Time to give Mitch Barnhart credit he deserves

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It’s time to show Mitch Barnhart a little love. No, time to show him a little more than that. After all, a dozen years ago when then UK president Lee Todd tabbed the Oregon State athletic director to replace Larry Ivy, who had been forced out by Todd, the president gave two specific instructions to the new head of the UK athletics department.

First, keep the department off NCAA probation. Second, build a competitive all-around sports program.

Friday, UK announced that it has finished 11th in the national Director’s Cup standings, which measures the success of schools’ comprehensive sports programs.

It is UK’s highest finish ever, topping the then program-best No. 25 ranking of a year ago. The No. 11 national ranking put the Cats third in the SEC behind No. 2 Florida and No. 9 Texas A&M.

Look at the other schools in the top 10 – 1. Stanford, 3. Notre Dame, No. 4 Virginia, No. 5 Penn State, No. 6 Texas, No. 7 UCLA, No. 8 Southern Cal and No. 9 Duke.

Those are not just great athletics programs but schools with terrific academic rankings, as well. Which points out the reason why a university should strive to field a strong all-around sports program. It helps the overall profile of the school. It sends the message that the school wants to compete at the highest level in all endeavors, in academics and athletics. It sends the message that the school cares enough about its students and student-athletes that it wants to compete at a high level.

That wasn’t an easy task at Kentucky, which lacks some of the same financial resources as a Florida or a Texas or a Southern Cal. At one time, there was the thinking at UK that using resources on the so-called “minor” sports would hurt the two cash cows – football and basketball. While football has struggled of late, that has certainly not been the case in basketball.

Back to Barnhart. I’ve said it before, the current athletics director at times is his own worst enemy. He ranks behind many of his predecessors in terms of dealing with the fan base. He doesn’t feel comfortable out in front of things. It’s why you rarely see him out on the floor of Rupp Arena talking to the fans, etc.

Behind the scenes, however, he is the best athletics director UK has employed. No one cares more about the athletes than Barnhart. He supports them. He knows them by name. He works to give them what they need to succeed.

Eighteen of UK’s 22 sport scored points in the Director’s Cup totals. Obviously, men’s basketball helped by reaching the NCAA Tournament finals. The rifle team turned in another highly productive year. The UK softball team reached the Women’s College World Series for the first time in school history.

There has been across-the-board success, however. Women’s basketball returned to the NCAA Tournament. Track and field made a strong NCAA showing. The baseball team returned to the NCAA Tournament. So did volleyball. And women’s soccer. And tennis.

Strong stat: Seven UK’s teams finished in the top 10 of their respective sports.

A year ago, Louisville turned in a tremendous athletics season, winning the national title in college basketball, reaching the national finals in women’s basketball, upsetting Florida in the Sugar Bowl. Louisville AD Tom Jurich has long been praised as one of the nation’s best athletic directors.

There’s a tendency to try and pit Jurich and Barnhart against each other. The two schools are rivals. The respective fan bases aren’t exactly friendly. The two athletic directors are almost polar opposites in terms of personality.

We need to put that aside and just say both are pretty good at their jobs.

Barnhart’s first year at UK, the program finished 50th in the Director’s Cup. It has improved steadily throughout the years, improving every year except one before making the big jump this year.

Look at that list again – Stanford, Florida, Notre Dame, Virginia, Penn State, Texas, UCLA, Southern Cal, Duke, Texas A&M and, yes, Kentucky.

There are a lot of people at UK who deserve credit, but Mitch Barnhart tops the list.

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