’s basketball. Just to name a few.

And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, no fewer than six Barnhart protégés are now Division I athletics directors — the aforementioned Stricklin at Florida; the aforementioned Cohen at Mississippi State; Greg Byrne at Alabama; Rob Mullens at Oregon; Mark Coyle at Minnesota; Kevin Saal at Murray State.

When Lee Todd hired Barnhart away from Oregon State, UK’s president charged his new AD with the task of improving the overall sports program. Mission accomplished. Just this past year, the Cats won conference titles in volleyball and men’s soccer, reached the Elite Eight in men’s basketball, the super regionals in softball and won 10 games in football for the first time since 1977.

As of May 16, Kentucky ranked sixth in the Learfield IMG College Directors’ Cup Division I standings measuring a program’s overall success. UK trailed only Stanford, Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin and USC. Heavy-hitters, all. Surely that was a major factor in Barnhart receiving the SBJ honor.

He didn’t get to New York as the glad-handing, back-slapping AD we were used to seeing. He got there as the AD who knows the name of every student-athlete in the program, from the high-profile basketball star to the backup goalie on the women’s soccer team, with a sincere desire to do everything possible to help them succeed. That’s a formula for success, one that in Mitch Barnhart’s case, has stood the test of time.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader