Longtime University of Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart will be inducted into the 2022 Class of the Kentucky Sports Hall of Fame in an August ceremony at Louisville’s Galt House.
Twenty years ago, Mitch Barnhart was a newly minted A.D. at University of Kentucky.
And Barnhart was still brand new to the job when he sat down with Ace’s Jeff Zurcher for an in-depth interview (available in its entirety) that encompassed everything from long-running jokes about the new A.D.’s hair to his dreams of a PF Chang’s in Lexington (which was only a rumor at the time).
But the winter of 2003 was a news cycle consumed by tragedy and the space shuttle Columbia disaster, and Zurch’s award-winning longform coverstory quickly faded, in an era without any social media or Google’s long tail to sustain it.
All of that was still just a dream — a vividly articulated dream — when Zurch wrote the 2003 profile.
Is the new AD a step in the right direction for UK?
By Jeff Zurcher
Late Saturday night, Indianapolis, April, 2000. Two cars head north out of downtown, carrying men from Oregon who have just witnessed Michigan State defeat Wisconsin, and Florida defeat North Carolina in the national semi-finals of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
The mood, light. Conversation, jovial. But then a man in one car gets serious.
“Have you ever noticed Mitch’s hair length never changes?” prods Greg Byrne.
“Yeah, yeah, it never does,” agrees another man, one of the top supporters of Oregon State University athletics.
“Just look at it,” Byrne dryly instructs. “Mitch would be really upset with me if he knew that I told you guys this; but we’re all pretty close, so I think you should know: Mitch wears a toupee.”
The other three men can’t see Byrne’s discreet smile in the dark. But he knows their mouths are agape with surprise.
The cars drive on, looking for food. Nothing’s open save Denny’s. Eight men sit down at the table: six supporters of the program, Byrne, and Mitch Barnhart, OSU’s athletic director.
Barnhart begins talking; he’s passionate about his job, about college athletics. The supporters listen, mostly intently. But some shoot glances at the AD’s scalp. And one in particular, Doug Ginger, just looks at Barnhart’s head the whole time.
Barnhart wonders what may be quizzical about his cranium. Byrne wonders how he will keep from laughing aloud.
But Byrne doesn’t break. And for at least 48 hours more, the game is afoot. Not until the end of the trip, which is an especially-successful fundraising venture, does Byrne finally make known to all that Barnhart does not wear a hairpiece. Then, they all laugh.
Balls pound like muffled jackhammers. The scoreboard horn belches intermittently. And as the empty Friday afternoon bleachers at Memorial Coliseum echo the sounds of men’s basketball practice, Mitch Barnhart shares his life.
“I wanted to be a veterinarian.” He smiles, adding, “until two things cured me of that. One, science classes started to take their toll on my academics. Two, I had to do a practicum and spent two weeks with a vet; he let me watch a surgery, and that was the end of that.”
But the beginning of something else.
Barnhart has traveled—in all senses of the word—a great distance from veterinarian intern to the University of Kentucky’s Director of Athletics.
Born in Kansas City, Kansas, in 1959, he grew up admiring athletes. Big for him were Gayle Sayers, the Kansas Comet, a guy he “always wanted to meet” because “liked because of the way he carried himself,” and Tom Watson, “as good as a person as a golfer.”
But Barnhart’s “real hero” was a different type of sports figure-a coach. In football, basketball, and baseball, his mentor was his father, Scott, who passed away when Barnhart was only 11.
“Not having a father was…” Barnhart pauses. Thoughts wander, and don’t come back for a moment. He can’t, or won’t, finish the sentence and the absence offers its own insight.
He goes on to talk about his mother, Susan. She raised Mitch and his younger (by nearly five years) brother, Eric, who’s employed in athletics at the University of Oklahoma.
“She is an exceptional lady,” Barnhart beams. “She worked a couple of jobs. Did everything you could ask of someone in a single-parent home. We weren’t wealthy, but had a great work ethic. And we didn’t lack for love.”
But not growing up with a father has made Barnhart embrace even more what he has now.
Sandy Bell, UK’s Assistant Athletics Director for Compliance, says she immediately recognized Barnhart’s love for family. Soon after Barnhart arrived in Lexington, university officials were scheduled to appear in Chicago to appeal NCAA sanctions related to football recruiting violations. Barnhart, being new to the job, was not an active part of the appeal, but nonetheless wanted to go along. However, his children were registering for classes that the same day. So Barnhart went with them to register at Lexington Christian Academy and then, Bell says, took off for Chicago, “accomplishing everything he needed to do that day.”
When not in school or practice at Lexington Christian, the Barnhart children are at college, as in on campus.
“The kids are there because they want to be,” offers Bell. “This (UK athletics) is very much a part of their lives. And very smart of Mitch to include them. Because if you’re not careful, this business can consume your family life.”
And his wife?
“She’s so solid,” Barnhart says of Connie, whom he met at Ottawa (Kan.) University. “Married 21 years in June. A great mom. Got a great heart—a resolve to take care of people, a desire to do what’s right that’s almost unrelenting. Great for this business. Loves what we do.”
We. Important pronoun.
Barnhart, this day neatly donning a blue sweater vest, white shirt, and gray slacks, leans back in one of the black leather chairs that surround the dark conference table in his office and crosses his legs. He goes on with more smiles for and compliments about Connie and the kids.
Soon, a knock on the door. Connie, tall, blond, and likewise smiling, pops in to see Barnhart; introduces herself politely and apologizes for the interruption-which is not one at all, but rather a real-time anecdote.
The kids-daughters Kirby and Blaire, son Scott-promptly tumble in after her, further strengthening the familial scene.
Heading home for the afternoon, Connie gives Barnhart a quick peck on the cheek. He touches her gently on the arm, says, “Call you later.”
What It’s About
Leon Smith’s in the middle. Literally. Barnhart’s office is in one corner of the beige-bricked strip overlooking the Memorial Coliseum floor; coach Tubby Smith’s is in the other. And Leon Smith, UK’s Basketball Operations Coordinator, has a space in between.
Before he began working with the Barnhart and Tubby Smith, the two highest-profile members of the University of Kentucky Athletics Association (UKAA), Leon Smith had stints at USA Basketball and the NCAA. He also worked for UKAA when C.M. Newton was at the helm, and was a football Wildcat prior to that. He knows, has seen, has learned much.
“The one thing you have to be is consistent-and he has,” Smith says of Barnhart. “What you see is what you get with him. Not only is he holding coaches and athletes accountable, but everybody, from top to bottom.”
By the way, “everybody” also includes student-managers and -trainers.
“Managers and trainers receive many of the same perks as student-athletes; and they should, because they work just as hard,” stated Smith. “But some of them feel like they aren’t held to the same [ethical] standards as student-athletes. And we had a situation where Mitch had to call in a manager for a behavior problem; it was funny seeing the manager’s reaction after coming out of that meeting was like one of our players’ reactions to missing class. And I think that’s good.
“The thing that is amazing, the thing I wish everyone could see, is how genuine he is about what he does; he does it because he loves it,” Smith adds.
That love, though, is not for trophies, prestige, or money.
“The student-athletes-that’s what we are here for,” says Barnhart with underlying fervor. “I want to treat our student-athletes the same way I would want my children to be treated should they ever have a chance to play college athletics.”
Smith reinforces this: “He has a sincere concern for each sport (UK has 22) to do well. He hasn’t been a football AD or a basketball AD-he’s been an AD. He’s very visible. Any event on campus, he at least makes an appearance to see how things are going. And that’s very different around here. And that makes a difference.”
Greg Byrne, who has known Barnhart for more than 20 years and is now UK’s Associate Athletics Director for Fundraising and Development, puts it like this: “I think the bottom-line goal for him is to have every student-athlete that comes in here, when they leave, say that if they had it to do all over again they’d go to Kentucky.”
And all student-athletes means exactly that.
Bell talks about a time she was in Barnhart’s office, and he was conversing with a parent whose daughter plays a non-revenue sport (which usually don’t receive extensive off-campus publicity) for UK. As the mother got into her story, Bell says she discerned that the woman didn’t expect Barnhart to know whom her daughter was. Barnhart, however, stopped the mother, and mentioned the first name of the student-athlete. He then proceeded to tell the parent he knew about her daughter’s injury-because he was at her event. He followed that with a discussion of the doctors’ and trainers’ reports. Next, he brought up the young woman’s career and how good she was.
“And we have 450 student-athletes,” Bell points out.
Those familiar with Kentucky athletics, which is most of the state, know that this past, uncharacteristically bitterly cold month has been sweltering for Barnhart; he calls it the most difficult time in 21 years in athletics administration. The flames have sprouted from the circumstances surrounding his hiring of Rich Brooks as head football coach.
· First it was heat for what many media outlets said was a clandestine search process.
“As an AD, a coaching search is the most high-profile thing you can do,” states Byrne.”To be guarded about it is what you are supposed to do-but I don’t know, maybe that’s not the way it was done around here before. But for people to come away with opinions that Mitch didn’t know what he was doing? I felt that was unfairuntil you’ve walked a mile in the guy’s shoes.”
As precedent for his silent search, Barnhart made five head coaching hires while at Oregon State, including two in football and one in men’s basketball, but did not discuss candidates publicly (and stated to the media that he would not) for any of the hires.
In fact, the Kentucky media had more information about his hiring process than the Oregon media, Barnhart says, nonchalantly.
· Then it was heat for selecting Brooks.
But Brooks is no different than any other coach-if he wins games, he was a good hire; if he doesn’t win, he wasn’t. Just like Guy Morriss. That simple.
Barnhart understands this.
“There will always be pressure on me, and in this business, you are only as good as your teams. Proof will come as time goes on. But we know Coach Brooks has put together a really good staff, and recruiting is going well. He is a tenacious [here, Barnhart emphasizes the ‘a’ vowel sound] competitor, a great football mind, and a man of great integritywhich I think has been lost a little bit in all this.”
Then, very soon after, heat for NCAA infractions that occurred when Brooks was at Oregon.
Sandy Bell spoke to the situation concerning 1979 violations involving improper travel:
“There was a booster that assisted Oregon in recruiting, which was permissible at that time. This booster says he wants to come to the Oregon-Oregon State football game, and Coach Brooks wanted to fly him in there-a perfectly reasonable suggestion. But then an assistant coach went to a travel fund (that the assistant had previously set up) to take care of the booster’s expenses. The assistant wasn’t instructed by Brooks to do that, but he did it anyway. So what the NCAA did was to determine that arranging for the booster’s travel out of that fund made the booster a paid talent scout.”
But for his part, Brooks was “completely innocent.”
And when Bell talked to the appropriate person at the NCAA about the matter, and asked “What would you have told me?” that person said, “‘We would have read this paragraph to you (concerning the violation), but would have said to please consider how minor this is and how old this is. This in any way is not meant for anybody to not get a job.'”
Academic-related violations, dealing with junior college transcripts received by Oregon and many other schools in the Pacific-10 Conference, also occurred under Brooks in 1983. However, Brooks was not implicated in that investigation, though Oregon received probation.
Still, Barnhart has publicly admitted that he should have discovered and divulged these parts of Brooks’ past to UK president Lee Todd prior to Brooks’ hire. And he has been derided for his error.
“A part of leadership is owning up to your mistakes if you have misunderstandings and taking the high road of humility,” says Mike Breaux, senior pastor of Southland Christian Church, where the Barnharts attend. “And in any type of leadership position, you are going to open yourself up to criticism, second-guessing. That’s why I pray for him-he’s in a tough spot in a high-profile position. But Mitch has responded very well. He’s really upbeat. And he’s done a good job not getting into a war of words.”
According to Byrne, the University of Kentucky had “always intrigued” Barnhart.
“Mitch always felt UK was a program that had great history and success in men’s basketball, but also felt that it hadn’t succeeded on a national level in a lot of its other sports. Yet he felt very strongly that the resources-if they were maximized-were here for all sports to compete. So he jumped at [the chance to come to UK] very quickly. This is a place he’ll want to call home for a long time. You come to Kentucky and don’t leave Kentucky.”
Though-according to Chuck Culpepper, New York Newsday sports columnist who formerly held said position at the Lexington Herald-Leader and Portland Oregonian-Barnhart is “more of an SEC guy than a West coast guy,” some people hold to the perception that he was/is an Oregon “outsider.” An outsider, however, may have been just what Todd wanted when he hired Barnhart last summer.
Leon Smith explains:
“The great thing about outsiders coming in is that they see things that others can’t or haven’t. A lot of times love is blind-and some people love Kentucky so much that they don’t see the things that may be wrong. Or that need to be fixed. Or that might be good, but can be done better.
“You don’t ever want to see anyone lose his job, like Mr. Ivy, whom I thought was great, but Mitch brings a whole new perspective to Kentucky and to athletics. The change has been refreshing.” Still, Barnhart, who believes UK fans are a “passionate group that gives us incredible ability to support this program,” confesses that coming from the outside has been difficult. “I’ve had ideas and ways of doing business that maybe have not been the most popular,” he says.
To get through the daily trials, and, frankly, the newness of it all, he relies on his people.
“The thing that immediately struck me about Mitch-and maybe a lot of people in public haven’t picked up on it yet-is that he’s very unassuming, willing to recognize that all of us have areas of expertise. He leans on all of us when he needs to and lets us lean on him when we need to,” says Bell.
Part of the leaning process is a UKAA staff meeting. Every Tuesday morning at 7:00, members of each department come in, sit down, and open up.
Bell: “This is the first time since I’ve been here (1989) that I’ve been involved in that type of sharing, brainstorming. What we have to say is being heard, evaluated, and used. It’s exciting.”
Exciting, yes. Every-moment-serious, hardly.
For discussion at meetings during football season, the staff often put out a suggestion box, recounts Bell. The comments came in regularly. “But once Greg arrived on staff, suddenly there was a little different flavor to the suggestions,” she says. “There were things like: ‘Mitch should use Grecian Formula 44,’ and they were always signed ‘Bubba.’
“Bubba? I don’t know any Bubba,” Byrne claims, ponders-possibly other hair-related jokes, like the Indianapolis toupee. “But we used to tease him all the time at OSU that he used Grecian Formula 44 because he had very little gray hair. He didn’t use it, though. And I don’t think he does now, because I can see some gray in there.”
“Finding more every day,” Barnhart chuckles.
“For me,” the AD continues, “there are two pieces of fun in my job. One is watching our student-athletes compete. The other is the people I work with. I remember one day at OSU, I walked into my office, picked up the phone, and it was dead. I couldn’t figure out why the thing didn’t work. Well, Greg had unplugged it from the outlet under the desk the night before. And I’m just furious at the phone and they keep paging me. And Greg comes in just laughing. But that’s okay; levity helps, and I’ve been the butt of many jokes.
“But occasionally (here again, Barnhart draws out the ‘a’ vowel sound; he tries to keep a smile from growing into a laugh-and can’t)I can dish it too. And it’s fun stuff, man. Mr. Byrne has been on the receiving end of a few.”
Byrne, for his part, couldn’t quite remember any.
“Yeahwell, ask him about his latest birthday present,” Barnhart says, dark eyes flickering.
Fears and the Future
Don’t expect to see Barnhart bungee jumping or hang gliding any time soon. But that doesn’t mean he lacks the desire.
“I’ve always enjoyed testing the limits of my fears. I like the extreme stuff. If I didn’t have children.There’re things on your list of things you’d like to do and I’d like to test them a bitlike the Mt. Everest stuff intrigues the heck out of mebut I’d never put my family at risk for stupid fun.”He goes on to talk about his phobias.
“Open heights —if it’s closed, and you’re standing behind glass—ain’t no big deal,” he says, the last four words coming quickly out of the side of his mouth, “but the minute you take the glass down, it makes your stomach move.
“And I hate snakes, man. Snakes are a no. Don’t even like to watch them on TV. Hate ’em.”
Other than that and “a major decision that could affect our program,” little keeps him up at night. He turns in around 1:00 a.m. Rises about five hours later.
He knows what he needs.
“Relationships with the student-athletes; with your staff of 100-200 people; with coaches; presidents and deans; state legislators; board of trustees; athletics board. It’s an amazing balance you have to have as an AD, all while at the same time maintaining your family ” asserts Byrne.
“Mitch has a good perspective on things. He’s intense because he’s got a big job to do. He knows what’s really important. That’s why I respect him,” says Mike Breaux who often chats with Barnhart on the phone.
Then, limited to three words, Breaux describes Barnhart with: “Family. Integrity. Authenticity.
“And those would be the same three words I would use for one of his predecessors, C.M. Newton.”
And while Newton certainly represents several glories of UK’s past, Bell believes Barnhart “is the right man for this job at the right time.”
She adds, “Kentucky is a tremendous program. But even a tremendous program can make strides. Mitch is going to take this athletic department that belongs to the state of Kentucky and to the fans and really move it forward; and they should be happy about that.”
And when this state and those fans have a moment to look Mitch Barnhart in the eye, to understand him, they will know his heart for God, first and foremost; will know his passion for life; will know his values of hard work and honesty; will know his family is important.
And, hopefully, will know not to stare at his toupee.
“Spicy. Anything spicy. The spicier the better.” That’s how Barnhart likes his food. Seems it was an acquired taste.
“Growing up, my mom used to cook tacos every Sunday night. She had the seasoned beef and got homemade corn shells from a Mexican family nearby. It was nothing for mom to fry up 120 tacos on a given night. We’d have eating contests. A buddy of mine ate 36 once, and I ate 27. I was 19 years old.”
“But now,” he shakes his head in defeat, “I could only put down six or eight-maybe.”
In addition to tacos, other loves are tortilla soup, and Chinese food, specifically Kung Pao and General Tso’s chicken-the hot stuff.
“He loves P.F. Chang’s. Rumor on the street is that they might be building one here, which would be wonderful,” says Byrne, looking hungry. “When we used to travel to Seattle, we’d have lunch and dinner one day and then lunch and dinner the next day at P.F. Chang’s.”
Ironically culinary no’s for the AD are sushi, “got to be cooked” and cooked leftovers, “never reheat leftovers-anything.”
On the beverage side, Barnhart doesn’t do coffee, opting instead for diet Pepsi; and permits nothing but liquid in his glass.
“Lemons and straws and spoons in your drink just gotta go, baby, just gotta go.”
Mitch Barnhart From Kansas to Kentucky
1. 1981, BA, Ottawa University
2. 1982, MS, Ohio University
3. 1982-83, San Diego State, Intern, Aztec Foundation
4. 1983, Oregon, Regional Director, Duck Athletic Fund
5. 1983-86, Southern Methodist University, Executive Director, Mustang Club
6. 1986-98, Tennessee, Senior Associate AD
7. 1998-2002, Oregon State University, Athletics Director
8. 2002 – University of Kentucky, Athletics Director