Athletic Director of the Year: Mitch Barnhart
Mitch Barnhart had lived the ups and downs of building a football program at the University of Kentucky, but this time he was really discouraged. The promise of a new season in 2016 had faded after starting 0-2, including a 45-7 beatdown at Florida. Barnhart, the school’s longtime athletic director and chief optimist, went to bed after that game wondering if the Wildcats would ever turn the corner in football.
When Kentucky hired Barnhart in 2002, the AD inherited a football program that had never managed any kind of sustained success, at least not since the days when Bear Bryant was coach in the 1950s. Barnhart was feeling the full weight of another disappointing season after losing to the Gators by a wide margin.
When he woke up the next morning, still stinging from the loss, he had a text message from his 24-year-old son, Scott. The message was to hang in there, to keep working, and God will eventually show up in ways you might not expect.
The last words of the text were “Prepare for rain” because when it rains, it pours, but if you keep “showing up,” as Barnhart put it, “and keep fighting, you will have better days and it’ll be cool when it happens.”
The words of faith were a reminder that persistence, as much as anything, has been the hallmark of his 17 years as Kentucky’s AD. At a time when high-level, high-pressure AD jobs turn over every five years or so, Barnhart, a Kansas City, Kan., native, keeps showing up with his Midwestern sensibilities, quietly inspiring his coaches, calling 500 student athletes by name and asking how their mom and dad are doing.
After that text, “Prepare for rain” — which also is the title of a book about a small Southern Baptist church — became a mantra for Barnhart’s family.
“It’s the heartbeat of my family’s faith,” he said. The saying can be found on the walls at his home and framed in his office at Kentucky “where I can see it every day.”
The words also serve as a reflection of the long-term rebuilding job he encountered at UK and how he’s steadily built the Wildcats into an SEC power in just about every sport. Barnhart, who was awarded SBJ’s 2019 Athletic Director of the Year last month at the Sports Business Awards, has steered Kentucky from strictly being a basketball school to arguably a top-10 athletic department across the board.
They’re even winning in football.
The Wildcats rallied in 2016 to post a 7-6 record, the first of what’s been three straight winning seasons. The breakthrough came in 2018 when UK won 10 games for the first time in more than 40 years and beat Penn State in the VRBO Citrus Bowl.
University of Kentucky
Why he won Athletic Director of the Year
■ Football had its best season in four decades
■ Opened $49 million baseball stadium with naming rights from Farm Bureau
■ Closed lucrative naming-rights deal with Kroger on football stadium
■ Three straight top-20 finishes in the Learfield Directors’ Cup
■ Committed $65 million to construction of a science building on campus, and eliminated student athletic fees
■ NCAA men’s basketball committee member
Barnhart kept the text from his son and re-reads it often.
“It’s emotional for me when I think about it,” he said. “It came at a time when we weren’t happy with where we were, and we were getting beat up pretty good. I’ve been through it before, but you don’t enjoy it and you don’t want to go through it.
“So, with my family, with my staff, we prepare for rain because we know it’s going to come. Everybody goes through hard times, but we’re going to keep showing up and keep working. That’s our foundation.”
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Barnhart has become the third-longest-tenured AD in the power five behind Oklahoma’s Joe Castiglione and UCLA’s Dan Guerrero. The dean of SEC ADs, however, has done a lot more than just “show up” during those 17 years.
He transformed UK’s athletic campus with new or renovated facilities that put the Wildcats on par with the rest of the SEC, negotiated lucrative new business arrangements with JMI Sports and Fermata licensing, and worked through a complicated set of circumstances to get a new deal with Rupp Arena.
The Kroger naming-rights agreement at Commonwealth Stadium was the first of its kind in the SEC. Earlier this year, UK’s new $49 million baseball stadium opened with a naming-rights deal with Farm Bureau. JMI worked with the school on both negotiations.
Along the way, Barnhart made UK athletics a valuable resource for the rest of campus. He committed $65 million in athletics money — from a budget that takes no state subsidies — to help build a new $100 million science building. Athletes take science, too, he reasoned.
UK also phased out mandatory student athletic fees, which are commonplace in college athletics, to help offset tuition increases.
He’s done all that while providing the resources for Kentucky to become an all-sports powerhouse, ranking sixth in the 2018-19 Learfield Directors’ Cup. The Cats are still best-known for John Calipari’s basketball team, but they’re really good in rifle, softball, volleyball and women’s basketball, too.
Rachel Lawson, the UK softball coach whose teams have made seven NCAA super regionals in her 12 years with the program, said Barnhart’s approach is unique because they talk a lot more about the process than they do wins and losses.
“He talks about doing things the right way, treating people the right way,” Lawson said. “The message is that if you do that, the winning will come.”
What others are saying
“When Mitch walks into a room now, people think of him as one of the top ADs in the country.”
— Jim Host
“He’s a fighter. Just because he’s behind the scenes doesn’t make him passive.”
— Jason Schlafer, UK’s chief revenue officer
“He’s so humble. I call him the man in the tunnel because he likes to stay out of the spotlight.”
— Wendell Bell, UK donor and Barnhart’s friend
“The first sport I administered was men’s basketball. I never said I wanted it, but he came to me in the middle of the year during our championship season in 2012. He saw that I could handle it. I wasn’t as confident that I could handle it as he was. One of his biggest gifts is the confidence he has in people.”
— DeWayne Peevy, UK’s deputy AD
When Barnhart arrived in Lexington, Kentucky was known for two things — basketball and cheating. UK basketball or football had been in trouble with the NCAA nearly every decade since the 1950s. Recruiting violations on football coach Hal Mumme’s watch resulted in a three-year probation term that started the same year Barnhart started at UK.
Not only that, the Olympic sports were underfunded, facilities were substandard and donations trailed every other school in the conference except Vanderbilt and Ole Miss.
“Kentucky athletics were in disarray,” said Jim Host, a Kentucky graduate who built Host Communications in Lexington. “But Mitch just kept his head down and took on the challenge.”
The UK job was not a quick fix. It was going to take a long-term solution from an AD who was persistent, if not stubborn, about raising expectations and operating beyond reproach.
Barnhart told coaches in the Olympic sports that they’d have more resources. With that would come higher expectations. “Matching resources to expectations” became one of Barnhart’s go-to sayings as he put more emphasis on sports outside of football and basketball.
“That wasn’t a real popular message,” said Oregon AD Rob Mullens, who was on Barnhart’s staff at UK from 2002-10. “Fans wanted to know how we were going to win in basketball and football.”
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It took time for Barnhart to build equity with the fan base. His message about UK’s shortcomings in fundraising, Olympic sports and NCAA rules didn’t stir the passion of the fans in the Bluegrass, even though he was hired precisely to address those issues.
His focus was directed internally as he took on compliance concerns, the budget and facilities during the early years of his administration. In a rare moment of introspection recently, Barnhart thought about some of the misperceptions he dealt with.
“I heard the knocks on me,” he said. “It was, ‘He’s an introvert and he’s shy and he doesn’t do this or that.’ I never thought of myself that way. I was never that guy. So, why did they say that? My guess is that I was pretty singularly focused. But I came up as a fundraiser; I raised a lot of money and you don’t do that if you’re that way.
“Now, I wasn’t the party guy, that’s true. I wasn’t the four corners guy — hit all four corners of the room and make sure you talk to everybody. That wasn’t me.”
It didn’t help that Barnhart’s first football coaching hire, Rich Brooks, went 4-8, 2-9 and 3-8 from 2003-05. Bumper stickers began to appear around Lexington — “Ditch Mitch and Rich.”
In Brooks’ third season, the UK base was disgruntled. Late in the season, the Cats had won just twice and they were coming off a blowout loss to Auburn, but Barnhart saw a fight in the players that affirmed in his mind they weren’t going to quit on their coach.
He had already decided not to fire Brooks, but the AD wanted to go a step further. Barnhart told his staff that he was going to announce a one-year contract extension for Brooks in the midst of his losing season. Much of his staff thought it was a decision ripe for calamity. Vanderbilt was the next opponent and if the Cats followed the contract extension with a loss to Vandy, the fans would go into full revolt.
“I tried my best to talk him out of it,” said Florida AD Scott Stricklin, another member of Barnhart’s growing AD tree. Stricklin was Barnhart’s communications chief from 2003-08.
“He said that the kids believe in Rich and they need somebody to believe in them,” Stricklin added. “I tried to talk him out of it, but I couldn’t.”
Barnhart’s conviction to stand by his coaches hasn’t wavered in 17 years. He gives them a much longer leash than most ADs, as long as they are following the rules.
Just look around the athletic department: Barnhart isn’t the only one who has stayed at UK. Calipari is the longest-tenured basketball coach in the SEC, and Mark Stoops is the second-longest-tenured football coach in the league.
When Stoops went 2-10 in his first season, Barnhart tacked another year onto his deal as a show of good faith. UK’s AD wasn’t worried about what others would think.
“I just think about his ability to endure,” Stricklin said of Barnhart. “He overcame some rocky times by sticking to his guns. A lot of schools want to pull the plug on a guy because he’s not incredibly popular, but he never let it change him. He never let it affect how he went about his job.”
It’s also a statement on how deeply rooted Barnhart is in his beliefs. He’s happy to stay in the background; he believes that the coaches are the backbone of the athletic department.
“He almost never puts himself first,” Mullens said. “He always puts others first and that’s why people like working for him. … He took on a tall task at Kentucky and I love seeing him get the respect he deserves.”
First Look podcast, with AD of the Year discussion at the 14:05 mark: