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For Lawson, new contract more about loyalty, commitment than pay raise

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Softball coach Rachel Lawson (right) was all smiles at a news conference Monday in which Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart officially announced her new five-year contract. (photo by Pete Camagna, UK Athletics) Softball coach Rachel Lawson (right) was all smiles at a news conference Monday in which Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart officially announced her new five-year contract. (photo by Pete Camagna, UK Athletics)
If there is one thing Rachel Lawson learned from being one of 12 children and the ninth girl of a "man's man" father, it's the importance of supporting herself and taking advantage of opportunity.

"Even though (Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart) says it's not about money, this is obviously a huge opportunity for me," Lawson said Monday at a news conference to announce her new five-year contract. "In today's standards, it's a lot of money. It's a lot of money, especially for a female in the athletic world."

On the surface, it is a nice chunk of change for Lawson, who, a half decade ago was trying to build a program at Western Kentucky. Although Lawson wasn't eating bologna sandwiches or struggling to pay rent, as she so eloquently put it with her old UK contract, the new five-year deal worth a total of $727,500, plus the opportunity for performance-based incentives (which ranks in the top third in the Southeastern Conference), certainly makes life easier.

But Monday's contract extension for Lawson, who is fresh off guiding UK to a school-record 40-win season and the program's first Super Regional appearance, looks to be more of a show of loyalty, commitment and reward for a job well done than a just a simple pay raise.

"I came nine years ago to Kentucky and there were people who invested time in Kentucky softball, but unfortunately the results (never) came close to what Rachel has been able to put together in her time here," Barnhart said. "She obviously came from Western Kentucky, so it's been a fast-tracking last four years for us to get to this spot where we're in national consideration and our coach is being talked about for jobs all over our league, all over the country. She is a person who has made a name for our program as well as herself. She's very deserving."

When Barnhart outlined the historic progress UK has enjoyed under Lawson, the model in which she's built for her players and passion in which she teaches the game, Barnhart was admitting that Lawson was a coach UK couldn't let go.

In a jokingly awkward situation for a negotiator, Barnhart said that Lawson has exceeded expectations. As little leverage as that could give him in future dealings down the road, he wasn't exaggerating.

Kentucky was an annual cellar dweller before Lawson arrived and a program that had never even been to the NCAA Tournament. Since then, Lawson has guided UK to three straight postseasons, too many statistical records to count, and created an identity and passion for Kentucky softball.

At last month's Super Regional game, more than 1,700 fans showed up to the UK Softball Complex for each of the two-day series, an unprecedented figure for a program that once struggled to draw a couple hundred.

With that kind of resume and that kind of success at a place that appeared forever stuck in neutral, Lawson no doubt warranted consideration from other schools in a talent-rich conference that featured three offseason vacancies.

Lawson said she never entertained or listened to any other offers, but the new contract was certainly a sign that the school is willing to do what's necessary to continue to build the program.

"She's been a topic of conversation at a lot of different places," Barnhart said. "I always hear people say it's not about money, it's not about this, it's not about that. You find the true measure of a person when you get into those moments and those decision spots. They're hard because they're life changing and they move people to different spots in their life in a lot of different ways. ... I always knew who Rachel Lawson was. I felt like we have for the last four years that she's been here, but we now know truly that we've got a special, special person amongst us and we're very fortunate."

For Lawson, the loyalty was a two-way street.

"He took a real chance on me when a lot of people probably wouldn't have," Lawson said. "I'm just happy we're starting to see a return on that investment. Hopefully we'll continue to move forward because sometimes people forget and start to listen to all the hype. I think it's important to realize and remember the people that helped you get to this point. ...

"We would have never had this opportunity had (Barnhart) not given me one four years ago. I'm a much better coach now than I was then, but the reason I'm a much better coach is because I've been coaching in the SEC. If I was not in the SEC right now and I didn't go against (Tim) Walton and (Patrick) Murphy, (Lu) Harris, the Weeklys (Ralph and Karen), and Yvette Giraud, who just retired, if I did not go up against them, we would not be winning. In fairness to them, because I had that opportunity and because I've gotten better, I think I need to move it forward."

Of course, who could blame Lawson for wanting to leave a team whose stock is pointing straight up? With a good chunk of this past year's team returning and the proven support that the school and fans showed at the Lexington Super Regional, Lawson feels like she'd be taking a step down at just about any other place.

"(Assistant coach Kristine Himes) said, 'You've convinced all these kids to come here without a facility, and I have a hard time seeing you bail on them," Lawson said. "I think she's right. I love the people around here."

Speaking of facilities, Lawson said that's the only thing that would persuade her to go to another program and the only thing left that the school needs to make a firmer commitment to.

Barnhart said UK is in the process of upgrading the UK Softball Complex, which had to undergo several upgrades, including temporary seating, to host a Super Regional. In addition to a new video board that will be in place for next year, Barnhart mentioned extending the fences, enclosing UK's batting practice structure and adding radio broadcasts for games.

"We have a responsibility there," Barnhart said. "We have a feasibility study out there now and I just checked my calendar and we are supposed to get those results back in the next week or two. We will have a conversation about what those look like. ... Absolutely it is on the docket and our responsibility to get that done."

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