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Mullins an improved coach for life lessons learned through fatherhood

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Rifle head coach Harry Mullins and Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart chat at the rifle range. (UK Athletics) Rifle head coach Harry Mullins and Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart chat at the rifle range. (UK Athletics)
Year in and year out Harry Mullins manages to field one of the nation's top rifle programs. He's been at Kentucky for going on 27 productive seasons and is responsible for building its rifle program into a perennial contender.

Then Mullins goes home at the end of each workday and tends to his real job: fatherhood.

During the season, both jobs become much more difficult, yet Mullins continues to have success in each. In season, Mullins spends more time at work and on the range with his athletes in addition to traveling to competitions. That time with his team means less with his wife and two children.

Now, many Division I coaches have families and children. Time away is a sacrifice that comes with the territory.

For both Mullins and his athletes, rifle season never truly ends. Currently, multiple UK shooters are competing abroad in international competitions as they continue to improve their skills and attempt to stay sharp for the upcoming season. Meanwhile, back home, Mullins is keeping tabs on his athletes and setting up his game plan for the 2013-14 season.

Ideally, Mullins would be traveling with his shooters.

"Typically I would be out there, but for family reasons and meetings here I wasn't able to stay at the nationals," said Mullins. "Typically I would be there for a lot of the matches."

Mullins takes seriously responsibilities he has as a father. And during the summer, he takes advantage of the additional spare time to be with his kids. His two children, Taylor (12) and Ethan (9), provide an escape from the job, but in several ways, he draws inspiration for his profession from the experiences with his kids.

Ethan is spending his summer much like most 9-year-old boys. He's playing baseball, going fishing with his dad and hanging out with friends. He leads what most would call a "normal life."

His sister Taylor does not.

Taylor is a special-needs child. She doesn't speak. She struggles to grasp concepts that other 12-year-old girls understand readily. She is essentially a 2-year-old in a 12-year-old's body. Taylor also suffers from epilepsy, experiencing anywhere from one to 10 seizures a day. Some are very small while others are of a greater magnitude.

Both children, despite their differences, manage to teach Mullins something new nearly every day.

When he gets to go check out one of Ethan's baseball games, Mullins' mind is never far off from his rifle team, even though the two sports have little in common.

"The crazy part about it is, when you experience something in your personal life, nine out of 10 times you relate it back," said Mullins. "A prime example is my son's little-league team. I've enjoyed watching them play, and I've learned so much from them.

"As I watch, I sit there and watch them go through those dynamics and I'm like, 'We need to do this with our team and we need to do that.' "

The lessons learned from Taylor have been abundant as well as she approaches her 13th birthday in July. As often as he can, Mullins takes advantage of the opportunities he has with his daughter. His goal this summer is very simple: take time.

"It's fun because she starts to grasp concepts more and more," said Mullins. "To celebrate the time with her to take the nice and pretty days to go to the park or to do things like that, I look forward to that."

But taking time isn't always easy, especially when it comes to Taylor. Sometimes that fishing trip with Ethan takes two years organize between balancing a hectic schedule between Mullins and his wife and finding someone who can watch over Taylor, which is a difficult task on its own.

It's not easy, Mullins will tell you. Life with Taylor is a challenge. Mullins will also tell you that Taylor is his "best buddy" and that she has taught him some of life's most valuable lessons, which makes that time completely gratifying.

"She probably is the epitome of unconditional love and faith and trust to where it doesn't matter what you do, she's still going to love you because you're her dad," said Mullins. "The smile that she has on her face kind of makes a lot of the rough stuff go away."

She helps Mullins keep everything in perspective. While there are others out there searching for the cure for cancer or trying to devise alternate energy sources, Taylor is trying to learn to dress herself, for example.

"It makes you appreciate life a little bit more on the tough days and realize that we have the ability to lead what we would consider a normal life and to embrace that," said Mullins. "The things she goes through weren't choices. It wasn't the result of poor choices. It's just the cards that nature dealt her and she tries to make the best out of it.

"As a caregiver, as her parent, you have to make the best of it. You have to look at yourself in the mirror and say, 'I can sit here and feel sorry for myself and bury my head in the sand, or accept it.' Not that you necessarily want to. You constantly fight to try to make things better, find cures, whatever you want to call it, to make her life the best that it can be under the conditions. It's kind of acclimating her to the world and the world to her, and then creating a world around her within means to lead somewhat of a fruitful life in her world.

"Learning from that, I think, in the day-to-day operations in the thing that you do, I've learned that you can go to bed mad, but you better not wake up mad. You've got to start the day with some positive motivation. You can let some things drag you down, but at the end of the day, you refill your tank and get back to it."

Mullins lives out that philosophy as each and every year his Wildcats have a chance to be special. Sometimes they are. Sometimes they win the national championship as they did in 2011 or fall just short with a runner-up finish like in 2013. Regardless of the result, it's not long after that Mullins is refueling, looking forward and putting a plan in place for the following season.

Those lessons are entirely applicable to the range. The only problem is getting them across to the athletes. Without having to deal with those challenges, it's much more difficult to appreciate the concepts that Mullins hopes to convey.

That will be Mullins' next challenge in 2013.

"If you are having a tough day in the classroom, you have to leave that outside the training facilities," said Mullins. "Sometimes, I actually get frustrated and I try not to tell them, 'Woe is me. I just spent the morning cleaning up and caring after Taylor. Your life is not that tough.' I can't compare myself to them, though. I'm 50 years old. But to get them to understand and grasp that you have to put things behind you, but learn from them so that in the future great things can be achieved."

That is Mullins' hope for his returning group of shooters who just missed out on a national championship last season. Kentucky will need to be able to move on from the disappointment of not cashing in while remembering the lessons they learned along the way.

If there's been one aspect of Taylor's life that has inspired Mullins the most, it's her determination to get what she wants. Often Taylor will approach one parent when she wants something, and if she doesn't get the desired answer, she'll move to the next one. That's one concept that she understands quite well.

"We always strive to get better. Sometimes the scoreboard goes in your favor," said Mullins. "Now we're not going to be happy when it's not, just like when Taylor is frustrated and does things, she's not happy, but trying to get her to understand.

"To learn from her, to have to back up sometimes and look at the problem from a different angle or different viewpoints that aren't exactly in the norm, that I definitely think has impacted me because I study her when she wants to get things."

It's a simple concept, but determination and motivation are two keys to success in sports and life every day. Mullins wants to get another national championship, but more importantly, he wants his athletes to give their best effort and be hard workers, because as a father, that's what he values most.

That is why each and every season Kentucky has a chance to be great: because a great man - and a great father - is leading the way.

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