In Mitch Barnhart's time as an administrator, he has perhaps never been faced with a choice as difficult as the one he made on Sunday to replace head football coach Joker Phillips.
"After much conversation, evaluation and prayer, I have determined that it is in the best interest of our athletics program to make a change in our football coaching staff at the conclusion of the season," Barnhart said in an open letter to Kentucky fans. "I do so with a heavy heart for a man who has served his alma mater for almost 22 years as a player and a coach."
Barnhart and Phillips have worked in close concert over the last decade, building a relationship that went far beyond that of athletic director and coach. The two became friends as Phillips - a former star wide receiver as a Wildcat - helped rebuild Kentucky as an assistant under Rich Brooks from 2003-09. When Phillips took over as head coach, they became even closer.
"Joker Phillips has carried the banner for the Blue and White with honor and pride," Barnhart said. "I have enjoyed working alongside him and am thankful for his friendship for the last decade. His concern for the entire program, his work and teaching of young people, his humanitarian work, and the friendship we all enjoy with him will long surpass the scoreboard. I want to thank him for all of those things on behalf of Kentucky."
In Phillips' first season as head coach in 2010, he led UK to a school-record fifth consecutive bowl berth, a streak that ended the following season. So far this year, the Wildcats are just 1-9. With a bye week following a loss to Vanderbilt on Saturday, Barnhart made the determination to replace Phillips at the conclusion of the 2012 season. Though it wasn't the outcome he wanted for himself or the school, Phillips understands why the decision was made.
"I am very appreciative of Mitch Barnhart and Rich Brooks for providing the opportunity to have been the head coach here," Phillips said in a statement. "Mitch is the best athletic director I've ever been associated with. He's fair and honest and he's 'all in' in terms of student-athletes' well-being.
By announcing the decision with three weeks left in the season, Barnhart removes a cloud of uncertainty that had enveloped the program and gives himself and UK a head start in what will be a critical transition phase for UK football. Whether Phillips finishes out the season is yet to be determined, but Barnhart's search for the next coach begins now.
That will not happen overnight. Identifying, interviewing and recruiting a new coach will be an intensive process and one that will navigate candidates' responsibilities in their current positions.
"(The coaching search) will be done with great concern for our student-athletes, students of the University of Kentucky, the Big Blue Nation and the citizens of the Commonwealth," Barnhart said. "Kentucky football needs to be and will be a championship contender in the Southeastern Conference."
While Barnhart manages the coaching search, there is much more fans can do than check simply Twitter and the message boards for rumors on potential candidates. Whoever ends up being tabbed as UK's next head coach will assuredly accept the position in part because of the unmatched passion of the Big Blue Nation. UK has one more home game remaining on Nov. 17 and when Samford visits for Senior Day. Don't think coaching candidates won't be paying attention.
Over the years, the atmosphere in Commonwealth Stadium has played a role in a great many wins. Imagine the kind of momentum that would be injected into the football program if a packed house helps send off the senior class off with a win.
"You have provided a great environment in Commonwealth Stadium through the years, and on behalf of our student-athletes, I want to thank you for continuing to fight with us," Barnhart said. "It is ALWAYS our goal at UK to provide the positive energy and support to pursue the hopes, efforts and dreams of those in the competitions. I hope to see you continue your unwavering support on Senior Day vs. Samford."