Mark Story

Mitch Barnhart's challenge: Replacing an indispensable coach

As Kentucky's coach, Edrick Floreal transformed the women's track and field program into a top-five national power. On Wednesday, Floreal left UK for the same position at the University of Texas.
As Kentucky's coach, Edrick Floreal transformed the women's track and field program into a top-five national power. On Wednesday, Floreal left UK for the same position at the University of Texas. Lexington Herald-Leader file photo

After the fall of the House of Jurich, the concern for many University of Louisville fans was that the school would lose star coaches such as baseball's Dan McDonnell and women's basketball's Jeff Walz as a result.

Instead, new Cardinals Athletics Director Vince Tyra, the former Kentucky Wildcats baseball pitcher, has fought off Mississippi State to retain McDonnell and gotten Walz to agree to a contract extension through 2025.

Last week, it was the University of Kentucky losing one of its brightest coaching stars.

When Wildcats track and field head man Edrick Floreal announced Wednesday that he was leaving for the same position at the University of Texas, it was a blow to UK Athletics on multiple levels.

In the six years after Floreal shocked the college track world by leaving Stanford to come to Lexington, he made the Wildcats' program — especially its women's track and field team — a national power.

Over the past four years, the UK women finished in the top four as a team in the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships three times — second (2015), fourth (2017) and fourth (2018). In the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships this year, the UK women were third.

Headlining the elite athletes Floreal attracted to UK were sprinter Dezerea Bryant and hurdlers Kendra Harrison, Jasmine Camacho-Quinn and Sydney McLaughlin.

Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart vowed in a statement to find a coach who will keep Wildcats track and field among the nation's elite. "We believe the success Kentucky track and field and cross country have seen in recent years is just a glimpse of what's to come," the UK AD said.

Barnhart has every reason to feel urgency about the stakes in the search to replace Floreal.

Mitch Barnhart
After Kentucky track and field head coach Edrick Floreal announced Wednesday he was leaving for the same job at Texas, UK AD Mitch Barnhart said in a statement, "We believe the success Kentucky track and field and cross country have seen in recent years is just a glimpse of what's to come." Mark Cornelison File photo

In Power Five conference athletics departments, football and men's basketball are, obviously, the most significant sports. Those are the programs that produce the revenue that fund everything else. At most universities, those are also the programs whose level of success determines the temperature of a school's fan base.

Other than those two, there's a strong case that track and field is the next most important program to the overall success of a major-college athletics department.

One of the ways college athletics directors keep score is the Learfield Directors' Cup standings. Those rankings measure the overall strength of athletics departments by assigning points based on how each school's sports programs fare in NCAA postseason competition.

In the Directors' Cup, track and field offers athletics departments six chances each school year to score points: men's and women's cross country; men's and women's indoor track and field; and men's and women's outdoor track and field.

It is no coincidence that UK's best-ever rankings in the Directors' Cup — 11th in 2013-14; 10th last year; and 14th this year with one sport (baseball) yet to finish — have come since Floreal made Kentucky track and field into a national power.

Sydney McLaughlin
Former Kentucky track and field coach Edrick Floreal said that the pro training group of elite hurdlers he had been coaching in Lexington will follow him to Texas. Included in that group will be Sydney McLaughlin, above, who announced she was turning pro after winning the NCAA outdoor 400-meters hurdles national championship for UK. Chet White UK Athletics

A vibrant track and field program can also be a boon by helping lure elite, two-sport athletes to a campus. Current Ohio high school sprint champion Abby Steiner, who is pledged to play soccer as well as run track for UK next school year, is the latest example of that phenomenon for Kentucky.

It is easy to see why Floreal, 51, couldn't say no to Texas.

The Longhorns' athletics department is a candy land of resources. For the fiscal year 2017, Texas had an athletics operating budget of a whopping $207 million. That dwarfs UK's otherwise robust athletics spending of $144 million.

Texas is a warm-weather state with a population of some 28.3 million that is a hotbed of young track talent.

Given all that, a coach as good as Floreal will do at Texas the one thing that eluded him at Kentucky: Winning team national titles.

What makes Floreal's departure cut even deeper for UK is that Kentucky track and field's national branding during its rise has been as "Hurdles University." That moniker was tied to Floreal's proficiency in producing champion hurdlers.

By the end of the coach's UK tenure, world-class pro hurdlers Omar McLeod and Kori Carter as well as former UK star Harrison were all training in Lexington.

Floreal said in Texas that group of pro hurdlers will follow him to Austin.

That means the glow from the future successes of former Cats stars such as Harrison and McLaughlin — each of whom could win gold medals for the United States in future Olympics — will benefit the image of the Longhorns' track program, not Kentucky's.

For UK, that is another reason losing Floreal really stings.

Now, Barnhart's quest is to find a worthy replacement for a coach who seemed all but indispensable.

As summer jobs go, that's a doozy.

Mark Story: 859-231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory

Freshman Sydney McLaughlin came to Kentucky with Olympic experience and a world record already beside her name. In her time with the Wildcats, she looks to refine her talent with the help of coach Edrick Floréal.





  Comments