Mitch Barnhart: "I didn't get in this business to finish last."

On3 imageby:Jack Pilgrim03/30/24

The focus to close out the week was not on John Calipari or the Kentucky men’s basketball program. When Kenny Brooks was introduced as the next head women’s basketball coach to take over the Wildcats starting this 2024-25 season inside the new-and-improved Memorial Coliseum, UK AD Mitch Barnhart wanted the spotlight there. And deservedly so.

Because Kenny Brooks is awesome and it was nothing short of a home-run hire for the program. He crushed his opening presser and explained just how grateful he was for the opportunity to wake up this “sleeping giant” in Lexington.

When Barnhart took 15 minutes of questions following Brooks’ press conference, the bulk of his time was spent on the women’s program and his expectations moving forward under the prized new addition — “Let’s just go get better,” he said. But of course a media opportunity with the school’s athletics director couldn’t come and go without a question regarding his thoughts on the trajectory of the men’s program under Coach Cal.

That led to a quick dismissal from Barnhart, shifting the focus back to why a hundred-plus folks were in attendance at the Joe Craft Center to begin with that day: Kenny Brooks.

“I’d like to just talk about women’s basketball today, if I could. If we can do that, I’d like to do that,” he said. “I think we have a standard for all of our athletics, OK? And I’ve never wavered from that. Let’s leave it at that.”

Everything he needed to say about men’s basketball was said earlier in the week in a sit-down conversation alongside John Calipari with BBN Tonight. That’s where he talked about that program’s recent stretch of underperforming in March with no second weekends in the NCAA Tournament since 2019.

“There’s no one that has missed the standard, we understand that,” he said at the time. “We’ve won six SEC Tournaments with Cal, we’ve won six regular-season titles, we’ve been to four Final Fours, seven Elite Eights. It’s not that we don’t know how to get there. We’ve hit a patch where we haven’t, and that is not lost on us. He and I are a little bit competitive, we certainly like to win.

“That has been in our DNA from the beginning of his career and mine. We didn’t come to this program to sit here and say, ‘Hey, let’s just see if we can casually walk through this thing and in sashay all the way to the end of the deal.’ I want to win.”

He wouldn’t dig in on that standard for the men’s program specifically in the follow-up interview later in the week. Barnhart did, though, talk about his expectations for all of his programs across the board and the excellence he demands with everyone — not just basketball and football, like some assume on occasion.

That topic clearly struck a nerve, not singling out anybody in particular, but fighting back on any notion that winning isn’t his top priority for every sport under the University of Kentucky umbrella. No sport is more important than the next and they are all expected to compete at the highest level.

“I think you guys know me well enough to know, there’s never been a day that I haven’t had high expectations for all of our sports programs. If you guys want me to sit here and rattle off all the things our teams have done and what we’re doing currently, you’d go, ‘Oh, here he goes again.’ I know how this works,” Barnhart joked. “I value my gymnastics team as much as I value my men’s tennis team, my baseball team. They’re all doing pretty good, by the way, you know? If you want me to keep going, I can do that.

“My point is, my expectations are high for everybody. If you know me long enough, have I ever not wanted to win at something? No, I’m a pretty stinking competitive guy. I want to win. It matters. I didn’t get in this business to finish last. I compete and educate, those are two things I will do incredibly well. We’re gonna graduate 140 kids in May. 140 kids will walk across and get their degrees, that means a ton to me. And it will change lives through that, but we’re also going to change lives through what they do and what they learn in their competitive venues. And that’s really good.”

It adds another layer to the $33 million question when it came to Coach Cal’s buyout and any thinking Barnhart would have gone down that path. Would he pay Calipari that much to simply go away when every sport is valued and prioritized equally under his leadership in Lexington? When that money could help fund other athletics projects across campus and build out the best all-around department possible?

In a way, it says John Calipari is not bigger than UK Athletics. That’s a statement in itself, right?

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