Throws coach Andrew Ninow has implemented a new training program since his arrival at UK. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
When Edrick Floreal decided to uproot his staff at Stanford and try and rebuild the Kentucky track and field program, he envisioned a program-wide change in philosophy.
That change was immediate and implemented on the spot. When he first met with his team, the message was clear.
"The first team meeting we had with Coach Floreal he basically said everyone needs to improve or you're going to be gone," said junior thrower Isiah Kent. "I think that kind of hit home with some people. I know for the throwers squad, as soon as we heard that, we knew we had to get going."
One of the most important carryovers from Floreal's staff was throws coach Andrew Ninow, who spent four seasons coaching with him at Stanford.
Ninow, one of bright young minds in the sport, was a key hire for Kentucky as he was taking over an already established stable of talent. The throwers at Kentucky had two All-American throwers before Ninow ever arrived on campus in Andrew Evans and Raymond Dykstra.
Early on this season, however, it's been Kent and his training partner Bradley Szypka that have been making waves for the UK throwers. Ninow might have something to do with that.
"I came out the first meet this year and threw a personal record in the shot put," said Kent. "I have to give all the credit to (Ninow). He knows what works for me."
UK currently has two throwers in the top 17 in the nation in the indoor shot put. Kent sits currently No. 17 at 59-02.75 and is chasing Szypka who is knocking on the door of the top10 at No. 11 with a throw of 60-03.00. After strong 2011-12 seasons, both are reaping the benefits of the new throwing program. It's been a complete overhaul in philosophy for the throwers and the results are already showing as UK track and field prepares to host the Rod McCravy Memorial Meet on Friday and Saturday.
"I'm throwing farther," said redshirt freshman Beckie Famurewa. "Not as far as I'd like, I'm obviously never happy, but I know I have the potential in me. I'm a lot more positive about my throwing now, so that's a good thing."
The biggest change in Kentucky's training regiment has been a shift from the weight room back to the track. While there is still a strong emphasis on weight training, Ninow believes that the key to quality throws is increasing the "volume" of throws, or the amount, each day.
"We do lift hard and we're aggressive in the weight room, but our focus is more on the throwing and the movement and a lot, a lot of throwing," said Ninow. "So we probably double the amount of movements they do each day. I think that's my big philosophy because they're more comfortable with what they do."
Ninow's throwers at Stanford had an impressive track record. During his time there, he coached five conference champions and five top-10 and three top-three NCAA finishers. His outside-the-box training philosophies have played a big part in those performances.
Though he's quick to give credit to his former coach at UCLA, Art Venegas, for most of the basics of his coaching and lifting philosophies, he's made several tweaks of his own.
At UCLA, athletes focused heavy on mechanics of the throwing motion with sophisticated movement and drills. But there, they put great energy into high-intensity, low-volume throwing while undergoing high-intensity weight training. He's also added speed training.
"I feel like we're athletes now," said Kent. "We're not just weight-room strong. We can go do a whole variety of things. The increase in volume was big because obviously if you want to get better at what you do, you need to do it more."
When he got to Stanford as a coach, he started tailoring that system to best fit his athletes. With such high academic standards at Stanford, only a few athletes each season could even qualify to compete. In other words, Ninow didn't so much pick his prospective student-athletes. They picked Stanford. That's where the real work began.
"It forces you as a coach to be more creative," said Ninow. "Through that creative process I just kind of liked what I saw. So I've just kind of built on it."
That's why Floreal felt it was important to bring Ninow along with him to the Bluegrass.
"Andrew is a student of the sport," Floreal said. "He eats, drinks and breaths throws. That's his passion."
The transition from Stanford, a place where Floreal and his staff flourished, was a process. For Ninow, it was nearly seamless. It was an important opportunity for him and his wife to start a family with a lower cost of living. While dealing with the obvious culture shock of his new environment, Ninow quickly got to work with his new group of athletes.
Luckily for him, he had arguably the strongest unit of the UK program when he arrived.
"For me, it wasn't as much of a challenge," said Ninow. "I came with some great athletes. I think the throwers are definitely the most productive and talented squad right now. It was an easy transition because they work so hard and they are just very talented and hard-working people.
Instead of having to start from scratch with each of the athletes, Ninow got to focus on the finer details of his craft. With the returning crop of throwers already throwing at a high level, it was his responsibility to elevate them to the next level. Some of those finer details include throwing different weight implements, how many throws each athlete makes every day and their weight lifting program.
"With them, it's more about adding some paint, a little decor and some lawn and you can get going, so it's a little easier," said Ninow, using an apt metaphor for a group of coaches who have had to find new homes in Lexington.
The Kentucky throwers have maintained a high performance level while facing adversity over the last two seasons. This season marks the third straight season that UK will have a new throws coach.
For Famurewa, she was recruited by one coach. She had a different coach when she finally got to UK. Now she and the rest of the throwers have a modicum of stability with Ninow in the fold.
"The change has been nice," said Famurewa. "I like it personally, but I don't know. I was just a freshman, so last year I didn't know any better. This year, I'm more like, 'OK, the change is out of the way. I'm ready to throw.' That's all that really mattered to me."
Floreal, Ninow and the rest of the staff's new philosophy has their athletes thinking big.
Famurewa and Kent each expressed their desire to make the NCAA championships. Kent went on to say he has his eyes set on joining Evans and Dykstra as All-Americans. With the way things are looking for the throwers so far, those seem more like than just hopes and dreams.
"I think the strength in any program is in who gets to nationals," said Ninow. "Getting people to the 'Big Dance' so to speak, that's what you shoot for. For them, it's about getting to those marks.
"It's getting to nationals and getting an opportunity to do something on the national stage for the team. That's the highest level for us collegiately and that's where I want them to be to at the very least experience it and maybe get a few points and put up an All-American on that wall."
Men's basketball • Kentucky dropped its first SEC home opener in the John Calipari era to the hot-shooting Texas A&M Aggies behind a 40-point effort from Elston Turner on Saturday. • UK freshman Nerlens Noel had his best game in the blue and white with 15 points, 11 rebounds, seven blocks, six assists and four steals. He's the first player in the NCAA to put up those numbers in a single game since 1996-97. • Sophomore Ryan Harrow scored in double-figures in the sixth-straight game with 14 points, while freshman Archie Goodwin led the squad with 17 points. Women's basketball • No. 6/6 Kentucky improved to 16-1 overall, 4-0 in the SEC and increased its school-record winning streak to 15 after hard-fought wins over the league's newest members No. 20/21 Texas A&M (65-52) and Missouri (69-43) last week. • Against the Aggies, the Wildcats rallied from a six-point half time deficit, using its tenacious defense along with the hot shooting of reigning SEC Player of the Year A'dia Mathies and redshirt sophomore point guard Jennifer O'Neill. Mathies hit three of her four 3-pointers in the second half for 11 of her season-high 23 points, while O'Neill added 15 points and a career-high eight assists in the win. • The Cats traveled to Missouri for the first time in program history on Sunday and again, it was their pressure defense that sealed the victory and snapped the Tigers' 11-game home winning streak. The Tigers, who came into the game leading the nation in 3-pointers made per game with 9.9, were limited to a season-low two 3-pointers. UK also held Missouri's Morgan Eye, the nation's leading 3-point shooter, to just six points and zero treys for the first time this season.
Gymnastics • The University of Kentucky gymnastics team performed solidly on all four events to gather an overall team score of 195.525, in a win at Auburn on Friday night. • The win was Kentucky's first SEC road victory in a dual meet since 1999, and the first SEC season-opening win since 2008. • The Wildcats are off to the best start in school history as they've compiled two straight scores more than 195 to begin a season for the first time ever. • Junior Audrey Harrison posted a 39.2 to win her first career SEC dual all-around competition, and her fifth career all-around title. • Overall, Kentucky earned 13 season or career-high scores in the meet. Rifle • The Kentucky rifle team won its first match of the spring Sunday with a 4705 - 4687 victory over No. 4 Alaska-Fairbanks. • Senior Henri Junghänel led the Wildcats with an aggregate score of 1184, delivering a 590 in smallbore to go along with a 594 in air rifle. • The Wildcats had a strong showing across the board in air rifle with all six shooters breaking the 590 barrier.
Track and field • Bradley Szypka, Cally Macumber and Darryl Bradshaw dazzled the home crowd in Nutter Field House as all three took event titles on Saturday at the Kentucky Invitational, the Wildcats' first home meet of the season. • Szypka won the shot put for the second consecutive meet with a personal record of 18:36m/60-03.0, which came on his final throw. The mark gave him the No. 4 shot put in the nation this season as of Saturday evening. • Macumber won the mile in PR time of 4:42.30, as she pulled away from the field, which included two unattached runners who competed in the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials at 800 meters. • The cross country All-American's time - in her first run of the indoor season - currently ranks as second-fastest mile in the country this season. • Bradshaw won the men's 60-meter hurdles in 8:07, while Brandon Bagley took fifth in the event with a time of 8.24. • Kadeem Kushimo also turned in a PR time of 47.85 in the 400m, which was the best run by a collegiate competitor in the event. The sophomore finished second overall. Upcoming schedule
Head coach Edrick Floreal makes his home debut this weekend at the Kentucky Invitational. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Friday evening marks another important first for track and field head coach Edrick Floreal. Though the 2012-13 track and field season is already underway, this weekend's Kentucky Invitational marks Floreal's first home event since taking over last summer.
When Floreal arrived in Lexington, he knew changes had to be made and that a new era in the Kentucky program would begin under his leadership. It didn't take long him start making a serious impact on the program.
The cross country team went to new heights in 2012, including impressive seasons for Cally Macumber, Chelsea Oswald and Luis Orta with the assistance of coaches Jason Dunn and Hakon DeVries. Macumber and Oswald were both All-Americans and Macumber an SEC champion and sixth-place finisher at the NCAA National Championships.
With the rapid rate of improvement, it's fair to wonder if the track and field results will parallel the cross country success.
"I certainly expect so," said Floreal.
Floreal's success is tied to the desire and dedication of college-age student-athletes and motivating them to achieve greatness with so many distractions can be an ongoing battle.
"You're at the mercy of 18 to 22 year olds," said Floreal. "We are powerful, but we're also powerless because in the end 18 year olds have to deliver the goods. They have to deal with their own nerves."
The day-to-day realities of a college athlete can be overbearing. There are relationships, school, family and countless other variables that could affect performance. The challenge is finding ways to break through and continue to propel his athletes to greatness to meet his goals for the program.
So far, the plan to get there is right on schedule.
"The first goal was to change the culture to get our kids to believe and compete at the highest level of the SEC," said Floreal. "That they belong here. They belong in the SEC."
If the cross country performance last fall wasn't enough validation of that, the first indoor track and field meet of the season in Bloomington, Ind., should have sealed the deal. The Wildcats won nine individual events at Indiana including a record-breaking performance from Morganne Phillips.
Phillips broke a 25-year-old Gladstien Fieldhouse record in the 300 meters with a winning time of 37.70 seconds. Bradley Szypka and Isiah Kent each had huge performances in the shot put that day and their marks stood as the first- and third-best throws in the country respectively at that point.
Those three, along with another handful of athletes on Kentucky's men's and women's teams, would be categorized by Floreal as "elite." There are several more on the cusp of that status, but it's an ongoing process to get those in-between athletes to believe they belong.
Floreal likened his athletes to students who only see themselves capable of getting Cs in school. If they don't think they can be A students, then they never will be. Floreal is constantly pushing his athletes to see themselves as an A athlete before they can perform like one.
"You've got to see an A before I got out there and perform like an A," said Floreal. "Changing the image, the reflection in the mirror, is sometimes easy for some people and very difficult for others."
That change, not only for the program but for the individual athletes as well, can come from many different avenues.
Floreal - much like head men's basketball coach John Calipari, he explained - wants his athletes to fall in love with training just as Calipari wants his players to fall in love with the gym. Whether it's voluntary or forced isn't important. For the head coach, it's by any means necessary.
"Drag them, kicking and screaming, a swift kick in the butt to get them there, encourage them, and pat them on the butt," said Floreal. "Any way you can get the better result. There are no limits to what coaches will do."
Once they get there and commit to working hard, the hope is that it becomes a labor of love, especially once they start to see the results.
"Your hope is that by being in the gym so long shooting, after awhile it's like, 'Alright, fine. I'll just keep doing it,' " said Floreal. "Or you've got a guy that realizes that, 'I've been in the gym all these hours and my shot's beginning to fall.' So then they fall in love with time in the gym and it equals better points per game.
"Then the addiction comes because the guy thinks, 'More time in the gym, I'll hit the shots even better.'"
Another way the team improves is via the self-motivated athletes. Athletes like Macumber, Phillips and Szypka are raising the bar not only for themselves and the team, but at the national level. They are becoming the stars. The motivation for their teammates comes from trying to match or outdo their friends and teammates while creating a competitive atmosphere within the training process.
"They don't just help (the staff)," said Floreal. "They help their teammates because the bar is raised so high that anybody that aspires to be a star of the team, well this is the new bar. This is the person you have to take down. It's the biggest motivator."
What might prove to be a larger motivator would be a packed Nutter Fieldhouse this weekend when UK hosts its first indoor event of the season Friday beginning at 5 p.m. It's been Floreal's goal from the onset to build the fan base. The first home meet of the Floreal era is an important one in the continuing process of growing his program.
Floreal sees an improved fan experience as a way to get more fans to attend. More fans equal a better home atmosphere. A better home atmosphere could lead to a home field advantage for the athletes. It could be the extra push his athletes need to take their performances to the next level.
"People have to come because it makes the student athletes feel like, 'Oh my goodness. There are people in the stands. I want to perform for them,' " said Floreal. "If there's nobody else there, it takes their zip away."
So how does Floreal hope to improve the atmosphere other than an improved team?
They've brought the bleachers closer to the finish line so that fans can "reach out and touch the athletes." They are bringing fans into the infield for a more intimate perspective. They've shortened the length of the meet so that it's no longer an all-day affair.
Floreal is excited, and anxious, to show off the culmination of all the changes they've made as a program to the home crowd.
"I think it's a mixture of excitement and nerves," said Floreal. "You want people to leave with a good impression of what you're trying to display, what you're trying to put out there from a Big Blue Nation track standpoint. I'm a little nervous because I want things to be perfect. It's a new era and we're trying to do things a little different."
Just months into his tenure as head coach of Kentucky track and field and cross country, Edrick Floreal has already seen results.
During the cross country season, the Wildcats improved significantly, with Cally Macumber and Chelsea Oswald each earning All-America honors and Luis Orta joining them at the NCAA Championships. The Cats also participated in their first track meet of the season last week at Indiana with encouraging finishes by many athletes.
As head track and field coach at the University of Kentucky, Edrick Floreal sometimes morphs into his alter ego:
Edrick the Entertainer.
Hired by UK last July to replace the retired Don Weber, Floreal and his staff are on the brink of bringing new twists to the program.
For instance, the annual Rod McCravy Memorial meet in Nutter Field House will feature elevated runways on the infield and temporary stands that will reduce the homestretch to six lanes.
A new facility will enable UK to host a collegiate outdoor meet for the first time since the Southeastern Conference Championships in 1996.
Floreal says he learned plenty at Stanford, where he succeeded Vin Lananna as head coach when the latter took over at Oberlin and, later, Oregon. Lananna stressed making the sport fan friendly.
"I don't want to just be a track coach," Floreal said Wednesday at his desk inside UK's Joe Craft Center. "I want to be sort of an entertainer -- a guy that's out there with the public doing community service, get the community to know you a little bit more. You really worry about the fan and about the community enjoying the sport."
Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart (left) and track and field head coach Edrick Floreal (right), spoke during the grand opening of the new outdoor track and field facility. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
The baton has officially been passed.
The outdoor track and field facility was filled with celebratory emotions and several members who played key roles in the entire process Friday evening, as the grand opening was held in effort to unveil the new facility to the public.
The outdoor facility has been a long awaited for project and was only made possibly by the help of many members within the University of Kentucky athletic department and its supporters.
"This has been a long time coming for a lot of people," UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said.
Barnhart got the night started by speaking in front of many track and field boosters, former coaches and athletes, members of the UK athletic department and special guest and Lexington native, Tyson Gay.
Perhaps the biggest influence in the entire plan was former track and field coach Don Weber. Weber coached the Wildcat track program for more than three decades and was a devoted member of the athletic department.
"Don is a guy that has been absolutely critical in getting this thing going and he was so patient," Barnhart said. "He has been an unbelievable guy in our department for 30 years and he waited his turn. He didn't have the luxury of this facility to recruit but he did have a vision for what he wanted it to be and we owe him a great deal of gratitude for that."
What Coach Weber did was pretty amazing and it takes a special person to build a program up and pass it on to someone else. Barnhart described Weber as an unbelievable person with great humility.
Weber did joke with the attendees saying that after coaching 34 years, had he known the new track would open up this year he may have hung around for a 35th season. Weber did speak very highly of the two people he left the program to and is confident they will take it to the next level.
"The most significant thing that ever happened in UK athletics, happened in 2002 when (then-UK president) Dr. (Lee) Todd hired Mitch Barnhart as the Athletic Director," Weber said. "Mitch is building quality, competitive teams in every sport we have here. A lot of people are very grateful for what he has brought us."
First-year head coach Edrick Floreal is taking over for Weber and the two have a personal relationship with each other. They have associated with each other in the past and Weber knows just what kind of work Floreal is capable of.
Weber assured the crowd that Floreal would take the program to new heights and has no doubt he will be a force for years to come.
"I know Coach Floreal and when I think of him, the one thing I know about Edrick, he is a worker," Weber said. "I described him to (UK administrator and head strength coach) Stephanie (Tracey-Simmons) and Mitch, he's a worker, but he's more than a worker, he's a force."
One of the greatest moments in UK track and field history came back in 1992, when the indoor track and field facility was built. Now that Kentucky has added the outdoor venue, Weber believes UK has the best infrastructures in all of college track and field.
With the new additions, Weber says Floreal and his staff will build the most competitive track team in the history of the University of Kentucky.
It then was Floreal's turn to take the microphone, just as it is now his turn to lead the track program.
He opened up thanking everyone for supporting the program and allowing this to happen, but he quickly shifted gears and gave everyone an example of the type of coach he will be. He will not settle for anything and always wants to keep improving.
"If you have gone this far, I figure you can go a little bit further," Floreal said. "My message is simple, if you guys have gone this far in supporting Don, I'm hoping you can go a little further...This is just the beginning, it's the warm-up. Now we've got to get to the actual workout."
Now that the baton has officially been passed, it's time to get the track program rolling again and soaring to greater heights.
As Floreal was wrapping up his message, he explained to the fans where the program currently stands. He assured them that he is not here to fail and he and his staff will work tirelessly in order to win. In the end, he gave the crowd a hint that trophies will start piling in.
"If you guys thought the job was done, we are just starting," Floreal said. "Don got the basement going, he got it insulated. Now we've got to get a first floor, we've got to get a second, we have to get a third and if we are lucky we might even get an attic and that's where you keep the trophies."
Luis Orta started his senior season with a first-place finish in the Belmont Opener this weekend. (UK Athletics)
There is a bit of a buzz around the University of Kentucky's track and field/cross country program. Those around the athletic department see the sport as ready to take off under newly appointed head coach Edrick Floreal, but it won't happen overnight. Floreal and his staff have brought along a system from Stanford that many of his athletes are new to.
The athletes' bodies are taking a toll from the jumping and hurdle training Floreal and the staff are presenting to them but, overall, the athletes have responded positively to the adjustments.
In Floreal's first meet as the head coach, he saw his Wildcats take home second place in both the men's and women's races at the Belmont Opener in Nashville, Tenn.
Senior men's runner Luis Orta claimed first in the season opener for the third consecutive season. Although Orta's finish followed suit with his previous seasons, not everything went as planned.
"We didn't race with spikes," Orta said. "For me winning the race and for my teammates finishing so close to me without spikes was huge."
Wearing spikes is a different type of running for distance athletes and can cause their calves and legs to become sore if they have not trained long enough with them.
The decision to not wear spikes was surprising amongst the team but that did not hold them back from competing. Instead, they put all of their trust in the coaching staff.
"Yeah I kind of opposed it at first because when I race I want to win and I don't want to give my opponents an advantage," Orta said. "Coach told me everything will be all right and there will be a time for that. I said, 'Okay coach I'll do whatever you tell me to do.'
"The first two miles I thought about it and didn't feel that fast but then in the last mile it didn't matter and I think I can race like that any day. I felt super strong in the end."
Compared to what the team has gone through in the offseason, the spikes were a minor change in the system the coaching staff has presented.
Perhaps the biggest change the cross country team has experienced is the amount of miles run in training. The team has upped their total miles from 50 to over 80 a week. Another addition to the coaching transition has been the exercises aimed to strengthen each runner's body. The team has worked a lot on their core, upper body and legs, including push-ups and abs workouts.
The reactions to the adjustments are seemingly unanimous. The players and coaching staff agree it will take time before they see great results but sense positive signs they are headed in the right direction.
"I think for them it's just getting used to the way I do things," Floreal said. "I think everything has been positive so far. We are excited about the way things are going with the changes and I think the team is excited about doing more together as a team.
"I think there is a good foundation that Don Weber put together and now we are taking the baton and building the rest of the house. We've got a basement and now we've got to build a first, second, and third floor and sometimes it's a little more difficult but nonetheless it's the challenge we have at hand."
The squad is not set to race again until Sept. 22, when they travel to Charlottesville, Va., for the Virginia/Panorama Farms Invitational. Assistant coach Jason Dunn works with the male distance runners, while assistant Hakon DeVries is in charge of the females.
Dunn and DeVries came to UK with Floreal and experienced their first meet this past weekend in Nashville. With the race being the first of the year, Dunn knew the team wouldn't be flawless, but he did like what he saw.
"It was exciting to have the first meet for me in Kentucky blue," Dunn said. "We know we've got a lot of work and training to do so we didn't expect to be at the top of our game by any stretch, but it was encouraging to see where some of the guys are at. It was nice to see Luis win the race and it was a good start to the season."
Orta won the heat with a time of 15:16.70. The Caracas, Venezuela native was a first team All-Southeastern Conference selection and garnered three SEC Runner of the Week accolades in 2011.
Orta has been a committed runner for UK since his freshman season and continues to show leadership and determination even through the transitions over the summer. He constantly wants to get better and will do whatever it takes to help himself and the team improve.
"He's going to have to be a guy for the entire team that people can look at and say that's the model that is needed to be successful at UK," Floreal said. "He's a unique and special kid that accepts the demands from the coaching staff and understands the expectations and leadership that is going to be put on him. He's willing to do whatever it takes to become the best athlete he can possibly be and set an example for the rest of the team."
The season is young, and a second place finish at the Belmont Opener is a teaser for what this program could offer to UK Athletics this year and in years to come. The coaches are sticking with the same philosophy they have always believed in and have the players buying in on the process.
One of the biggest hiccups is trying to change the habits that have been instilled in the athletes. Weber was a very successful coach and accomplished many great things at UK, producing numerous NCAA and SEC champions. That time is over and Floreal is bringing a new era to the program.
"It's going to take time because you cannot make a change so drastic that quickly," Orta said. "Everyone is happy with the new coaches because we know they are great coaches and it reflects from the training. I've worked harder than I've ever worked in my four years at Kentucky and the team is excited about the change."
Over at UKNow, Sarah Geegan has a story about Cailin Harris and Daniel Buckles from the women's soccer and track and field teams, respectively, Harris - a freshman - and Buckles - a sophomore - are both students in the University of Kentucky's Honors Program, in addition to competing for UK Athletics.
The story talks about Harris and Buckles balance school and sports. Here's an excerpt:
Each year, more than 500 UK students get involved through UK Athletics, programs that carry rich tradition. However, freshman Cailin Harris and sophomore Daniel Buckles took their involvement one step further, engaging in a program that upholds another aspect of the UK tradition -- the UK Honors Program.
Buckles, a decathlete on the Men's Track and Field team estimated that he spends at least 20-25 extra hours per week between the two programs, unsurprisingly touting time management as the most important factor in balancing his commitments. However, he and Harris, a member of the Women's Soccer team, both said that this double involvement actually enhanced both programs -- allowing them to gain skills from one program and apply them to the other.
"It can be really easy to make excuses in terms of grades, but the soccer program is an environment that responds to any mistakes with hard work," Harris said. "I think that translates really well to school. If I don't understand a concept, do I mope about it or do I go get extra help? Do I try to find resources that are going to help me get the grade I want? That is something that I have built up, in the short time I've been with this soccer program."
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.
Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart introduced Edrick Floreal as the head coach of UK track and field and cross country on Thursday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Edrick Floreal thought he was heading to a two-week "vacation" before he really got down to business at his new job. Kentucky's recently named head track and field and cross country coach would serve as Team USA's coach for jumps and combined events, where he assumed he would rub shoulders with some of the world's best athletes in a relaxed environment.
He turned out to be half-right.
Six of his athletes won medals at the Olympics - including Ashton Eaton and Trey Hardee, who took gold and silver in the decathlon - but Floreal had to do a lot more than just hold a stopwatch. Floreal was a two-time Olympian himself in 1988 and 1992, so his athletes trusted him. And relied on him. A lot.
"The guys really wanted me to be involved and they wanted to have no responsibility," Floreal said. "That's what they told me: 'We want you to do everything. You've been there, you've been to the Olympics, you've competed so we trust. We want you to tell us what time to be at the track. We want you to meet us at the bus.' "
After two weeks of 15-hour days on his supposed vacation, Floreal was likely ready for a break, but he's getting no such thing. Eighteen days before the Opening Ceremonies in London, Floreal was named the coach at UK. Four days after the Closing Ceremonies, he was at a press conference being introduced to the media and fans by his new boss.
"I'm not sure he knows what time zone he's in right now," Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart said. "But we're glad he's in ours."
He had a chance to begin to cobble together a staff and get to know his new athletes, but the real work begins now, along with the process of moving his family into a new home, though he admits his wife - LaVonna Martin-Floreal - will lead that charge.
With the success Floreal was having in his old job, not many would have figured he, his wife and his four children would be moving anytime soon. In 2011, Floreal led both the Cardinal men and women to top-15 national outdoor finishes. His six-year head-coaching tenure saw more than 50 athletes earn 142 All-American honors. Floreal was also a four-time Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Coach of the Year, the 2009 West Regional Indoor Coach of the Year and the 2006 West Regional Outdoor Coach of the Year.
He had built a consistent winner, a program that succeeded both on the track and off, but a three-year stretch as an assistant had always stuck with him. From 1996-98, Floreal served under his predecessor, Don Weber, at UK. More than a decade later, the lure of coaching in Lexington had always remained in the back of his mind, and his wife - the 1992 silver medalist in the 100-meter hurdles - sensed it too.
"A long, long time ago, my wife asked me, we were sitting having dinner and she said, 'You know what? Would you go back to UK?' " Floreal said. "And I said, 'Oh, in a heartbeat.' "
Earlier this summer, Barnhart put Floreal's off-handed answer to the test, initiating a conversation about succeeding Don Weber at UK at the Olympic Trials in Portland, Ore.
"When I came back from the Olympic Trials, I said, 'Remember that heartbeat thing we talked about a long time ago?' " Floreal said. "She was like, 'Yeah.' 'We'll that's going to happen.' We sort of chuckled and she knew right away. She said, 'I've already found a house.' "
However, the ultimate decision was not so easy. Floreal had built relationships with administrators, in the community and, most importantly, with his pupils, so telling them of his plans was difficult.
"If it wasn't tough, I wouldn't be able to coach," Floreal said. "It's tough to look at an 18-year old in the face and say your coach, your mentor, your friend and the person that's been sort of leading your way has to go somewhere else and be someone else's mentor."
It was what he saw in Kentucky, what he thought the track program could become that made him willing to turn to the next page in his career.
"Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder...In my eyes, what I see here, what I see that this place has to offer, I'm not going to try to explain it to anybody else because nobody else can understand," Floreal said. "That's for me. It's what I'm into. It's what I'm after and this place has what I look for. That's all I care about."
Not everyone may share his opinion, but he doesn't care. He knows his new assistants - Hakon DeVries, Jason Dunn and Andrew Ninow, all of whom come from Stanford - do, he knows Barnhart does and he knows his Wildcats eventually will. He wants to help the young people he works with grow in every facet of life. He wants to make lasting impacts on their future.
"I want to mentor young people enough to make an impact that when they grow older and they've got kids, hopefully their middle name can be Edrick," said Floreal.
If Floreal's charismatic performance on Thursday is any indication, getting current athletes and future recruits to buy in will be no issue. Media in attendance commented that Floreal's question-and-answer session was the early favorite for UK press conference of the year, saying even John Calipari would have a tough task in outdoing Floreal's combination of thoughtful answers and amusing one-liners.
He was at once self-deprecating in pointing out his wife's superior athletic accomplishments and supremely confident in speaking about the future, and engaging from start to finish.
"I typically shoot from the hip so what you hear is what you get," Floreal said. "Maybe I need to filter a little bit more."
That honesty was on display as Floreal offered his appraisal of where the program is now and where he wants it to go. He is adamant in his belief that UK track and field is a sleeping giant, that Lexington is "a logical place for great athletes to come," but he also knows there will be growing pains. The discipline and training habits he will demand of his athletes may come as a shock in the short term and the results may not come overnight, but he has a vision.
"Those who hear not the music think the dancer is mad," Floreal said, quoting a saying on his office door. "A lot of people are going to think I'm mad, but I have a tune in my head and I can hear it. By the time I'm done, people here will hear that too."
Floreal expects to compete at a high level and he's not talking in terms of rebuilding. He plans to hit the ground running and not stop anytime soon. He wouldn't be here if he didn't think Kentucky couldn't compete at the highest level.
"I'm not interested in participating if I don't have a chance to win," Floreal said. "That's not a game I want to play. I truly believe I have a chance to win here and we're going to find a way to do it. I can't say when, but I can tell you it's going to be as soon as possible."
With plenty of work ahead and barely two weeks before the start of the cross country season, it might be a while before Floreal gets that vacation.