Nine years ago, a young assistant named Matthew Mitchell came to Lexington to work for new UK coach Mickie DeMoss. He worked alongside her in building the foundation for the kind of success Barnhart envisioned.
Five years ago, Mitchell returned to UK after two seasons at Morehead State, this time as head coach. With the program already having taken major steps in the right direction, Mitchell was there to take things over the top, to make Kentucky a national player.
On the heels of a third straight NCAA Tournament appearance, a berth in the Elite Eight and the school's first Southeastern Conference championship in three decades, UK Hoops hasn't quite reached the summit Barnhart dreamed of, but it's certainly pretty close.
"For the past five years, he's led our program and moved us to a spot where arguably we're talked about on a regular basis as one of the top programs in the country," Barnhart said. "That's in large part due to his efforts and the efforts of his staff."
In recognition of all he has done, Barnhart signed Mitchell to a new seven-year contract through the end of the 2018-19 season. The deal provides for a raise from his previous salary and is worth a minimum of $7.95 million and can escalate based on performance incentives.
"This is a very, very happy day for Jenna (Mitchell's wife) and me to have a chance to continue as the coach here and for us have a chance to be a member of this university and continue to try to serve this university," Mitchell said.
The agreement also serves as a symbol of the commitment of both Mitchell to UK and vice versa, thereby quelling some of the concern among fans that the rising star among the coaching profession might take another job.
"I go around this town, go in grocery stores and restaurants, anywhere in Lexington and out in the Commonwealth and people have always said to me, 'I hope you're going to stay at Kentucky.' They often say that with a tone like they would think there's somewhere better for me to go."
Even though Mitchell heard the anxiety, he never quite understood it. With UK's ascent as a program, the staff and fans that surround it and the commitment of the administration to women's basketball, he can't imagine being anywhere else.
"What Mitch Barnhart's done, what the players have done is that, for any coach in America, any coach, Kentucky would be a great job," Mitchell said. "But for Matthew Mitchell, Jenna Mitchell and our family, it is the best job, the best job in the country to have."
What really makes this job special to Mitchell is coaching the young women who also happen to be largely responsible for UK's ascent.
"The opportunity it really provides us is to do what we love, and that's to work with the players," Mitchell said. "That's the most important thing at Kentucky. That's the most important part of what we do and today wouldn't have been possible without a bunch of kids working really, really hard and giving everything that they've had."
Mitchell and Barnhart sat side-by-side in announcing the contract and spoke repeatedly of the respect they have for one another. They have inarguably made a good team over five seasons and likely the most important reason why is a shared sense of what matters. Both Mitchell and Barnhart believe that, more than anything else, their responsibility is to the student-athletes they lead.
"I think he has an extremely special desire to help young people, specifically young women, pursue greatness," Barnhart said. "And he expects them to pursue greatness."
"There is no one who I've ever been around in this business of college athletics that cares more about people than Mitch Barnhart," Mitchell said. "That's somebody that I want to be involved with, that's somebody I want to work for and he, in a more sincere way than I've ever seen in college athletics, cares about these student-athletes and their experience."
The business of negotiating a new deal was necessary and the financial security it entails is nice for Mitchell's family, but both are ready to get back to what they really care about doing. Mitchell didn't get into coaching for big payday, and he doesn't intend to change now that he ranks among the nation's highest paid women's basketball coaches.
"I've never put a lot of thought into that and it's just kind of happened the way that it's happened," Mitchell said. "The focus has been on trying to add value to kids' lives and trying to teach them and trying to help them be great basketball players and great people. I think that's where the focus needs to remain."
Mitchell definitely has a group with the potential to be great. UK loses Amber Smith, Keyla Snowden and Crystal Riley for 2012-13, but returns the rest of the Wildcats who played in the Elite Eight in March. Kentucky also adds a pair of McDonald's All-Americans in forward DeNesha Stallworth, a transfer from California, and point guard Janee Thompson.
"We have a terrific group of players that's coming back so we're excited for the future," Mitchell said. "They are giving an awful lot to the University and I want to thank them."
Mitchell to donate $100,000 to University
During the press conference discussing his new contract, Mitchell also announced he would be donating $100,000 back to UK for educational purposes as a demonstration of his family's commitment to contributing positively to the University.
"We just want (UK President Dr. Eli Capilouto) to know that we are partners here," Mitchell said. "We want to be great servants to the University and it's just a complete honor to sign this contract."
Search for new assistant ongoing
Last week, associate head coach Kyra Elzy resigned from her post at UK to accept a job as an assistant at Tennessee, her alma mater. Due to UK hiring regulations, Mitchell has been unable to have formal discussions about a replacement, but at the end of the day on Thursday, those restrictions are lifted. After that, he will waste no time.
"I can assure you that we're moving forward in that area and hopefully you will have something very quickly on that," Mitchell said.