John Clay

John Clay: Fans hard to please, especially for Barnhart

University of Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart
University of Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart

When announcing a three-year contract extension for his athletics director on Wednesday, outgoing UK President Lee T. Todd Jr. mentioned the fact that Mitch Barnhart knew all of UK's athletes by name, how he attended their events, how he worked hard for their success.

"These are things that make a difference to me," Todd said. "A big difference to me."

And Barnhart has made a big difference in the overall sports program at a university that for too long neglected that aspect of its institutional profile and mission.

But Barnhart's problem has never been on campus; it has been off campus.

He's loved much more by the athletes than by the general public, which has seen him as aloof — a bean-counter who keeps raising the price for parking permits, who seems to care more about the so-called minor sports than the major bread-winners.

Barnhart will tell you that part of the perception stems from the fact that he's just not a good front-and-center guy, that people don't know him. But he shares in the blame.

He's not the one who's always out on the floor of Rupp Arena prominently glad-handing the fans. He wants the spotlight on the student-athletes, not himself. For a job that deals with important and influential people, Barnhart is not always a people person.

And in that regard, I'm not sure Todd did his AD much of a public favor Wednesday.

A retiring president handing his nine-year athletics director a three-year contract extension with an annual $125,000 raise in a tough economic climate gives the perception that he's providing economic cover to a favored employee before the new boss arrives.

Todd claimed to see it as more of making things easier for his successor. He said that with "every beat in my heart," he believed he was doing the right thing, signing Barnhart through June 30, 2019.

Let's be honest here, outside the lines, no athletics director is terribly popular these days. Name one who is universally loved. Say Tom Jurich, and I'll put you in touch with the Louisville basketball fans still seething over the new price structure at the KFC Yum Center.

The ADs are the ones asking for donations, mailing out the bills, changing one procedure or another that the average fan just doesn't see the reason for changing.

Barnhart has his faults, to be sure. He'll tell you that. He can be defensive. He can be emotional, to a fault. He has a tendency to micromanage. In nine years on the job, he's made a misstep. Or two.

"We're going to make mistakes," he said Wednesday. "When we do, we're going to take the steps to correct it."

We've had our battles. Barnhart was right, and I wrong, about Rich Brooks. I thought he handled the end of the Tubby Smith era shabbily, and he swung and missed entirely on Billy Gillispie. I think there's some major grumbling about the way football is going. He calls it "unhappiness."

But his is a tough job growing tougher by the day, and Barnhart has done more than balance the books. That he has done much more for UK's Olympic sports than any previous athletics director is a no-doubter.

Plus, Kentucky has not had a single NCAA scandal since Barnhart's arrival. Given the school's history, that is an accomplishment worth much applause.

Fans' focus is always on the bottom line, of course. They want Final Fours and BCS bowl games. They want a parking spot within walking distance and a better seat at a cheaper price.

Truth is, in previous administrations, Kentucky athletics directors would occupy one of those choice seats in Rupp, often with their lovely wives waving a blue-and-white pompon for all to see.

Mitch Barnhart, he's the AD watching the basketball game from the tunnel behind the Kentucky bench, just out of view of the general public.

He's the one who gave his choice seat to someone else.

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