The UK football team is a surprising 2-0 going into their weekend match with our dreaded enemy to the north, Indiana University, and it appears there's a new star in the Commonwealth.
No, it is not running back Artose Pinner or defensive lineman Jeremy Caudill; instead it is new athletic director Mitch Barnhart.
Admittedly, Barnhart was greeted with skepticism by many when first hired.
UK spent an awful lot of time, and an awful lot of money, on this guy, and it did not seem like a slam dunk. President Lee Todd was sold however, and it turns out he found the right guy to turn around the behemoth that the athletic department had become. Internally, Barnhart has been making changes since the day he arrived. A lot of these changes the public will never really notice.
Where Barnhart has made his presence felt is out with the general public, the people, the Wildcat Faithful who run this Big Blue Nation.
At the press conference announcing his hiring, Barnhart declared, "We will own this state!" At fist, this just seemed like empty rhetoric, an attempt to gain cheap cheers from the home crowd. Besides, he was good friends with University of Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich-how cutthroat would he be with his buddy? Barnhart has since proven he will do whatever it takes to help UK athletics.
When the Wildcats opened their football season with an upset of arch-rival, and way overrated, U of L, Barnhart was right down on the field celebrating. He came down for the last moments of the game, so as not to show up the coaching staff, and celebrated with the team, holding two UK helmets aloft as he ran off the field.
"That's fun," he said, "I enjoy that a lot." Not content to let it end there, Barnhart opened up the UK ticket office on Labor Day so the university could ride the momentum of the big win into ticket sales for the game the following week. Barnhart then challenged the students of UK to wake up from their usual indifference and help turn Commonwealth into a sea of blue.
He even went so far as to appear on the UK flagship stations in Lexington and Louisville to hype up the Cats even more. When was the last time we saw a UK athletic administrator this visible in the public eye?
The last two UK athletic directors, C.M. Newton and Larry Ivy, were not the kind of guys to run around the field and celebrate after a big win.
C.M. Newton did some good things for this school-hiring Rick Pitino being one-but he also did a lot of questionable things: waiting too long to fire Bill Curry and giving too much money and power to Hal Mumme top the list.
In sharp contrast to the rah-rah spirit of Barnhart, Newton told those UK fans who disagreed with him about Curry to find another team to support. Would Newton have been appearing on local talk shows to promote UK? Would Newton have worked toward getting his recruiting license so he could go on the road and help coaches out? Not likely, since he always seemed to be too busy flying around the country being C.M. Newton. Ivy, well, Ivy was merely a caretaker. He was unfortunately the man left holding the bag after the Newton/Mumme mess came to light.
He also had an unfortunate flair for always saying and doing the wrong thing whenever the cameras were on him. Remember the bad joke about getting a raise at the press conference announcing the football probation? That was classic Ivy.
Now UK is being treated to a real contrast.
Barnhart he has done more than help just football. The day before the UK/UL football game, Barnhart announced that Jason Parker had been dismissed from the basketball team. The next day in the daily paper, he politely declined to discuss the specifics of the case. He met with Parker's parents, and promised to do whatever was necessary to help him transfer and get back on his feet.
"Certainly," he said, " we're interested in only what is best for Jason." This is all in sharp contrast to the media fiasco presided over by Larry Ivy during the Marvin Stone transfer just this past winter.
If you remember, there was discussion of an unwritten rule or policy or something that said UK would not release transferring players to certain schools, such as UL or other Southeastern Conference Schools. After being publicly lambasted, Ivy reversed field and held one of the worst press conferences ever, where he seemed to blame everything on coach Tubby Smith. Tubby Smith then held a news conference later in the day, where he seemed to have little idea what his athletic director was talking about. About nine months later, a similar situation has been handled with class, and with the main concern being the student athlete and not the university.
The Barnhart era, if it's not too early to call it that, has only been in full swing for a couple of months.
It's off to a great start, however, and we can only hope that the next few years bring more enthusiasm for the student athletes that we have seen so far.
Is he worth the money? Well, he's done more to visibly support the football team in the past three weeks than C.M. Newton did during his entire tenure, and they named the field after him.
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