LEXINGTON, Ky. – In the midst of a banner season and the greatest era of comprehensive success in UK Athletics history, Kentucky’s Mitch Barnhart has been selected as a finalist for Athletic Director of the Year by the Sports Business Journal.
The winner will be announced from among the five finalists at the 12th annual Sports Business Awards on May 22 at the New York Marriott Marquis at Times Square. Barnhart’s fellow finalists are Ray Anderson (Arizona State University), Jennifer Cohen (University of Washington), Blake James (University of Miami) and Jamie Pollard (Iowa State University).
This marks the second time Barnhart has been chosen as a finalist for the award. He was last a finalist for Athletic Director of the Year at the Sports Business Awards in 2015, the year that marked the completion of the 15 by 15 by 15 Plan. Under Barnhart’s leadership, UK Athletics’ growth has continued since.
Already this season, Kentucky’s volleyball and men’s soccer teams have delivered conference championships to Lexington. UK football also completed its most successful season in four decades with 10 wins and a VRBO Citrus Bowl championship, paying off years of investment in the program in facilities, staffing and recruiting.
Those three teams led Kentucky to a No. 21 ranking in the Learfield Directors’ Cup final fall standings. That is the highest ranking at this point in the season in school history, ahead of the pace set when UK finished a school-record 10th in 2016-17. With the success of UK’s winter and spring sports, that record is in danger once more. Just this week, UK was one of six schools to have both its men’s and women’s basketball teams receive top-six seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
UK Athletics is pursuing the goals set forth in Barnhart’s Elite 1-3-5 initiative announced soon after the completion of the 15 by 15 by 15 Plan. The aim is for each UK team to be No. 1 by winning a conference or national championship, sustain a department-wide 3.0 GPA and rank in the top five of the Directors’ Cup standings by 2022. Four UK teams have already won championships counting toward Elite 1-3-5.
Barnhart has continually stayed true to his pledge to match resources to expectations. Barnhart has strategically invested in improvements to UK Athletics’ facilities. Investments in new construction and renovation to facilities total more than $300 million and include the Joe Craft Center; new stadiums for track and field, softball and soccer; the UK Golf House; and the Wildcat Coal Lodge dormitory. The home of Kentucky football, Kroger Field, underwent a $126 million renovation completed in 2015 and the $45 million Joe Craft Football Training Facility opened a year later. Most recently, a new $49 million baseball stadium – Kentucky Proud Park – opened in fall of 2018 and a new men’s basketball locker room opened in 2017.
On the horizon in terms of facility improvements is the renovation of Memorial Coliseum, for which UK received approval to begin design work at a meeting of the Board of Trustees in February. UK Athletics’ part of a university-wide capital campaign – Kentucky Can – announced last fall will play a key role in making that project come to life and in ensuring the athletics department remains self-sufficient, operating with a balanced budget and with the help of no state or university funds while contributing millions to the academic mission at UK. Those contributions include funding nearly two-thirds of the $112 million Don & Cathy Jacobs Science Building opened in 2016.
Competitive success and financial responsibility are only two parts of the story of Barnhart’s 17-year tenure at Kentucky. Wildcat student-athletes have achieved in the classroom at unprecedented levels in recent years, extending their streak of semesters with a cumulative grade-point average above 3.0 to 13 in December. The year 2018 also saw 89 Wildcats earn their degrees as well as records for graduation rates in a report released by the NCAA.
Barnhart continues to innovate in the support UK gives student-athletes, including the announcement of a new Student-Athlete Experience Division last summer. The division is charged with guiding UK Athletics’ efforts in the areas of academics and student-athlete experience. The redoubled efforts in the area of Student-Athlete Experience have already borne fruit, with UK holding a career fair for student-athletes in February. Additionally, the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee established a relationship with Special Olympics Kentucky in an effort to make the maximum impact on the organization.
In addition to his work at UK, Barnhart also serves as a leader in both the Southeastern Conference and on a national level. Now the longest-tenured athletics director in the conference, Barnhart is the chair of SEC ADs after extensive work with the SEC Compliance Committee and the SEC Network Content Committee, which helped the highly successful launch of the largest new cable channel in television history. Barnhart also is in his third year as a member of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee, which brings responsibility for selecting, seeding and bracketing teams, along with administration of the NCAA’s highest-profile event.
Barnhart’s leadership extends to mentoring the next generation of college athletics directors. His former lieutenants have gone on to become athletics directors at nationally prominent universities, including Greg Byrne of Alabama, Mark Coyle at Minnesota, Rob Mullens at Oregon, Scott Stricklin at Florida and John Cohen at Mississippi State. Earlier this month, Kevin Saal was named AD at Murray State after 12 years under Barnhart at Kentucky.
Barnhart’s core values – character, integrity, knowledge, stewardship and competitive excellence –underlie all the department has achieved under his leadership. They also serve as the foundation for everything to come at Kentucky.