The Wildcats were clearly one of the elite programs in the nation, stacking successful season on top of successful season, but they had always fallen short of winning a national title. It was a particularly helpless feeling for Mullins because of his belief that he and his team had done everything in their power to accomplish their ultimate goal.
In 2011, Mullins was finally able to fill that empty spot on his top shelf with a national championship trophy. The celebration that came on the heels of the title was long and gratifying, but when he finally sat down to prepare for his 27th season as UK's head coach, the question he was faced with was oddly similar to the one he asked himself the 26 years prior.
"In years past when we didn't win, we've had great seasons so we didn't make a lot of changes but there was always that little bit where we fell short," Mullins said. "It kind of gave you that feeling of, 'What do we change?' After winning, you say, 'Do you change anything?' "
The answer, in short, was "no."
Through all the disappointing near misses, Mullins stayed true to his belief that the ultimate prize would come with patience and persistence. Once he was finally proven right, there was certainly no reason to change.
At the core of his philosophy is a singular focus on self-improvement.
"What we try to do is get better every day," Mullins said. "That's been our motto last year and even more so this year. Some days, your scores are going to increase. Other days, your score may stay the same or even decrease a little bit, but we expect you to be better as far as knowledge goes or physical condition. Something's got to be better today than it was yesterday."
That goal, in and of itself, is difficult enough for a team that returns most of the pieces from last year's team that won a national championship and set an NCAA record with a score of 4700 in the finals. Logan Fox and Sarah Broeker graduated, but top shooters like Henri Junghanel, Katie Fretts, Emily Holsopple, Stacy Wheatley, Ethan Settlemires and Heather Greathouse are back and have anchored the No. 2 Wildcats in an 8-0 start to the 2011-12 season.
"The type of team we have, they constantly strive to get better," Mullins said "It's tough to come off of winning it and having the same group. Sometimes, when you bring in a new group, you teach the same things in the same way. This year, we're re-teaching the same things in a different way and getting them to consistently stay focused on the task at-hand of executing their shot plans."
The only things his athletes have complete control over are their preparations and emotions. On any given day, an opponent could turn in a record score or conditions in the shooting range could make scoring well much more difficult, but Mullins constantly demands his athletes rise above those external factors.
The message must be sinking in, because Mullins actually found himself taking a lesson from his team during a recent road trip. The Wildcats were delayed in an airport for seven hours waiting for a flight when their destination was just a three-hour drive away. Taking a cue from their coach, the Cats took it in stride, while Mullins stewed in frustration.
"I was hot and livid the whole day and they were just laid back and relaxed," Mullins said. "I commended them for that. So far, they've been able to control the environment they've worked in as far as their emotions go. Sometimes it's a struggle because they're so good that they're striving for perfection. When they do make that mistake and you know perfection isn't going to come that day, you really have to stay within yourself."
As Mullins often points out, there is no defense in rifle, so the factor furthest removed from UK's control is the way the opponent shoots. In any given match, UK could put together its best performance of the season and have it fall short because an opponent executes just a bit better.
Traveling to face No. 1 TCU on Saturday, that's certainly in the realm of possibility. Along with UK, TCU is one of three unbeaten teams left in the NCAA. The Horned Frogs won the national championship in 2009-10 and have defeated UK two years in a row in regular season play.
Earning a win over the top-ranked team in the country and reclaiming the No. 1 ranking themselves is certainly UK's goal, but Mullins also views the match as an opportunity to prepare for Great American Rifle Conference play as well as the NCAA Championships in early March.
"We're all about winning and losing, that's why we compete," Mullins said. "But it's also about learning. That's going to be our main focus when we go to TCU is to learn about what we can do under duress. If we happen not to find that top gear, how do we find it?"
Mullins said as many as eight teams have a realistic shot at winning the national title this season, with UK obviously in the mix. Just like a year ago, Mullins is trying to help his team peak toward the end of the season and shoot best when it matters most. With the makeup of this year's Wildcats, he doesn't anticipate having any trouble.
"In years past, we've always had those couple super athletes, but they always tried so hard to make up what other shooters lost and put so much pressure on themselves," Mullins said. "This group here, when it comes pressure time, they do a good job performing at their elite level."