Right this ship
After an exhaustive 131 day search, University of Kentucky President Lee Todd has found the man to be UK's new Athletic Director. Mitch Barnhart, the former athletic director of Oregon State University, was introduced on Monday as the president's choice.
Barnhart has an impressive resume, experience in the Southeastern Conference at the University of Tennessee, and a reputation as a very aggressive fundraiser. He took over an OSU athletic department that was $12.5 million dollars in debt in 1998 and leaves it with only $4.8 million dollars in debt and a schedule to be debt free. He produced a balance budget and raised over $20 million dollars for new athletic facilities. The press conference announcing his arrival was filled with the expected pomp and circumstance surrounding any new hire, and after the debacle of C.M. Newton and Larry Ivy for the past couple of years, the hiring of someone outside of the UK family brings a much needed breath of fresh air. Taking all of this into consideration, however, the more I thought about this decision, the less enthusiastic I became.
After all of the mess of the football scandal and the subsequent talk of bringing athletics back into the University family, I expected something else in our new AD.
I was looking for a reformer-a maverick who would try to make a real difference in the way that college athletics are run in this town. President Todd was quoted as saying he wanted UK athletics to be "clean first, and then competitive."
Instead, I believe we hired someone who has really been proven exceptionally adept at primarily one thing: raising money.
The UK website lists six highlights of his years at OSU, and the first four had to do with money. Only the last one related to academics.
The reality is, college sports are a business and businesses need money, but I was hoping for more. And administrators who are concerned mostly with fundraising do not necessarily display the greatest leadership.
Beyond raising money, the big item on Barnhart's resume is his hire of former University of Miami and Seattle Seahawk coach Dennis Erickson as OSU's football coach. This has put them in a position to play in BCS games, sell out their stadium, increase their season ticket package, and even be on the cover of Sports Illustrated. This increase in exposure surely led to revenue.
The question remains, however, at what price glory? Erickson won two national titles at the University of Miami, but he left the program under the cloud of an NCAA investigation and subsequent probation. He holds a reputation as recruiting "questionable" players in a philosophy that some people have labeled "speed over literacy." In 2000, five of Erickson's players were arrested on assault charges concerning the beating of a 21-year-old man at a house party. Their big moment on the national stage happened in January of 2001 when the Beavers demolished the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at the Fiesta Bowl in a game that is mostly remembered for the excessive celebration penalties, unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, and an overall thuggish attitude by the Beavers.
OSU has also seen a steep decline in their graduation rates over the past 10 years. The graduation rates released in 1999 show OSU at number seven in the country with a graduation rate of student athletes at 78 percent. Statistics released in U.S. News and World Report for the 2000-2001 school year show that OSU graduated only 43 percent of their student athletes and were now ranked at 269 among Division I-A schools. The GPA of the student athletes at OSU is at the highest since 1992, according to Barnhart's resume, but how many of these students are moving on toward graduation? According to the May 16, 2002 edition of kgw.com, Barnhart was "very comfortable" with the low rate of graduation for student-athletes, because "they are doing a great job in the classroom." The same U.S. News and World Report article stated that OSU was not in compliance with Title IX, the gender equity law. Their ranking was 166, UK was at 115, and they would need to add two women's sports before 2004 or risk losing their status as Division-IA in football. Barnhart again assured kgw.com that this would be taken care of and that the numbers were outdated. He blamed football for the imbalance in numbers and stated that their female programs are "absolutely equitable with what's going on on the men's side,"although it's doubtful this "equity" is reflected in the coaches' paychecks.
This is all worth noting in considering the Five Point Plan that Barnhart unveiled in his press conference:
Be first class in everything we do; follow the rules; work toward academic success; have fiscal integrity; and compete for championships.
Case by case, has Barnhart always shown his desire to follow his own rules?
Reviewing the behavior of the OSU football team on the gridiron would not call to mind the word "class" unless used in the phrase, "They didn't go to class."
Follow the rules: At this point, Barnhart has not been associated with any sort of NCAA rules violation, but the hiring of Dennis Erickson at least suggests the question not "if" but "when."
Work toward academic success: Barnhart appeared demonstrably not concerned with low graduation rates for the student athletes.
Fiscal integrity: This one he nails. This guy knows how to raise money the right way, as opposed to the Claude Bassett "pass the hat" method.
Compete for championships: The OSU football team has achieved that level, but their other sports are not there yet.
These are the cold and hard facts for college athletics: win, win, raise money, win, raise more money.
Many expected a bolder move from President Todd. In a few years, Barnhart may prove all doubters wrong. He could be the best thing that ever happened to the school. If so, great.
Nothing would make me happier than to see UK compete cleanly in all of its sports and compete at a championship level. Whether or not Mitch Barnhart is going to be the man to take us there remains to be seen.
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