Part 2: The Mitch Barnhart interview

The second and final part of the interview we did today with UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart. Click here for the first part.

On bringing the Air Raid offense back to Kentucky.

“I think Mark (Stoops) answered the question: How do you effectively compete in this league? Is it between the tackles? Is it on the edges? Is it downfield? What is it? There’s not a lot of teams in this league that can line up and go straight between the tackles. It’s really hard. It’s really hard. Now can you get there eventually? Yes, you might be able to eventually. Where Kentucky has been in its history most successful was on the edges. And so getting it to the edges and throwing it down the field were something we were really, really interested in getting back to.

“I’ve said it a couple of times now, Hal Mumme has got a lot of people out there under his coaching tree. And there are a lot of people out there that have taken Hal’s offense and put it in places all over the country. You give him a lot of credit for that. He’s got a lot of disciples out there and it has moved the needle out there at a lot of different places. The combination of if we can get to a spot where we’re playing better defense and we’ve got an offense that’s a little more prolific than what we’ve been, and a little more exciting, that’s a different game for us. That’s where we’ve got to get to. We’ve got to get to a spot where we’ve got playmakers in space that allow us to do that, that maybe causes people matchup issues. Mark says I can identify that, I know this guy, this guy and this guy. And Neal (Brown) was one of those guys. And were like, ‘Well, that’s interesting because Neal is from right here.’ And Mark said, ‘I knew that. I had that.’ We’re not saying, but if it works, it works. And it worked out everybody got here and it works out great.

“We got some folks back here that, Chad Scott and John Schlarman, who are very familiar with this place. That’s good stuff. We don’t lose the ability to connect to our Kentucky guys. Which is good, which is really good. I hadn’t had a chance to bump into John until last night. I was over in the football offices and bumped into him. I couldn’t tell you how excited he was to be back. He was fired up. So it’s pretty good. I like to see that. That’s exciting for us to see guys excited about coming home, to give them a chance. So as much as unfortunately it didn’t work out for one Kentucky alum, I’m hoping that for the three we brought back there will be some connection in there that we get to move forward and they have some success with that. Hopefully, we get to continue to do that.”

What ways can you capitalize on the renewed enthusiasm since the Stoops hire?

“We certainly want to do what we can in every area. We want to work very hard to put people back in the stands. That’s important to us. How we open this era in terms of whether it’s spring practice and spring games, letting Mark get out and meet people — the recruiting in January is really, really important to us to what we’ve got going on. With all the movement in college football, the recruiting piece, the apple cart gets upset pretty good, so hopefully we’ll be able to capitalize a little bit on that. It might not foster a top 15, top 10 class, but hopefully we might be able to move the needle a little bit differently than we would have been able to do.

“Between all those pieces, promotionally coming out and doing some things that Jason (Schlafer) is working on that hopefully people will enjoy and have fun with. Then we will continue to try and grow into a plan for late August and early September where we kick this thing off in Nashville and it will be an exciting night and Coach Petrino and Western Kentucky against the University of Kentucky down there. It’ll be a Saturday game and there will be great interest.”

Was there one thing when you were interviewing Mark that galvanized your feeling that Mark is the guy?

“His plan was really good. He had well thought threw how he would attack this thing for Kentucky football. Clear on his staffing thoughts, clear on his recruiting thoughts, adamant that you could get this job done, adamant that this was possible. It wasn’t, ‘Golly, if I have these nine things I think I’ve got a chance.’ It was, ‘I can do this. We can make this thing work, and here’s how.’

“And I’ve seen hundred plans like that. Everybody says, ‘Well, he had a plan.’ Every coach has a plan. It’s the ability to execute the plan and make it successful. And, I won’t say not deviate, but not knee-jerk, or not get off track. Consistency is important. The other thing that I liked is that he’s been in a lot of big games. He’s seen the big games and he’s not afraid of it. He is not afraid of it. Whether that was in Arizona playing Oregon for a shot to go to the Rose Bowl and they lose or double or triple overtime. He’s been in the rivalry games of Florida-Florida State. He’s coached in the national championship game. He’s been in those moments. So lining up in front of somebody in the Southeastern Conference isn’t going to scare Mark Stoops. And I think that’s real important.

“A lot of guys can say, ‘I’ve been here and I’ve been there,’ and that’s all true. You look at the big games he’s been in and he’s been in a lot of them. He’s been in a lot of those moments. There’s nothing about that that’s going to be new to him or scare him. It will be different when you’re wearing the headset of the head coach, I got that. But at least he’ll have that frame of reference when he gets to that moment. I reflect back on that moment and I know that I had fourth-and-two with 25 seconds to go and this is the call that I made. I think when you have that kind of experience that certainly helps you. The fact that he I think has the enthusiasm for this place was really good for us. I think the other important component was he had an answer for the offensive side of the ball.”

Do you think you will know by the end of the next session if you are able to move forward with some of your improvement plans?

“I hope. I hope so. But that’s not my job. My job is to be ready when we are. We’re going to have all sorts of thoughts and plans ready to go when we’re given that opportunity. And I think genuinely people want, at every level — no one is sitting around thinking, ‘Gosh darn, how can we keep Kentucky football down?’ No one is doing that. There’s nobody out there being the wet blanket, or whatever you want to call it, for Kentucky football. But it has to fit into the scope of everything else that’s going on, and there are certain things that other people in our league, they have foundations and are structured differently. Ours is a unique structure. And so we’ve got to fit into that unique structure. And we will do that. We will figure that out. We want to do it as soon as possible, sooner rather than later because there are certain windows of time to do construction, to do those kinds of things you’ve got to be able to meet that kind of stuff. Those are things that we are hopeful we can move along.”

Do you already have schematics worked up?

“I’ve got thoughts. But to go ahead with some of that stuff that’s going to cost you some money. We’ve done in years past some of that stuff and we’ve dreamed a little bit, what it would look like, what would it be like, what would we like to do. So we’re not without thought. We look around our league and we see everybody else has done. And this is not a place that has been void of doing stuff for Kentucky football. We’ve done a lot of stuff. Just unfortunately for the fan, they don’t see a lot of stuff because it’s behind the Nutter Center doors, it’s behind the locker room door or something like that. So they don’t see it.”

They don’t see it.

“No, so that’s part of that deal. When I say there are two or three components, that’s got to be part of that component, as well. They’ve got to feel it. (It was) 1999 was the last time we did something with the exception of the scoreboards, and that didn’t even register on anybody’s deal. They were like, ‘Oh, those are nice. OK, great. Next.’ It was next project. We spent $8 million on those boards. They’re nice. They are as good as anybody has got in this league, combination of square footage and in terms of boards and all that stuff. Does that mean that we’re heroes? Absolutely not. But it wasn’t bad. Come on, you know?”

Why didn’t the stadium improvement plans in association with IMG, which included a possible new baseball stadium, work out?

“I think there were a couple of pieces to it. I think the number got too big and they were trying to figure out how it would not affect the debt capacity of the state. Those two pieces. The number was bigger than they thought at that time that we could handle. And the other piece was even if we did some of it, would it impact the state? And they couldn’t figure out how to make that work.

“Our finances are good. We’re solid financially. We have in terms of debt service, we’re probably the lowest in the league. It means for almost all the facilities we’ve done, we’ve paid for them in cash. That’s no mystery. Everybody has figured that part out. We’ve had a donor base that’s been generous to us and help us out through a lot of that. The things we’ve done, we’ve piece-mealed things together. We’ve gotten down to the big ones now. Now we’ve gotten down to the big ones that we’ve got to figure out how to manage the big ones. We’ve got to get that done. That’s a daunting deal on one hand, but exciting on the other. If we get this thing, at this moment in time, it could be really, really good.”

On college football attendance being down, even in the SEC.

“There’s two components to moving your program forward, in total, not just football. Your program gets moved forward financially by one of two things at our level. Either by ticket price and contributions to your program, or your conference. So out of one of those two components you’ve got to figure out how to move your program forward. This thing over here, the ticket price can’t continue to escalate forever. It doesn’t go on for forever. Over here, you’ve got to create pools of money that allow you to grow your program. There’s only so much both those can do. So you’ve got to be strategic in how you do all that.

“The television packages that our league has produced, the ESPN package and the CBS package, and our bowl package, is as good as there is anywhere in college football, and college basketball for that matter. We rely more heavily on the football piece than we do the basketball piece for television, but the bowl piece has been a major, major piece of our league. So you put those components together and it’s given us strength to not have to raise that ticket price. And our ticket price is more than competitive in our league. Some people say, ‘Raise the ticket price.’ I’m like, ‘Really? Do you really want us to do that.’ And they’re like, ‘Well, no. But I think it would look better.’ And down the road that may be something we have to address. Our basketball ticket price is different clearly. But in terms of our peer institutes in basketball, it’s not. It’s on the lower end of that. So we’ve got to make sure we’re doing the balancing act of the ticket price and the television piece. The challenge in all of that, in our league there was a team that played a top 25 opponent and they had 8,000 or 10,000 empty seats in their stadium. That’s sort of scary.

“So what we’ve got to do, is we don’t necessarily need — people write me all the time saying build an 80,000-set stadium. No, we don’t need that. Probably, if we do anything, we’ll go the other way. Less and better. And make it really classy. And try and put something that is pretty special to it and make it a better fan experience for those who come. And make the ticket something that is a valuable commodity rather than something that you can pick up anywhere.”

So you’re talking baseball with Camden Yards? Baseball, everyone had the cookie-cutter bigger stadiums, until Camden Yards went the other way, smaller stadiums, better fan experience?

“Correct. Correct.”

You’d rather have 65,000 seats filled in a 65,000-seat stadium than 65,000 in an 80,000-seat stadium?

“No question. And I’m sure that those are the questions that other athletic directors in our league are asking. There have been some situations this year where it’s been very difficult, and there are some big stadiums that have had a lot of empty stadiums. Do you ever get all of that back? I don’t know. That’s hard. So we’re at a unique time to be able to think that through and say ok, maybe we look at this a little differently than what we did in the past. I think there’s something to be said for that kind of, I won’t say cozy, but you can create an environment and I hope out of this thought process we’re thinking our way through that.”

You got beat up pretty good this football season. How did you react to that?

“The personal thing of me is that I wanted a friend of mine to succeed. I’ve been in this thing long enough that I don’t read generally what people write about us. I don’t listen to what people say about us. I’ve said it, and I’ll say it again, my identity is in my faith in Christ first, my family second and everything everybody else says third. I’ve never wavered from that. I don’t find my identity in my job. I don’t go home and say, ‘Gosh, I hope they vote me athletic director of the year.’ That’s never been on my resume or wish list. I don’t care about stuff. It doesn’t matter to me. What matters to me is we give our coaches and our kids the best chance they can to be successful in every area. And that we’re good stewards of what we’ve been given and we do a good job of creating an environment where people have a chance to thrive. If we do that, it will succeed. It will be fine.

“Every year it gets more difficult for the coaches. I know how hard it is. It’s a faster deal. And it’s really, really difficult. I’ve had a lot of coaching hires that have been really successful. And we’ve had a couple that didn’t work out. Name me an AD where that hasn’t happened. I can’t think of an AD in my time in all of college athletics that has been 100 percent on all their hires. It doesn’t happen. It doesn’t happen. But having said that, for the most part, I’ve been proud of the guys we’ve hired and disappointed for them when it didn’t work out for them. In the ones where it didn’t end great I’ve always wished it ended differently.

“In this one, it was probably more personal in that perspective because the person we were talking about was such a great guy. And loved this place dramatically. That made it really hard. At the same time, I’m encouraged by the hope that we’ve got a new beginning, starting fresh. We’ve got a chance to capitalize on that and use this window to get that done and see what we can do. Then go ahead and hopefully build facilities for our program in total. We’ve got a couple of things going on down on Alumi Drive that will be really good. Soccer starts in February or March, to get that thing going. Then we’ll try and address some other things and leave a couple of these big ones to tackle. Then the next AD can come in here and worry about how to polish them all up.”

When is that going to happen? You said not too long ago you didn’t plan to be AD much longer?

“I want to finish some of these things. Everybody is trying to get me rid of me. (Laughs).”

Have you thought about what kind of legacy you will leave here?

“I’ve never worried about that. I don’t care about my legacy. I look at the pictures on these walls, of the kids I know on these pictures. That’s the legacy I want. I’ve never worried about what you wrote, or you said, ‘Mitch Barnhart is a loser.’ I don’t care. Honest to goodness, I don’t care. I do care what Luis Orta would say about me, or what Eric Quigley would say about me, or Thomas Giambi, or I can point to any of these (pictures) in this room, Ashley Frazier, some of these kids, Bruno Agustonelli, those kids matter to me. That matters to me. I worry that win they leave they said we had a shot. And we’re not 100 percent in that. We’re not going to be perfect in that experience, but we’re going to try really hard. We’re going to try really hard. The relationships we have with a Wesley Woodyard. The relationships we have with a Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Chad Scott comes back and says, ‘You know who I’m married to?’ You’re married to Shambrica Jones. She played for us. That’s pretty cool. I didn’t know that. That’s neat. That means more to me.

“So at the end of the day, if that’s what I get out of this, that’s all that matters to me. I’ve got plenty of championship rings. Do I want to win? Absolutely. No question, I want to win. You can write that down. I want to win. I don’t go into these things wanting to lose. I’m pretty adamant about winning. But, at the end of the day, it is those kids that matter to me. I love those relationships and it’s cool stuff.

“I’ve never gone to bed at night saying, ‘My gosh, what are they saying about me on talk radio tomorrow.’ I sleep pretty good. Not much of it. But when I do sleep, I’m ok.”

 

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