Starting off your season as an SEC coach with high-water pants and glitter socks would mean, for many, the only direction for things to go is down. Not to mention, before the first organized practice ball is bounced, your team rests comfortably in the nation’s top 20. That’s how UK Hoops Coach Matthew Mitchell ended his October. Stealing the show mimicking Michael Jackson in front of a sellout crowd there for Big Blue Madness while he pondered where to go next with a talented group of young players whom folks were expecting big things from. So it’s easy to see why come winter a young coach could be smothering a bit from the blanket of hyperbole and possibility. But that has not been the case for this fourth year coach.
It’s been more than a few minutes since the University of Kentucky has had two teams basking in such national prominence, but it no doubt comes as little surprise to Coach Mitchell. Under his guidance the Wildcats have advanced to four consecutive postseason tournaments, including back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances for the first time in 28 years. When you add in this month’s thrashing of both U of L and Duke (more on this in a moment) in the past couple seasons his teams have defeated a dozen nationally-ranked opponents, garnered top 25 rankings in average attendance, and recorded a remarkable two losses on their home floor, yes, only two.
Sports numbers, stats, records, that’s really all this is, the kind of stuff you hear about daily on sports talk radio,–sure, Coach Mitchell is a good coach–we get it. But that’s just part of the story. When taking an informal poll of what UK students, faculty, and fans think of Coach Mitchell you get some variation of the same thought: “He’s awesome.” “I love him.” “A breath of fresh air.” “He gets it.”
In a community that prides itself on the knowledge of basketball and that is fickle to the point of being downright volatile with its power to ignore you if aren’t meeting their needs, Coach Mitchell has managed to be a great Robin to John Calipari’s Batman in the Gotham City of basketball. How? Just like Coach Cal, Matthew Mitchell has delivered on the sales pitch he gave when he landed the job, all fresh-faced and gently plucked from Morehead State University. UK Hoops could be a powerhouse program and one that would also be a family of student players is what he envisioned but even more boldly, one that would make those who love the men’s game pay attention to the women’s. No small feat, but that no longer sounds like a fuzzy prognostication from a excited new coach—he’s now, already, No. 4 in all-time wins at Kentucky and we have noticed.
Wins, yeah, that’s how we gauge success here. No coach ever wants to hear, “yeah, it’s too bad they aren’t any good ‘cuz he’s a nice guy.” So, winning is what Coach Mitchell has this year’s team doing. December 4th brought a 20-point drubbing of in-state rival and then No. 10 ranked Louisville and four days later in front of the largest home crowd for a women’s game in Kentucky history, a true signature win over Duke. Yes, Duke. The Blue Devils are easily the most “hated” team to ever face our beloved University of Kentucky men’s basketball program and having their women roll into Lexington ranked No. 6 in country aligned perfectly for what might be the perfect storm for pulling fans who barely glance at women’s basketball until March into the fray. And Coach Mitchell and his team’s physical play on defense proved to the just the bourbon for the Cat fan’s CokeTM to make for a stiff pre-holiday bracer. That’s right, people were actually having water cooler talk about women’s basketball. That doesn’t happen much, you might argue that it should, but it just doesn’t. And that’s when you realize, Coach Mitchell is indeed, to use a now frequent sport cliché’, “special.”
I realized this a couple years ago when I was parking on Maxwell to go to a men’s game at Rupp. It was cold and a bit rainy and I stepped out of the car and there was Coach Mitchell, walking towards the game, alone, no posse, no entourage. I offered a “hey Coach,” which seemed to startle him and he stopped and threw out his hand and said “hey man, how’s it going?” I mumbled something along the line of “heading to the game” and he said “yep, me, too” and I locked the car door and he continued his journey and me, mine but I remember thinking, “hmmm, Coach Mitchell couldn’t get a ride to Rupp or premiere parking or something?” Then I thought about it while walking, he’s probably just that kind of guy. And in this age of multi-million dollar coaching contracts, one and dones and NCAA investigations and violations, it’s refreshing to see a coach who sounds like me (he’s Southern y’all, he grew up in Mississippi) and also like me, isn’t afraid to laugh at himself or wear glittery socks. Although when someone refers to me as “special” they probably don’t mean it in the same way.
Coach Mitchell and his wife, Jenna have two daughters, Lacy, and the latest addition born in August, Saylor Rose. The Mitchells are extremely active in Lexington as volunteers and Jenna is a board member of the Children’s Advocacy Center. Follow Coach Mitchell on Twitter @ukcoachmitchell and go see his team play, you won’t be disappointed… and best of all, his players stay all four years.
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