Part 1: The Mitch Barnhart interview

We’re doing everything in parts tonight, apparently. Have transcribed the first half of the interview UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart conducted with Kyle Tucker of the Courier-Journal and myself this afternoon. I’ll have the second part transcribed and posted probably sometime Wednesday morning.

Click here for the second part.

What is the situation right now as far as trying to get the funds needed for facility improvements, such as improvements to Commonwealth Stadium?

 ”In basic terms, we are part of a university structure that has got to fit into the state structure. That’s our responsibility and our obligation and we’ve got to make that happen. There are limitations at every level and we’ve got to make sure that we fit into those pieces. It isn’t for a lack of wanting to do that. It is an important part of what we want to be about.

“We have two or three components that are important to us. One, make sure the fan experience is a relevant experience in today’s world, that it’s a quality experience. That’s both in the product we put on the field and the immentities and the things that go around the stadium. Two, not necessarily second, the other thing that we’ve got to do, we’ve got to make sure that we have the competitive entity for our kids. The things that allow them to compete. The things in the weight room and the things in the medical area — we’re up to date and we’re fine in terms of the things that we have, we’ve just got to make them a little better. And those are important to us.

“The third piece that comes into play is making sure the financial resources that you put to all that is something you can afford to do that. That’s where things like suites and club seats and those kinds of things help pay for your mortgage so to speak in all those places. We’ve got to find a way to fit into all those things and make sure that we’re a part of every phase. We think we’re gaining ground on that but time will tell. Dr. Capilouto has been very, very supportive of that process. Dr. Todd was, as well. I don’t want to slight anyone in this. But timing is everything and we’re at a moment in time in UK football where we’re hopeful the stars will begin to align for us in many areas and that’s one of them, as well.

Is there a dollar figure UK will take to the legislature?

“There are certain things we would like to do and I’m working my way through that process with the university. I’m not getting into that here other than to say there are certain things I think we need to get done. We’ll see how those play out. If it fits in, it fits in and we’ll move on.”

On working with the university, which is soliciting funding for infrastructure needs such as buildings and dorms.

“The dorms are in a public-private partnership. Those are a little different in the way that they are structured. That’s been very helpful in terms of what we’re doing on campus. And I think you’re going to see as time goes on, not just on our campus but on other campuses, you’re going to see those kinds of efforts because fund are limited at every level. So you’re trying to find unique ways or creative ways, or whatever you want to call it, to meet the needs of the university and still have the ability to fund the day-to-day operations of your programs and continue to grow them. That’s the part that’s so challenging.

“You want to do these capital pieces, but the day-to-day growth of all the expenses and things like that that go to running a major university and a major athletic program, they don’t stop. They keep growing. Tuition doesn’t go down. Cost of travel doesn’t go down. Those things continue to escalate. So you’ve got to balance both those pieces moving forward, and not strap future generations. The goal here is not to stand up in front of everybody and say look at the cool things we’ve done and then strap everybody for years to come. That’s not the goal. The goal is to make sure that we’ve got a good fiscal plan in place that allows us to grow our program and not hamstring or hurt the university or hurt generations of people that follow us. I want to make sure that we don’t do that. That’s part of our responsibility. That doesn’t always fit into the perfect little box that everybody wants it to fit into or the timetable that everybody wants it to fit into. And that’s been a challenge.

“Everybody’s really proud of what the hospital has produced. That came because there was an absolute commitment to grow that hospital and it’s very helpful in our region. No one would ever take that back. It’s a huge asset to Lexington and a huge asset to this university. That was first and foremost in the growth of this university over the last seven, eight, 10 years and rightfully so. And hopefully at some point in time, it’ll be our turn.

What role do the fans play in this?

“I think it takes all of us. We’re going to have to do our part competitively. The university is going to have to have a commitment to us, to help us. We’ve got to do our part and be smart and good stewards of what we’ve been given and how we use our monies. And then we need the fans to jump in there and get back to the days when we had the full stadiums and those kinds of things and be there to support the thing. They’ve been great. We’ve got to do our part, though. And there’s no question about that. And no one is denying that.

“When our product has been decent to good, they’ve been great. Even sometimes when we haven’t been good, they’ve been great. We struggled this year and the message was clear that they were unhappy with the product we were putting on the field. And that happens. So we’re hopefully moving in a different direction competitively that will give them hope and belief that we can get back to a spot where they would want to come and be a part of it.

“The other thing we’ve got to make sure of, that thing (points to a television) is something we compete with. There are a lot of games on TV and we’ve got to make sure that we do things in an environment that people want to come and be a part of that. Now we can’t be a hostage by that. Every decision can’t be predicated on what if, but we’ve got to make sure that we make decisions in terms of how we do our business that people say, ‘You know what, it’s fun to go to the games. It’s an enjoyable piece. Win or lose, it’s a competitive product. They’re doing some cool things. And it’s fun to go.’”

Is paying the head coach and coordinators more than their predecessors showing more of a commitment?

“Again, I go back to what I asked Joker on the way out, ‘Did we provide the things you needed?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ The market continues to change and escalate to a spot in terms of what we’re doing in college athletics we’re going to have to continue to watch that. But if there’s any message to be sent, I don’t know. That’s for someone else to figure out. I think we showed a commitment. I don’t think there’s any mystery in that. We’ve got two coordinators that are widely thought of to be very good at what they do. I think we’ve invested in our coaching staff, still got a couple of positions to fill. We’re going to take our time with that. Mark is going to take his time with that. But we feel comfortable that we’re investing the right way in those things.

“I told someone else, we haven’t done something like this in this structure in 10 years. The last time we did it was with Rich (Brooks) inbetween the ’02-’03 seasons. It’s been 10 years. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time. Having said that, it’s changed since Joker became the head coach three years ago. And we were sort of in one of those smooth transitions in that it was pretty seamless, there were a few people who changed here and there, but by and large it was a pretty seamless transition. This is the first time we’ve had this kind of wholesale transition in a decade. That’s a lot of change that goes on. So there are a lot of moving pieces that we’re still getting our arms around all of that.

“But it’s going well and Mark has made the transition easy. Marc Hill has been over there working on the transition in terms of personnel and getting everybody situated and getting all the people in their offices and trying to get families here and all that stuff. I think we’ve showed a commitment – think I got off track a little bit — but I think the commitment is fine.

“When Mark first walked through the facilities, he said, ‘Gosh, this wasn’t what I expected,’ in a good way. He said some of this is ‘better than what we had.’ I think it surprised him a little bit. The meeting rooms and the graphics and the things we’ve done to the Nutter Center. I think there was some surprise in all that and that’s all good. There will be some adjustments we make. I’m sure there will be some personal things that Mark is going to want to do a little differently than Joker did or Rich did and that’s ok. Those things will happen and we’ll get to those things over time. But by and large, there are things that we want to do that we’ve always wanted to do. And hopefully those things will come.”

On firing Joker Phillips, someone he described his friend.

“It was really hard. You don’t ever go into these things hoping they don’t succeed, from a lot of perspectives. But then it gets personal. You get around a guy for seven, eight, nine, 10 years it gets to the stop where you’re saying, ‘We’ve done a lot together.’ I remember when I got my first AD job, and I can imagine having my first head coaching job, and having some struggles, that’s tough. You see how much he invested in it and how hard he worked at wanting his alma mater to be successful. I hurt for him. I hurt for our players. I don’t want to sound dramatic in this thing, but I wanted them to succeed. So you try and battle through those things.

“Even going into the final month of the season, I was hopeful that we could get something turned and get a little momentum going and give them something that people would feel good about. It just never came to pass. Sometimes you get injuries and sometimes you get people who don’t show up on the field in terms of being eligible to play and it just seemed like we could never quite get over the hump in some of those situations. We’ve got a quarterback who starts the year throwing for almost 1,000 yards in three games and you lose him for the season. Then all of a sudden you’re feeding to freshmen quarterbacks to the wolves of the SEC schedule. That’s really hard and probably unfair. Are there freshmen that have done that, yes, that understand it. But that’s probably more unusual than it is the norm. So it became a very difficult, uphill struggle. Then you start other pieces of the thing, injuries manifest injury and all of a sudden it got to the spot where we probably needed to do something different.”

 

On the low attendance at the Vanderbilt game, the day before Phillips was fired.

“I’m not going to say you don’t pay attention to that or don’t listen to it. You watch it. That’s part of our deal. You pay attention to that. But at the same time, I’m a guy who is more the optimist than not. I’m always hopeful that things will get to a spot where you can continue to do good. I was hopeful and then we got to Vanderbilt and had the bad combination of not a very good performance on the field coupled with a very dismal performance in the stands and the combination was very difficult to overcome that day. I think you would have had to have been more than an eternal optimist at that point in time to think it was going to end differently.”

On needing a new guy, a new energy.

“We needed new hope. I always tell people, you go from believing you’re going to win, to hoping you’re going to win, to no hope. We’ve got to reverse that and go from no hope to having hope again to believing we’re going to win. I think our fans have hope again. They have a new beginning and a fresh start. That’s what we needed. The ticket office has taken a lot of calls from people interested in buying tickets again and getting involved and that’s encouraging to us. It doesn’t mean we’re going to come right out of the chute and go right to the Sugar Bowl and right to the BCS, but we have hope again that we’re going to have a new enthusiasm to a spring practice and a fall camp and some fresh faces in there.

“The other thing I think it has done is give us a fresh face in recruiting. We’ve gone out on the recruiting trail and been met in a remarkably different way right out of the chute. Again, not to say that we’re going to sign a top 10 class in the country, but I think it would have been a really, really difficult recruiting piece had we continued on. We have a fresh start in recruiting and you push the reset button a little bit and start again.”

On Mark Stoops’ recruiting philosophy.

“I think if you look at the way he’s hired his staff they are from very strategic pieces in terms of places that are either niches or places to get into a market where there are more football players per capita than we have in the state of Kentucky. Clearly we want to recruit Kentucky, but Mark has ties to Ohio, deep into Ohio, as well as Vince (Marrow). Then you go south and you go into different areas of Florida and Mississippi and Alabama and Texas, all of a sudden you’re starting to reach into areas, because of connections, that may be helping us a little differently than has been in the past. I get tired of hearing it and you guys get tired of writing it, but recruiting is the lifeblood of your program. I don’t know how many times we all say that. Yeah, everybody understands that. You can say it, but at some point in time you’ve got to go do it. Opening up some of those areas to the University of Kentucky is probably something we need to do a little more of. I think this has an opportunity to do this for us.

“And I go back to the other thing that I thought was really important, we needed to be better defensively. We needed to be better defensively right up front. We were giving up well over 30 points a game most of the time. We could not get off of the field on third down. Our third down efficiency was really a struggle for us. That does two things, it exhausts your defense and makes you very susceptible for the fourth quarter. And two, it makes it really, really difficult on your offense and have to be perfect and score 30-35 points a game just to win a ballgame. The goal was clearly to bring that number down. Will that happen right out of the chute in changing defenses? Don’t know. But I think we certainly have got to be better in that area if we have a desire and dream to compete at a different level.”

Did Mark Stoops ask for anything when he interviewed for the job?

“A chance. He wanted a chance. He never said, ‘I’ve got to have this, this and this.’ He said no, structurally, staffing-wise, I want to know if these things are open to me, can I do this? I said, ‘Yeah, that’s no big deal.’ Your staff is your staff. Short of that, he just wanted a chance. He was ready to go. Every text I got from him, every call I got from him was, ‘I want the job. I want to come.’ That was important to us at Kentucky.

“I always tell people that in these things, two things happen. Sometimes, coaches use you and sometimes coaches get used. And by that, I mean sometimes coaches use you to leverage where they are to go someplace else. Everybody has seen that 100 times. The other thing that happens is sometimes, unfortunately in searches, coaches use someone else to say, ‘I did interview them.’ They weren’t genuine in that process either. That’s probably not a very nice thing to do either. That’s probably not very wise either. So if you don’t have a genuine interest in doing that on either side I think you’re better off not.

“Mark from day one, from conversation one, said, ‘I want this job, I’m not interested in any other jobs. This is the one I want.’ Which was impressive to me. I liked that. I knew he wasn’t going to out to interview for three other jobs after he interviewed for our job. I liked that. I like the fact that he was completely focused on Kentucky. Having known that there were other searches going on and we were aware, no one is crazy, it’s a small world. We hear all that stuff. We knew who was out there visiting and who’s name was being surfaced. This was the job he focused on. He could have gone after other jobs, he could have pursued other jobs, and he didn’t. He came after us.”

Why did you not consider Bobby Petrino?

“No question he’s a good football coach. That was never a question. But looking for the right fit for us and what we wanted to be about and looking for the whole package for where we needed to be at this moment in time, Mark was the right fit for us. We needed someone who wanted to be here, who fit the parameters I had for what we were looking for in the search. I’m not doing this solo, Dwayne (Peevy) and Marc (Hill) and we visited with Tim (Couch) and Coach (John) Cropp. We had them all and we sort of visited about it. What does it look like? We need to be better defensively. We need to be better in the areas of recruiting. We need to have to get us in here and here and here. And how do you answer this component over here offensively. Mark had the answers to all that and he fit the things we were looking for.

“I tell everybody all the time, we’re not responsible for just one thing. It’s easy to be responsible for winning and losing. It’s incumbent upon us, especially in today’s world, look at all the headlines that are going on around us, it’s incumbent upon us to being responsible for every component of what goes on around here. And for me, and the fit and the things that I want to be about here at Kentucky, Mark fit that.”

 

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