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Q&A with Barnhart: Starting a new season

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Mitch Barnhart is in his 11th year as Athletics Director at the University of Kentucky. (UK Athletics) Mitch Barnhart is in his 11th year as Athletics Director at the University of Kentucky. (UK Athletics)
Cat Scratches sat down with Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart this week for a question-and-answer session. With another year in UK Athletics in full swing, Barnhart discussed the state of the athletic department, the upcoming football season and facilities, among other topics. Here is a complete transcript of the conversation.

Cat Scratches: UK Athletics had one of the best seasons in its history in 2011-12 and fall sports are already in action. How important do you believe it is for the fall sports to continue the momentum and set the tone for 2012-13?
Mitch Barnhart: I think it certainly creates momentum when you get off to a good start. We just completed our first weekend of play and we were 5-1 coming out of the weekend in a variety of sports between women's soccer, volleyball and men's soccer. Last year, we really only had two of our fall sports that had NCAA appearances - one of them was women's soccer, the other one was volleyball - so trying to recover from a slow start was difficult. We did make a good run in the winter in the spring and that was very helpful to us. To get off to a better start this year in terms of all of our sports is very important to us.

We've made some additions to our fall sports coaches roster, if you will, in Johan Cedergren (men's soccer head coach) and Edrick Floreal in our track and field and our cross country. That will take a little time to develop, but I think it is important that you get off to a good start. Clearly, we don't want to miss opportunities for our program to be in postseason play. I think winning and creating that atmosphere and the old theory of the rising tide raises all boats is very, very true. We certainly want to start out that way.

CS: Being around the program and interacting with coaches, it's impossible not to notice a community across the different teams at UK. How much of that culture did you envision when you arrived and how much is simply an outgrowth of bringing in good, like-minded people?

MB: We've tried to create a group of coaches, as well as administrators, that get along and that everybody is sort of rowing in the same direction. It starts with your two revenue-producing coaches and that is with (men's basketball head coach John Calipari) and (football head coach) Joker (Philips). They truly want Kentucky Athletics in total to be great. The things that they do and the things that they put in place help us to get to those spots. They produce and provide opportunities for everybody else, but they take great pride in that and I think they enjoy other people succeeding.

What we do is try to create an atmosphere where coaches enjoy feeding off one another's successes and I think that's sort of what we got. I've joked around and said I've got a group of very normal people. I say that in the nicest of ways in that they have real balance in their lives. The way that they treat people is with respect and they're honorable folks in the way they do their business. But most of all, they understand student-athletes and how to treat them and grow them into the young people we want them to be.

When you put all those pieces of the puzzle together, we've got a group that really, really gets along well. You'll go to matches or games and you'll see all the coaches from other sports hanging out on the sidelines or in the end zones or in the corners watching. And I think they learn from one another. I think everybody's learned a little bit how you manage superstar athletes like Cal has gotten. You've seen some people that have been what I call grinders in grinding away with a group of athletes and how they've won with that and how we've won with some overachieving athletes. They've all taken bits and pieces from one another and I think they're not territorial in any way, shape or form. They get along extremely well.

CS: Moving on to football specifically, expectations on the part of fans and experts are relatively low for this season, while many around the program seem to have a quiet confidence that the team is better and more talented than outsiders think. For the sake of ticket sales, you would obviously prefer that fans would agree, but are there also positives associated with being under the radar?
MB: I think, sometimes, you need to be able to play with a chip on your shoulder a little bit. I think that's what we're going to have to do this year. We're going to have to play with a chip on our shoulder. People aren't giving us much of an opportunity to compete and I think you're going to have use that as a rallying cry around your program. You're going to have to believe in one another. We're going to have to have some things go our way. We've got to stay a little bit injury-free and we've got to stay clear of that. And we've got to be able to go out and perform.

We've got some young people certainly capable of that and I think we've got a really good group of coaches. They believe in one another and they believe in our kids. That's the first step. I'd agree with you. I think there is a gentle confidence about them, but we've got to go out and prove that.

CS: Another much-discussed topic is the Alumni Charity Game at Rupp Arena at 2 p.m. on Sept. 15. What kind of thought went into planning that and why do you believe it can be a successful doubleheader with football's home game at 7 p.m. against Western Kentucky that same day?

MB: You've got some restrictions about when you can play the game and do those kinds of games by NBA rules. We've got a unique set of alumni - probably a different alumni base than most programs have - an alumni base of over 20 NBA guys, and it's growing rapidly. To have a unique group of folks that want to come back and be a part of something like that at Kentucky is very different from a lot of places.

I've always been a believer in creating multiple things for your fans to be a part of on a weekend and let them enjoy a lot of things. It goes back to what we talked about with the culture here. Just being able to share assets and share ideas and share fan bases and share things that promote Kentucky in total rather than one thing individually I think is really, really important. If we can use the incredible traditions we have in basketball to help augment people wanting to come be a part of an incredible weekend with Hall of Fame Weekend and Alumni Weekend and Western Kentucky, what an opportunity for us to do that.

CS: The Alumni Game is just the latest example of the department reaching out to former student-athletes. Across sports, former Wildcats are joining coaching staffs and being invited to be more involved with the program. Why do you believe that to be so important?
MB: I think that Joker has done a great job of bring guys back in the program and allowing them to work and begin their careers. That fosters that sense of family that we are trying to create. We want people in our program that love Kentucky and understand Kentucky and take great pride in what we do. To have Jeremy Jarmon, Andre' Woodson, Glenn Holt, Sam Simpson, Braxton Kelley and Tyler Sargent back on your staff in football (as director of player personnel) or to have a Marquis Estill who comes back to get his degree and works on (the basketball) staff and (former student assistant) Wayne Turner now out there in the working world out there representing Kentucky is really good. You've got Tony Delk and Scott Padgett out there in basketball (now assistant coaches at New Mexico State and Samford, respectively, after a stint on Calipari's UK staff).

Most of our coaches are beginning to reach out and pull those folks back. There was a time when there weren't a whole lot of folks interested in coming back to be a part of this, but that has become more the norm. Our athletes are now wanting to be a part of us differently than they have in the past. I think that's very helpful to us.

CS: It doesn't take long for anyone who regularly attends UK sporting events to notice that you attend pretty much every game or match that you can. Why do you make such an effort to do that?
MB: I think it's a couple things. One, the young people, our kids, put in an incredible amount of time. For us to be able to come and make sure they know that we care and that and we know who they are, I think that's important for them to know that you care.

Two, if you're going to evaluate your program properly, you've got to understand what the climate is in your program and what's going on. You've got to have an ability to see firsthand how your players, your athletes are reacting to the things that your coaches are teaching.

Three, I think we've got to know that the environment we're providing is organizationally sound and that it is run efficiently and safely for everybody that's coming, whether it's to play in it or to participate in it or to watch. We've got to make sure those things are sound.

I don't think you can do those things if you're not there and you're not around it. Come about mid- to late-June, I'm about done and I need to get away a little bit. So July I try to get away and go do stuff and get my head clear before we crank back up again.

CS: We have discussed the challenges UK Athletics faces in maintaining and building new facilities in similar settings before, but can you provide an update on how you believe the department is coping with those challenges and what your priorities are going forward?

MB: We came here and I would say - out of the 12 teams at the time that were in the SEC, now it's 14 - I'd say we were bottom three in the league in terms of actual facilities. The way that financing is done on campus and in our state, it is very difficult for us to secure financing. We don't have a private foundation. The way that funding in our state is done is very different from everybody else in our league, and that's another conversation completely.

We have basically piecemealed together everything that we've done. We've saved money, we've raised money, we've put pockets of money together systematically, piece by piece by piece taking care of facilities. We're in the process of finishing up the last two pieces of the soccer/softball complex down there on Alumni Drive. That would be a very important piece. That would leave us three or four projects away. Two of them are really, really big ones - one of them is a new baseball stadium and the other one is obviously the renovation of Commonwealth Stadium - that we're going to have find ways to get help on, whether that's through bonds or through additional fundraising. And then our indoor tennis center, which really desperately needs help. Those three facilities are still on the docket for us of things we really need help with.

How we get all that done and work on that is important because athletes today pick schools for a variety of reasons. We just did a study and they come for that relationship with that head coach, generally, and then secondarily with the players involved and the folks on the team. Can they make those relationships work? Beyond that, we have heard them say over and over again as they have left our program, 'It isn't about facilities, but we just don't want to have horrible facilities.' We've felt like we've always had decent playing facilities, but the amenities around them that make it really warm and accommodating have just not been where they need to be.

We've done the math. In the last 10 years, we've done about $115 to $120 million of cash, capital construction, but we close to no debt. That's a really good thing. The downside is that we haven't been able to move as fast as we've wanted to move. Hopefully, with getting some changes in the way we look at bonding, we'll be able to do that.

CS: The 15 by 15 by 15 plan to win 15 conference and national championships and finish in the top 15 of the Director's Cup standings by 2015 is the centerpiece of your goals for this department. Having won 10 titles already, that benchmark looks to be clearly within reach. But in 2011-12 - one of the best seasons in UK history - the department finished 29th. How difficult will it be to reach the top 15 and how important will the new direction of the track and field and cross country be to that?
MB: Our goal is to obviously get the championships, and that's one piece. You could legitimately capture three championships a year for five years, meet that goal and still not be closer to a top-15 program. Our goal is to be a top-15 program and that hasn't changed. We got to 29th last year and it's the second time we've done that in the 10 years we've been here.

The big piece in that is you've got to be able to have success in your track and field program consistently. It counts six times for you when you take cross country, both men and women; indoor track and field championships, both men and women; and outdoor track and field championships, both men and women. That is six opportunities with essentially the same athletes and same coaching staff. We've been relatively inconsistent. We've had some championship performances in those sports. We've had some people do, individually, very well, but not collectively as a team getting us to a spot where we could say we're finishing top 20 in cross country, top 20 in indoor track and outdoor. We've got to get to that spot.

When you get a guy like Edrick to come on board who has got a great ability to move your program forward coupled with the investment we've made in a 13 million dollar outdoor track plus the indoor track, the resurfacing of that, new locker rooms and a new lounge, it's about as good a scenario as you could possibly have for track and field. It gives us all the resources necessary to go compete to get us to that top 15. I'm not saying in year one we make this dramatic move from 29 to 15. It's going to take him a year or two to get all his folks in place.

In time, that has a major impact on our ability to be a top-15 program. If we had everything else in place like we've had the last few years, just the moderate successes we've had and some of the championships we've won, and you added four finishes out of six in track and field, we would have been a top-15 program in I think three of the last six years. That significantly changes the way you do your business. We've got to pay attention to that and we've got to work really, really hard to give that the attention it needs.

I think we've done that and I think we have a legitimate chance to be a top-15 program or we wouldn't have done some of the things we've done. I think we have a tremendous pool of head coaches. Now we have to find a way to keep them in place and grow them the right way for the long-term stability of our program so we're not a transition place where they come here to go to another place. We want to give them the resources necessary to say this is a destination spot at Kentucky and we build toward being a top-15 program and stay there.

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