February 15, 2012

Barnhart talks football, facility upgrades, staff changes

This is the second in a two-part interview with UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart. The first part of the Cats Illustrated interview, which includes discussions on women's basketball, Rupp Arena and football, can be found here.

I'm assuming you've sat down with Joker and evaluated the season like you do every year.

Oh, yeah. After the season, the conversation was more… Because he and I talked all along. We never didn't talk. I find it funny sometimes because people think we go a whole season and never talk. We talk all the time. He called me twice this morning and not about football. Just about stuff. I think we're having dinner together tonight with someone else, one of our donors. So that'll be fun. I enjoy that. There's a personal relationship and a professional relationship, I enjoy both of them with Joker Phillips. They're both good. And I have great respect for him, he's a wonderful guy, he cares about this program deeply. We had a postseason chat, made some adjustments that he wanted to make, and we moved on.

I know it's early, but what are you expecting for season tickets next year?

Don't know yet. I'm hopeful the fans will be supportive and help us. This is the time we need their help most. There have been times when we've been successful and everybody wants to ratchet that up and jump on board, I appreciate that. What we need is every once in a while when it's a struggle, we need them to hang in there with us a little bit. Our fans have been great, I've always been appreciative of that.

They can be mad at me, I'm OK with that. They can be mad at Joker. I'm OK with that. What I'd like them not to do is to be mad at the kids. We have some wonderful young people including a young man from our state who was the state player of the year who's coming to play for us. I'd like them to show the support for those kind of kids that are coming into our program and let them know that they do appreciate them and that they're going to give them a chance to help build this program up. Don't take it out on them because you're mad at me or mad at Joker. That's fine. I like it to be about the kids, and I've tried to keep the focus on the kids.

How would you describe the mood around that program now? With some of the fan reaction last season, does that put a cloud over the team going into this season?

No, I don't think so. Not from our perspective. I think, going back your word, were we disappointed in losing? Yeah. But we ended with a win over Tennessee which gave us momentum, which was wonderful. Gave us momentum for recruiting, which was good, and offseason workouts. They're working hard.

I saw (middle linebacker) Avery Williamson walking through here yesterday and Avery has one of the greatest smiles. I said 'Man, you actually look almost fit.' He looked really good, by the way. He laughed. They're working hard and they look good trying to get ready for spring ball. I walk through that building a lot, I don't sense that there's anybody in there dragging their chin on the ground. They're working hard, trying to get ready to play football.

It's funny that you mention Tennessee, because that was my next question. How big was that? Among the wins the program has had recently, was it at the top?

I don't know where it ranks. But it was something we needed at the time. We needed a shot in the arm for a lot of reasons, almost everybody knows. But our players needed to know that they were OK and they needed something to feel good about and to get some momentum going into the offseason. We walked out there without a quarterback and our kids stuck to a game plan, did stuff that no one saw coming. Our coaches put together a game plan that no one saw coming. The kids fought their tails off and it showed me that they didn't quit on the season. They never quit on the coaches. They never quit on each other. They kept fighting, and that was impressive to me. So the win was important for a lot of reasons and it taught them a lot about perseverance and I hope they can use it as a jumping off spot to go forward.

You all have made a lot of facility upgrades over the last few years (including softball, a new track, new soccer fields, video boards at Commonwealth Stadium). What's next on the to-do list?

We've got lots of things to do. It's always an unending list of things that you want to do. We don't need to keep up with the Joneses, so to speak. What we need to do is give our coaches competitive environments to play in and to recruit to.

There are several things that are clearly on the radar screen. Commonwealth Stadium and things for football is a big, big item that we have to figure out how to manage that, having ongoing conversations with the university about what that might look like and what that could be and is it possible and when is it possible. But, as a university, everyone thinks it's a Mitch Barnhart decision. It is not a Mitch Barnhart decision, it is a university decision and as a priority, where do we fit into things going on at the university including the hospital, including capital expenditures for housing and things like that. All those pieces, we want to do something for football, make no mistake about it. It is where it fits in with the entire university plan. And we've got a good football stadium. Don't walk out of here and think we don't have a good football stadium. We just need to do some things to help give it a facelift.

The media keep hounding me about their press box - I'm just kidding. We want to do some stuff for football. We want to continue to figure out what we can do to help football. That's important to us.

Baseball stadium. Need to work on our baseball stadium and figure out what that's going to look like, get that done. We want to do some more renovation work down at soccer in terms of locker rooms and complex and what that looks like. Jon Lipsitz has done a great job of moving our women's soccer program back into contention and getting us in the conversation again. Just hired a brand new men's coach, Johan Cedergren. Johan, I am confident, will move us in that same direction.

Dennis Emery, all you can say is he wins. The indoor tennis facility needs a lot of work and we have to get that upgraded. Dennis worked really hard to bring people into the conversastion about helping us with our tennis program and I want to make sure we pay attention to that. We're working on some thoughts for our golf program to give them a place where they can hit indoors when there's snow on the ground. We've been fortunate this fall, this winter, haven't had much snow - knock on something - but we've been fortunate. They've been able to get outside a little in January and early February, so we are not going into the spring season completely cold, so to speak.

So those are the things that are on my mind. I want to do a little work here in Memorial, some things just making sure it's up to date. Have to do some work on our scoreboard in here and maybe some of the seating bowl, figuring that out. Those are the things that are on my mind facility-wise. We keep picking projects off one at a time and getting them done. I'm excited about getting the softball thing going, I'm excited about getting the track open. I think that's going to be spectacular.

When you talk about a facelift for Commonwealth Stadium, is that a bunch of small things or is it something more overarching?

I don't want to band-aid it. I don't think that helps us. I think if we're going to do something, the facelift would have to be something that's a little more than that. So what that would look like, we've got some thoughts and some plans. We've gone through that conversation a couple times and again, it is about timing and funding models. It is about debt service capacity and the ability of the university to free some of that up for us to go do some of that work on campus. It is a priority within where it fits in the university structure.

One thing fans ask about all the time is a football recruiting room. Where are you all on that, and what has kept that from happening to this point? What's needed to get something like that done?

Well, it's two piece. One, there's been a difference in philosophy from group to group as to where they wanted it to go and what they wanted to do with it.

You're talking about Rich Brooks' staff and Joker Phillips' staff?

Yeah, in that transition. Originally there was conversation about adding it to the backside of the Nutter indoor center. Then there was conversation about putting it in the stadium as a whole and that conversation has bounced back and forth. It isn't all on their shoulders. The process at one point in time was 'Let's put it in the stadium if we're going to get the stadium fixed.' Well, we thought we were going to get the renovation moved up in the sight line. All of a sudden, that did not happen because of some of the things in the university's funding model. So that got put on hold. Now you say 'Maybe we should put it on the back side of Nutter.' Joker's having the same conversations in his mind. Where do we want to go, what do we want to do? That's a conversation he and I have to have.

You know, I think everybody thinks that because you don't have a football recruiting room or a multipurpose room that that is impacting your recruiting. That is a small, small, small piece of it. It's not that we lack an ability to put a good look to recruiting. We can do that. I'll tell you, as much as people want to think about it, it is bells and whistles and you have to have some of that. It goes back down to the relationships you create with your coaches to the players. Without those relationships, you can have all the bells and whistles you want and not have success.

If it was all about facilities and that kind of thing, then there's questions you would have about some of the major football programs in this country that went 6-6, 5-7 last year. Because they clearly have, on paper, a better facility package than we do. But it didn't show up in the record book. People want to equate 'If we get this facility, we will automatically have this in recruiting and winning.' It doesn't work that way. Does not work that way. If that's the case, then you can find the programs last year that did not go to a bowl game or were 6-6 and have traditionally been top 10 programs in our country. Name them.

Florida, Ohio State…

Tennessee. Some programs in that mix. You have Texas A&M coming into our league. They're right there with them. And you can talk about it all you want, when I first got here everyone said 'Give us six or seven wins and just be competitive.' OK, well, clearly we've done that and gotten to that spot. Now people want more than that. And that's OK. We want more than that. I'm not satisfied with six or seven wins. I want more than that. And there are some things we need to do facility-wise, we need to get that done. But that will never, ever keep us from creating relationships and recruiting kids and building our program. It can't.

Like you said earlier, a lot of the guys on your team have left and taken jobs as athletic directors in the past few years. Is that bittersweet when you see guys like Mark Coyle (Boise State) and Rob Mullens (Oregon) heading out the door?

Yeah. Those are folks you spend a lot of time with in your life. You travel a lot of miles in cars, a lot of airports and hotels, those are your friends. As much as they're professional colleagues, they're friends. You share frustrations, a lot of conversation, a lot of good times. But at the same time it's hard to see them walk out the door. I'm proud of them. Really proud of them. They're gifted people that are going to be really good at what they do. Rob is at Oregon and Scott Stricklin (Mississippi State), Greg Byrne (Arizona), Mark out there, and I'm happy for them. It's a good group of folks. I'm excited for them.

Can you identify a guy like that when one is working for you? Can you tell there's something different about him?

I always tell our staff, the goal is to match expectations and resources. So that's a really good thing when you're talking about competitive athletics and budgets and all that stuff. You're talking about people, if they have an expectation that this is where they want to go, the question is if they have the resources to get there. And if they do, then you try and help them get there. Much like Cal says it's his goal to help young guys pursue their dreams of playing in the NBA, my goal is to bring people along that have an ability and to do what they want to do and help them pursue their dreams and get where they want to go.

If we do that, they'll work pretty hard for us in the process and if we do that, we'll have a lot of people succeed along the way because of what they've done. I'm OK with that. And the fact that they're going to the Boise States and the Oregons, that's all a good thing. I think that's a good thing. It's fun. It's fun to watch them, to be honest with you. I enjoy that. But I do miss them. I'm not going to lie to you, it's hard. I do miss them.

What kind of advice do you give to them as they're on their way out?

I try and write everybody a letter. Just thoughts on their way out the door. I do that for most everybody on my administrative staff that would leave and go someplace else. I try to write them a note. Not just a card thanking them for their time, a fairly detailed letter explaining that the journey won't be easy. There are pitfalls and there will be valleys and steadiness in the storm is important. Consistency is important. Do not become prideful. Remain humble. Those are important messages. Be a good listener. As best you can, listen a lot. Talk less.

Those are the things I try and remind them. That you won't win everything that you want to win. Enjoy those special moments. It's a great journey. Enjoy it. I tell them, it's hard to enjoy these jobs. It is hard. People will steal your joy. They will want to make you miserable. If they're going to be miserable, they're going to make you miserable too. I don't care whether that's coaches, fans, media. People want you to be miserable. That's a goal in the world today is misery. Misery loves company.

So I told Mark and Rob and those guys, I said 'Don't let them steal your joy. Don't let them do that.' And that's hard. Even for me, that is a hard thing to do. Don't let them to steal your joy. Enjoy the victories. They're special. Sometimes you'll beat somebody and they'll say 'Yeah, but… You beat Tennessee but they were terrible that year.' I don't want to hear that. It doesn't matter. Doesn't matter. It was a special win for a special group of guys on a special day and we did something we hadn't done in 26 years. I don't care what you say. Knock it off. Don't let them steal your joy.

How important is this year for Gary Henderson and the baseball program?

You know, I want to get better. We've struggled the last couple years to get where we want to go in baseball, so we've got to get better. I'd say, for the first time since Gary's been the head coach, this is the first time his team hasn't been dramatically impacted by player personnel decisions that were out of his control.

Meaning the draft, and transfers, mostly?

The draft. The James Paxton deal. Where our Friday night starter is basically ineligible because of NCAA stuff and we can't play him, so you lose 10, 11, 12 wins out of your pitching rotation on Friday night. A guy who is probably going to pitch in the bigs this year in some shape, a guy we didn't get to throw the whole year. We had almost a full scholarship tied up in him. Here's our big left-hander who throws 90 miles and hour, who was really good for us the year before, and took him right out of our lineup. It changes dramatically. That's the difference of going to the NCAAs or not.

So this is the first year we had nobody come out of the draft to go pro. We returned a lot of really critical people for us. We've been able to get outside a lot in January and early February, which we have not been able to do in previous years. So there's a lot of good things about what we're doing. Hopefully that will all come together the right way for us and we can get this thing going for us like we want to get it going. Gary Henderson is a good baseball coach. He didn't forget baseball. He's a good baseball coach and we have to find a way to score more runs than we did last year, not rely on our pitching and ask our pitching to shut people down. We have to score some runs in this league to win.

Coach Cal a few weeks ago was on ESPN and was asked about the NBA. Are those questions what you expect of a guy who's having success at the level that he is?

How'd he answer that?

He said he was happy at Kentucky.

That's all I want to know.

I've read that Dr. Capilouto has been spending a lot of time in Frankfort speaking to the legislature about some of the funding issues for the university. Is there a way for you all to help them out or increase donations back to the university? Have you all talked about that?

No, we haven't. We already give two million a year. People want to forget about the licensing money that we kick back every year and we did about 2.4 million in that last year so there's about $4.5 million in unrestricted funds that they get right out of the chute. Not including what we pay for, anything like that.

We're challenged to be self-sustaining. We have got to be self-sustaining. So we look at all what we do in a very compartmentalized deal right out of the chute. We don't have a choice in that. Now, if we're going to become part of the university's funding model, that's a completely different conversation for the way we conduct our business in athletics here. That's never been part of the conversation. We've not been the funding mechanism for the university.

Everybody wants to act like the $85 million budget we've got is some massive piece of the university's budget. It's three percent of the university's overall budget. The hospital, in contrast, is significantly higher. It's 40 percent of the university's budget. OK? So I'm sure when people look around, athletics is a big deal, yeah it is, but we're three percent. That hasn't changed since I've been here. We were three percent when I got here, we're three percent now. As the university has grown, we have grown. So that hasn't changed. We've grown with the university, so that's important to understand. We've never been part of the overall funding model.

As a matter of fact, our student fee money, lowest in the SEC. Our student ticket prices, one of the lowest in the SEC. So that's a combination that's important to understand. We do not want to challenge our students in terms of student fees and those kind of things. We've never asked for that. We've never said that instead of $650,000, $700,000, we need $1.9 million. There are other schools that we compete against inside our league and outside our league that student fee monies are exorbitant. That's not where we want to be. So that's a funding model piece we don't need to go into. If we're going to be a part of the university's funding model globally, then we need to have a conversation about how we do business.


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