The goal Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart set eight years ago to mold an athletics department that competed with integrity, won championships with class and succeeded in the classroom is coming to fruition as Kentucky closes the 2009-10 athletics year.
Currently ranked 16th in the Directors' Cup standings and with four championship banners already hung over the last two years, the final and arguably the most important step in forming the complete athletics department that Barnhart envisioned eight years ago is academics.
Consider the program one step closer with Tuesday's release of the cumulative team grade-point averages for the spring semester.
UK's 22 varsity sports averaged a cumulative department GPA of 3.04 in the spring for competing scholarship student-athletes, which includes fifth-year student-athletes. The mark achieves Barnhart's annual goal for the department to achieve a GPA of 3.0.
The 3.0 is also the highest semester mark since Barnhart took over the program in 2002. In fall 2003, a year after Barnhart's arrival, the collective GPA of the department was 2.84. UK is only required to keep annual graduation rates and did not begin recording the cumulative GPA of the department prior to the Barnhart hire (the school recorded only the GPAs of each team prior to 2003).
"We've been trying for eight years to get to a consistent academic level and we felt like if all of our student-athletes could get to a 3.0 collectively, it would be a great benchmark for us considering when we came here the number was lower than that," Barnhart said. "Our coaches have done a good job of changing the expectation level and our athletes have responded. We finally have crested that goal and now the challenge is to stay there and to not back off the effort that it took to get there."
Among the highest team GPAs for the spring semester were the women's cross country team (3.49), the softball team (3.48) and the women's soccer team (3.42). Thirteen of UK's 22 sports averaged a 3.0 GPA or better.
Overall, the department's team GPA of 3.04 is above the average for all undergraduate students (2.95) at the University of Kentucky for the spring semester despite the added responsibilities, obligations and time it requires for a student-athlete to balance academics with athletics.
"I think you've got to be incredibly organized to be a student-athlete at this level and manage your academic workload," Barnhart said. "I'm really proud of our student-athletes. We have traditionally, for the last three or four years, been at a high level for academic all-conference selections. To have the grade-point averages move above a 3.0 validates the effort of the people that have been working so hard in the classroom."
Maybe the biggest reason for the department-wide improvement could be attributed to the football program's rise in GPA from 2.35 in the fall to 2.66 in the spring. The sheer numbers of the program carries heavy weight in the collective GPA of the department.
"Football has a tendency to be able to move the needle because there are such huge numbers in the sport," Barnhart said. "When you've got 85 guys in a sport, and for those 85 guys to get a 2.66, that is significant. It can move the needle the other way if you don't have a great semester."
Even with the time demands involved in an Elite Eight run and regular-season travel schedule, the men's basketball team did see improvement from the fall's 2.025 cumulative GPA, a step in the right direction considering five underclassmen declared for the 2010 NBA Draft.
"Considering all the challenges that go with that transition, and we had some athletes having to take big course loads, I was pleased that we made some progress," Barnhart said. "I'm also pleased that from an (Academic Progress Rate) perspective, our student-athletes took care of their business so that we could continue to have opportunities for other student-athletes coming into the program and we would not face any penalties."
In lieu of completing their academic obligations, the five men's basketball underclassmen that declared for the NBA Draft could have focused on pre-draft workouts to increase their professional stock, creating a potentially adverse situation for future UK basketball teams.
Instead, the vast majority of UK's early NBA entrants finished the spring semester, ensuring that the school would not incur any NCAA penalties for their decision to leave school early.
Kentucky's APR score in all 22 of its varsity sports, including men's basketball, has continued to meet the NCAA requirements. Teams are subject to penalties, such as scholarship reductions or postseason restrictions, if the APR target score is not achieved.
"For a group of young guys, with all of the distractions that were available and happening during the spring semester, to stay focused on the coursework ... I was very appreciative," Barnhart said.
Barnhart said the improvement was a department-wide effort.
"It starts in our academic unit and our (Center for Academics and Tutorial Services) unit," Barnhart said. "I give those counselors credit for working with our coaches and the coaches holding to their discipline to make sure that class work is important. I just went to graduation two weekends ago and 85 student-athletes graduated from the University of Kentucky. That is a significant number. I think that means that clearly we've got some really good athletes here, but we've also got some athletes that are really doing well here in the classroom."
With the academic benchmark met and UK's top-15 status near the horizon, Kentucky is closer than it has ever been to completing Barnhart's dream for a complete athletics department. The key now, Barnhart said, is finishing the job and then staying there.
"We've got to continue to grow our resources from a facility and support perspective that gets us over that hurdle of some of the goals that we have set," Barnhart said. "It took eight years to clear the academic hurdle. Now we've got to work to stay there. I hope it doesn't take us until 2015 to be a top-15 program. We're close now. We have things we can do better to get there, but getting there and staying there will continue to be difficult. Make no mistake about it, our coaches and athletes have made tremendous strides this year."