Matthew Mitchell Spring Press Conference

Kentucky Women’s Basketball
Matthew Mitchell News Conference 
Memorial Coliseum – Lexington, Ky.
April 27, 2016


Kentucky Head Coach Matthew Mitchell


Opening statement…
“Thanks everybody for coming in today. Right off the bat, I want to tell you all responsibility for what happens in the program falls on my shoulders 100%. I am responsible ultimately for the results that we get. There is no doubt that the way things look today are not how we want them to look, and that ultimately falls on my shoulders. I want to make sure everybody understands that we need to make improvements; there’s no question about it.  I have a lot of confidence in the strengths we’ve used to build the program at this point, because this is a good program. A lot of good people have worked hard to build the program to one that we are all proud of.  Everything that has happened over the last couple of years is definitely my responsibility, and I am happy to talk to you about it. I appreciate the people in this room who have covered this program, and you have been very fair to me and I will sit as long as you want to sit and answer whatever questions you have as long as you want to ask them, because I want to make sure and make clear how I see things and what our path forward is.  Jenna (Mitchell) and I have devoted our lives to this place, and this is our university, and this is our city, and this is our community where we want to raise our family. There is nothing more important than that to us, and we want this to be a great place.  We believe it to be a great place and will continue to be. Every bit of strength that I’ve had to get the program to the point where it is now, from the success standpoint on the court, that’s come from God.  I’m very plain about that and very serious about that, and I thank Him for the strength that He’s given me.  And that’s the strength that will get us through this tough patch. I have every bit of faith in that, and no doubt whatsoever that we will learn from where we’ve made mistakes, and ultimately, where I have made mistakes.  I’ll be glad to try to explain everything that I can.  It’s probably not going to be in 10 minutes.  I’m here to answer whatever questions, however long you want to, and I thank you for being here.”

On feedback from players and parents regarding the departures of both athletes and staff…
“Well, right now, we really played the season with 10 players.  We played a large majority of the season with 10 scholarship players; nine of those were eligible with one transfer (Makenzie Cann) sitting and couldn’t play. With one graduating in Janee Thompson and Ivana Jakubcova transferring, graduating, she’s a graduate transfer, and Batouly (Camara) transferring, the seven players that we have remaining in the room, it is a tough time for them.  There is a lot of uncertainty with what’s going on. There’s been staff upheaval and staff changes, and that is hard on the players. Very hard. It is a very tough time for them. You can see it in their faces; when we spend a lot of time talking to them, there is apprehension about how we move forward. So what I must do is be very strong and firm, and let them know that there’s a path forward. And that’s starting to come into focus, but there’s no question it’s hard. What I have appreciated is their resilience, their toughness up to this point. And I don’t take that for granted, and I am trying to be there for them every single day. But what I’ve particularly appreciated is the support of the parents. I’ve spoken with every parent of those seven players, and that response has given me tremendous confidence and strength. I’ve had unwavering support, overwhelming support, from that group of people and candid engagement from them, and that is appreciated. So we are appreciative of that, and there’s a lot of people in that room and their parents who really believe in what’s going on and what this program stands for, and what it has stood for, and who I am as a person.  I certainly appreciate that.  We have a lot of work to do, though, there’s no question about that. We have a lot of work to do to make sure that I do a better job communicating with people and making sure that people understand where they fit and what their roles are, and I can improve in that. No doubt about it. But I have been very appreciative of the response from the seven kids in the room right now and their parents.”

On improving communication with recruits regarding the changes…
“For me, that has been a very involved process over the years. What we’re looking for, at Kentucky, is ultimate success. This is a place where a young woman can come and develop as a total person. She can develop personally, academically, and athletically. That’s the goal and when we do that, we believe we’re going to go to Final Fours and win championships. I don’t stay still. If you look back to the beginning of the program, we had some success in the third year that really changed the trajectory and dynamic of the program. I have been very public about this that over the course of that seven year period where we’ve gone to seven straight NCAA Tournaments and have had success that we’ve never had here before. That’s a dynamic situation and I’ve learned a lot as far as what we really want to do in recruiting and whom we really want to recruit. That’s taken time. That is a process that has happened and you may learn things while kids are here, or while you’re recruiting them, and you get a clearer picture of whom you need to recruit and have in the room. That’s something that I feel that we’re closer to – the kind of person that can really be successful here. Having said that, that doesn’t mean you’re going to bat 1.000, but we definitely need to bat better than what we are now. The optics of it just tells you that you must do better. That is a quest that I’m on. I feel really confident, how it looks now, in the people that we need to recruit and how we need to go about that. It is a function of engaging those athletes on a level that maybe starts a bit earlier to really get to know them as people. I feel like we’ve made some progress in that. We need to engage their families and parents. We need to make sure it’s a situation where we communicate what we want for their daughter. Right now, with all of this upheaval, it’s very difficult for a parent to wrap their mind around what’s going on here and I appreciate that. The only thing that I can do is make certain that I am learning the lessons I need to learn. There needs to be some stability and they need to know that the success has happened for a reason and it’s for who I think we’ve tried being here and try to build on that and get a really good staff together. They need to see some stability. The kids in our team room right now need to see some stability. The only person that can do that is me. I have to get that done. I feel like we have a plan forward and we’ve started that process with Kyra (Elzy). With Kyra returning to Kentucky, I’m so excited about that. I think those signals will start to be sent, but it’s not going to happen overnight. Everything that’s happened here hasn’t happened overnight. It will take us some time, but I have no doubt that we will get there.”

On what happened with the staff between January and April …
“One thing that I tried to learn from past experiences was when we were playing our up-tempo style defensively, we sort of did the same thing every day and had the same staff in place for a number of years. It was sort of like Groundhog Day. It was a defensive fundamental package with pressing and full-court play. We got into rhythm where in the practices we didn’t spend a lot of time together planning practices. We also had a staff with Kyra, Matt (Insell), and Shalon (Pillow) where we were all at different stages of life. I didn’t have any kids, they didn’t have any kids, and we spent a bunch of time together as friends and colleagues. There was chemistry there on and off the court. That was a great time and fun time. The rules changed and we had to start playing defense a little differently. Kyra left for Tennessee for good reasons and reasons I respect. Matt left the next year for Ole Miss and we had a different dynamic on the staff. Some feedback I got from that staff was that we didn’t spend enough time planning the practices and being together there. I tried to learn from that. Presley was born that year and I was not around as much as I normally would be with a newborn baby. That was all on me. You think something is rolling along well and you think it’s just going to keep rolling along and that’s a mistake that you make. From that, I tried to learn that we needed to get in that staff room and plan practice and really talk about what we were doing. This year in particular, once we had the departures earlier in the year, we had a small roster and really had to get in there – the four of us, a graduate assistant, and a film guy – and spent probably 250 hours or more just being together. That group of six people was just working hard to make sure that we had a good team and were doing the right things in practice. There was a lot of collaboration on that level and I think you saw those results. Practice every day I thought was good. I thought those coaches did a really good job in practice every day and I thought we had a really good atmosphere. For whatever reasons that I will need to fully examine and go back, we did not have the kind of chemistry that we needed in order for us to move forward. I parted ways with one coach and the other two coaches had decisions to make as to where they wanted to return or not. I was very much in favor of them returning and I wanted them to return. I explained to them how it would all fit together. Kyra was going to come back and that was a staff I would’ve loved to go forward with. They had to decide what they wanted to do with their life and they decided not to come back to Kentucky. That is an incredible turnover and tremendous upheaval. Somewhere along the way, I did not communicate well enough for them to want to stay. That’s one 100% on me, my responsibility. I need to learn the lessons from that situation and move forward in a real productive manner. I feel like I’ve got a clearer picture on who that needs to be and how we’re going to get that done. I think the most important thing for me right now is to remain confident that this is a place where people do want to be. The kids that are in that room had a lot of fun playing basketball and we had a good year on the court. We learned the lessons and had a lot of good things happen. They’ve got to have a stable situation from a staff perspective and that’s my job to make sure that we have a staff that can stick together. You can have a coach wanting to head out and be a head coach. That’s a seat that I was sitting in as an assistant coach. I wanted to be a head coach and that is a good thing for me as a head coach to try to help people develop into. I think it’s really important for me now to try to get some stability in a spot for a number of years when it looks like when we had a three or four year run there where we might lose one person, but the core was intact. That’s really what I’m trying to make sure that I do a really diligent job of. I’m really appreciative that those three coaches worked hard. That’s the best way I can explain that. 
 
On keeping recruits informed … 
“That is a great question and we are in a competitive environment. There is no question that if you start looking outside the building right now there is a lot that you can latch on to in terms of negativity and the program does not look like what we want it to look like and that is 100% on me. I am in charge of everything that goes on in this program. The program does not look how it needs to look. The way you turn that around is setting forth a plan and a path forward. I am so appreciative to Mitch Barnhart, who has just been so helpful in his feedback from this. He has been so candid to me about, ‘you need to do a better job in getting people in a stable situation and we cannot have this type of situation happening again.’ It has been a three-year revolving door of staff and that has just created tremendous upheaval. Some of that has been my decision to part ways and some of that has been coach’s decisions to leave for better opportunities or a better situation that they think. How you combat that, is you don’t worry about that right now, that will take care of itself only when I can show a path forward of stability. I believe that we are on that track and that is going to come into focus over the next couple of days. Listen, this has all been happening with a lot of moving parts over the last three weeks. I have been trying to do my very best to handle every situation as they come about. They all tie together, but in my position you care about people and try to help people, and you have to handle those situations and cannot really worry about the big picture at times. You have to make sure you are trying to take care of people and are responsive to their needs. I have given it a lot of thought and I am in a really confident place right now that I going to get through this. What we do with our staff I believe will signal stability and there will be a rationale behind it and we will be able to show you why this is going to be stable. Right now, we just have to make sure we are blocking out all the noise and certainly there is an overwhelming majority of people (that want us to be successful.) Our fans want us to be successful, my closest friends support me. I have gotten unbelievable support from people in this town and have been so kind and talking to me about their support. Those outnumber the ones that would want to see us ultimately fail. I think that is a small group but sometimes that group can be really loud and information is so easy to get now and misinformation and inaccurate information can kind of take a life of its own. It cannot affect your players because they are in tune with that. We have to do a great job right now of responding, showing a way forward. I have to do that and am going to do that and are very excited to show everyone that over the coming days.” 

On his conversations with Mitch Barnhart …
“I sense that there is urgency from Mitch that we want our kids and players to be in a stable situation. I think he has that wish for our program and every other program. I have never been around an athletic director that cares more about these young people as individuals and I have said this many times, he knows every athlete in this department and knows her story or his story. He has a tremendous heart for people. He wants our team to have a stable situation. There is a tremendous urgency because all the stuff that is going on and all the external factors that are really loud right now and I understand the way that it looks and it needs to improve, but the main thing right now that Mitch is concerned about and that I am concerned about is our players and how can we show them that this is the place they want to be. There are players in there that are telling me, ‘Coach, you don’t have to worry about me. I am all in and 100% behind you and having the time of my life and I know you are going to show us the way forward.’ There are other players that are more uneasy. We have to signal stability to them and there is a tremendous urgency for that that Mitch has and that I have and that I shared with Mitch. I just appreciate the confidence he has in me and he has always been very supportive and we are connected with common values and have the same beliefs and value the same things. We have a very special connection in that way. He has been very supportive and very constructively critical as well and that is what I need during this time. I need to make improvements.” 

On if he feels he has been difficult to work with for assistant coaches …
“I don’t think so. It has all come to a head now with the turnover. It goes back three years and one move kind of impacts the next. That is long and drawn out to kind of go step-by-step. I have had tremendous relationships with coaches that have come through here. So as far as me being hard to work with, I will definitely take a look at that and have examined myself. Trust me, there have been many nights that I have laid there awake thinking about all the success that has happened on the court and all the success that has happened in the classroom and all the success that we have had in the community and the fans that come through that door. There are times where you say, ‘What have I done wrong here?’ and I want to get that right because I want this to be a place where everybody feels like they are benefiting and moving forward and that Kentucky is a place they want to invest in and be here and help Kentucky succeed. That is what I want. And I want them to feel that from me too, that I want them to succeed and help everybody reach whatever their dreams and goals are because everybody has them.” 

On what he has heard from players if he is hard to play for …
“Well, the people that are here, I am getting positive feedback from. I am getting constructive criticism from. I have been so appreciate that the players remaining have been candid with me and shared with me how I can improve. The players who have departed have given me feedback on how I can improve. We have had so many players come through here and who have graduated and are out being successful now and we have had a great amount of success. I feel like a lot of people have walked out the door thinking that I am not hard to deal with I’m sure there are some that do feel like I was hard to deal with. When you’re leading an organization that has so many different people in it, it is up to you to make sure you are doing your dead-level best to be the best communicator you can be. And communication is changing all the time. If I feel like because I have had great success here on the court and we have graduated players and they are being productive and we have won a lot of games, if I think that is going to help me be a great communicator and they are just going to walk in the door and think, ‘hey, I am going to come communicate with you.’ You have to go meet them where they are and I understand that and I am doing my very best job of working hard to be the very best communicator to give these players what they need and in an environment where they can grow as people and as students and as players.” 

On if the way he has coached the last few seasons changed …
“No, I think that meeting with those seniors was nothing but positive for me from my standpoint. I worked really hard create a good environment in practice and I think those results showed on the court. I think where I have made the misstep is if people are feeling like I didn’t care about them and I didn’t serve them and didn’t serve them well enough off the court. That is where I have to take a strong look at and see where I can improve. There are clearly players I served well and are telling me that last night. Through all this tumultuous time, which is so hard on these kids it is really, really hard on them, I am so motivated to get us through this part of the storm. They have said, ‘I appreciate what you are doing and appreciate how you have coached me and I do feel connected to you and do feel like I can walk in this door and talk to you.’ It’s the players that don’t feel that way that I have to reach out to and figure out why they don’t feel that way and I have to make the adjustment and change and be available to everyone and everyone needs to know that I am here for their benefit. I don’t feel like I have been too tough and every practice at Kentucky is open. Every practice is open to the public. You just have to call the office at 859-257-6046 and they will answer the phone and you say, ‘I would like to come to the practice’ and they will say, ‘it’s 2:30 today in the practice gym’ and if the observation deck fills up we will move it down to Memorial Coliseum, but it never has. I am telling you that anybody that ever wants to come to our practice can come. We are an open book from that standpoint. There are no hidden tapes or secret practices that I am having. You can come and watch us practice any time that you want to. When our parents come in on Big Blue Madness they come to practice because I want them to see what kind of environment their daughter is in and I take every parents phone call and don’t duck anything. I am willing to work as hard as I can to improve through this situation and I know we have had some really great things happen over a nine-year period. This is a really difficult time for us and this might be hard to believe, but I am more optimistic sitting with you today. I feel better about where we are headed than I have. I really feel like I have some good things figured out and we have a good path forward. I said this before, I’m a man of faith and believe this is a trial that is very intense and very difficult but from my perspective that is when I am learning the greatest lesson and being taught the greatest lesson and this will all work out for our benefit. We just have to do a good job here of making sure these kids understand what their pathway forward is and we are going to show them that.” 

On if there’s a general theme around the turnover in the program …
“What would be so great is if you could answer that in one sentence. I don’t know if it is satisfactory to people, but I just have to be honest with you every situation is personal and different. The dismissal was for one reason. Morgan Rich’s departure was different than Linnae Haper’s and different than Kyvin Goodin-Rogers’. I understand that that might be hard to believe or that people would like for that to be more simply put. The reason that Ivana (Jakubcova) wanted to leave was different than the reason that Batouly (Camara) wanted to leave. And what I have to do is make sure that I communicate at the highest level possible in the recruiting process, while they’re here. That takes me – right now what I need to do is I need to do build out a staff that is going to show a sign of stability to our kids, is going to be able to help me deliver that message and help me improve. That is what we have to do right now and I’m optimistic that we’re going to be able to get that done.”

On depending on upperclassmen for communication …
“I think that’s a good question. I think one of the things, for me, that I have learned over the last couple of years is that there’s no substitute for one-on-one communication. So Makayla (Epps) and I were talking about this. Makayla hit a rough spot there last year and we had to make some decisions about how she was going to turn her life and which way she was going to go. And I was really frank and blunt with her that there was only one way that I was going forward with her and that was if she made some changes and she was going to get on a positive path. So that came at a time of year, in May and June and July, where the demands of the season aren’t as great and she and I could spend a lot of time one on one. And she talked about that with me. She was like ‘you know coach that’s powerful. That one-on-one time where we could be there together.’ And she said ‘I am 100-percent clear on where your heart is for me and I want you to know where my heart is for you.’ That was a powerful time. I think where I’ve erred over the years is sometimes the kids that are having trouble – my natural tendency is to try and pull them up and pull them along. Sometimes a kid that’s just doing great and coming in with a great attitude every day and doing her job, that I’ve missed that they need what I gave to Makayla. That’s one of the things that I’ve really learned in this. I have to be very intentional with the amount of time that I have. I’ve got to get very intentional about those one-on-one encounters that are not totally scripted. It’s not a meeting where they’re coming in and it’s like ‘answer question No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3.’ We can sit and if a kid like Bria Goss, who was just the best kid here and just worked so hard, I look at that. There were so many times that I probably with Bria just said ‘Bria’s showing up, Bria’s doing the right thing, you can always count on Bria’ and Bria needed more of me than me dealing with folks who weren’t doing what they were supposed to do and trying to pull them up. That’s just something I found out about myself. I’ve got to be aware of what everybody needs. But here’s, also, you have to understand I have to put a staff in place that can also support me in helping me do that. I feel real confident that we’re going to get that done.”

On if he anticipated the player departures after this past season …
“Yeah I was hopeful that we were (past the departures). I left Rupp Arena on that Friday night getting beat by Washington profoundly disappointed because I thought we had a real shot to win that game and advance and we wanted to. But I had a real sense of satisfaction about how hard those kids had worked and what they had given us. I was hoping we were past that point and I did not want to lose anybody. Did understand that Ivana being a fifth-year senior, you don’t know what those kids are going to do when they have a year to come back. Going to have to sit down with her and see what pathway that was forward. I certainly didn’t want those kids to leave and was not anticipating it. Didn’t want it to happen.”

On if he’s comfortable practicing with the players on next year’s roster …
“This year we had 10 and with nine that could play the games. We’re so fortunate with the male practice squad that you can get a lot done with low numbers. Washington played five last year for most of the year. That would be a new one for us, but I don’t believe that’s where we’re going to be. I feel really good about the seven that are in the room. If we can show them a path forward, and they can find some stability, and they can find some confidence going forward, and then our signee who makes eight. And then we do have a chance to go back and recruit more and add another player. We’re definitely going to do that. But we basically had an eight-person rotation this year, and we had a fantastic year and a hard-working atmosphere. I think that would be great. All I’m worried about is immediately making sure our players understand that there’s a pathway to stability and that is 100-percent on me to get that done. I feel very confident that we’re headed in that direction.”

On when they began talking about Kyra Elzy returning …
“Adeniyi (Amadou) and I had a meeting on a Sunday that we were parting ways so I immediately started thinking about what I was going to do. So that’s been two or three weeks ago. It’s been a whirlwind since. So Jenna appreciated the chemistry that Kyra and I had together. As soon as that decision was made that there was an opening on staff her first words out of her mouth was ‘you need to call Kyra.’ So that was an early thought process in the Mitchell house. This is something that as long as there’s been one opening that has been something that I’ve been thinking about, and that we had to work on to see if that would work. That’s something that’s been in the works. It became clear that that was the direction we both wanted to go in. There are processes that you have to go through with the University. There’s things you can’t decide one day and it happens the next day. That’s not a knee-jerk reaction to what’s going on now. Things were unfolding the last two weeks – that was becoming clear. People had to make the decisions that they made. One didn’t happen because of the other; it was all happening simultaneously.”
 
On how distressful the past couple days have been…
“It’s a lot to think about and it’s a lot to process. I love this program and I love Kentucky.  There have been many concerning times that you have to put some brain power in and you have to put your heart into it.  And you’ve got to think some things through.  You’ve got to take ownership and you’ve got to take responsibility and you’ve got to take accountability.  So a lot of time is spent on what you need to do and how you need to get better, and then there are people you have to serve right now.  It starts with those players, those seven players that are in our team room.  One player that is signed and is joining us in June (Chanin Scott). You had another player that was signed that has now been released. You had people who had given their word and committed to you, and those were important people.  So they needed to be served and they needed to be communicated with, and it has been very busy and it has been a tough few days.  Coming through it has been tough, but I am really excited.  I am really confident.  I’m encouraged. And it’s one of those ‘darkest before dawn’ type of deals.  There hasn’t been a lot of time for sleep, but all the time has been beneficial so I have been able to reflect.  So I think I have a clear understanding.  This is not going to get, we’re not going to snap our fingers and this is going to all be okay.  We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us; we’ve got to keep working with our kids. We’ve got to show them a way forward and we feel like we’re going to do that sooner rather than later.  But it’s been very difficult and very tough.  I’ve been very appreciative of the support that I’ve received from friends and so many people who are really close to me and I can tell really care about me.  Jenna has just been unbelievable and unwavering in her support, and I appreciate her.  It has been a tremendous experience.  It’s been tough, but I feel like I am in more possession of knowledge to get better today than I have been in a long time. Through the tough times you can really grow, and that’s what I expect to happen now.”
 
On how tough he expects recruiting to be…
“Listen, there’s only one way to handle that and attack that.  That’s what you’ll see as we put the staff together.  It will either happen or it won’t. The proof will be in the pudding.  I can tell you that I’m confident, but I have to go make it happen and we have to put it together. I liken it to this: the last time Kyra and I got together and started building a staff, we’re doing that right now, we’re doing that again several years later.  And I feel like we have a much better foundation than we had then and that we have some track record to go on. We just have to get the right people in place, and when we do that then the results will follow.  If we don’t do that, then this will not end well, and that’s the bottom line. And that is on me to show a pathway forward and I am confident that we will get it done.”