Mitch Barnhart has logged two decades of good work as a college administrator while functioning as a near-hermit. He’s the dean of Southeastern Conference athletic directors, he’s been the chair of the NCAA men’s basketball selection committee, he’s built a top-10 all-sports department at Kentucky—plenty on the résumé to warrant a high profile. Yet he’s never warmed to a spokesperson role in the industry.
Attend SEC spring meetings and he will scurry past the media that hang around waiting for ADs to emerge. Eyes on the floor, he’s averse to the grip-and-grin nature of the event. He’s mastered the art of boring excellence since 2002, saying something noteworthy roughly once a decade.
Which made Saturday pretty darn noteworthy.
Barnhart piggybacked a press conference after football coach Mark Stoops spoke about his team’s morning scrimmage. It was the AD’s opportunity to do damage control—so everyone thought—after the mess that Stoops and men’s basketball coach John Calipari created. Cal led off from his team’s trip to the Bahamas by lobbying (again) for a new practice facility. In the process, he declared Kentucky “a basketball school”—he’s not wrong, but it was impolitic at best—and condescendingly added, “No disrespect to our football team. I hope they win 10 games and go to bowls. But this is a basketball school.” Stoops responded by putting Cal on blast via Twitter, saying, “Basketball school? I thought we competed in the SEC? #4straightpostseasonwins.” Then he retweeted someone saying that Cal’s comments were “insulting.”
This festival of hurt feelings and public posturing was eye-opening enough that it had other SEC schools—Arkansas, Auburn and Tennessee—openly mocking Kentucky on social media. The assumption was that Barnhart would douse this in-house arson and close ranks with a display of unity.
That’s not what happened. Barnhart did little to disguise his disdain for this dustup. “I’m really hot right now,” he said at one point in a meeting with the media that lasted nearly half an hour. He wasn’t there to lead a chorus of “Kumbaya.”
“I have two coaches that have been with me—one 13 years [Calipari], one 10 years [Stoops],” Barnhart said. “I hired them both. I gave them the opportunities to coach here, their families to come here, to win championships here, to go to bowl games here. I’ve walked with both of them through good and bad. … And they’ve been provided every opportunity to do the very things that they want to do to be successful. That isn't changing. As long as I’m in the chair, we will have that support. If that's not good enough, you know, coaches change a lot in today’s world.”
Whew. Barnhart put his Hall of Fame basketball coach and the school’s best football coach since Bear Bryant in timeout and told them to behave like adults. What his message said to each man is worth examining.
The guess here is that Barnhart not only is miffed at Calipari for tweaking an ascendant football program, but in repeatedly taking his practice facility requests to the public—and doing it at a time when Cal’s popularity at Kentucky is at an all-time low. Coming off a 9–16 season in 2020–21 and a ghastly NCAA tournament first-round loss to No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s in ’22 make this power play for upgraded facilities insulting. Maybe win some games in March and then come back to the table?
Calipari has brought up the facility piece several times in the five months since the most embarrassing loss in Kentucky men’s basketball history, to a program that has facilities many high schools could pity. This seems like a naked attempt to deflect blame, but Cal has some supporters. His media mouthpiece, Seth Greenberg, even chimed in on Twitter last week to declare that the Wildcats’ current practice facility isn’t in the top 50 in the nation. (Go ahead and list the 50 that are better, Seth.)
If the Joe Craft Center, all of 15 years old and once considered the best in the country, is really a serious recruiting detriment, how has Kentucky accrued the No. 3 class in the nation thus far for 2023? And what if the Wildcats add two more five-star prospects, as many expect, in New Jersey products D.J. Wagner and Aaron Bradshaw? That would almost assuredly be the No. 1 class, somehow overcoming this terrible facility disadvantage.
This might have been what Barnhart was getting at Saturday when he said this: “We’ll make sure we’re not entitled. I wrote that down as one of my closing notes. We will not be an entitled department. We will be grateful for what we’ve got.”
With Mike Krzyzewski retired, Calipari and Kansas’s Bill Self likely are the two highest-paid coaches in college basketball. Cal was given what was termed a “lifetime contract” by Barnhart all of three years ago, a 10-year deal worth $86 million. Listening to that guy drum up excuses for failing to reach a Final Four since 2015 or win an NCAA title since ’12 is more than a little off-putting. Go reassert yourself on the court (something that might happen in ’22–23, with Kentucky appearing to have a loaded roster).
All that said: Calipari’s original point is true. There are, by my count, seven “basketball schools” in the Power 5 conferences: Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke, Indiana, Kansas, Syracuse and Maryland. They’re historically much better in basketball, and their fans care more about the roundball than the pointed ball. Stoops’s overreaction to that quote helped escalate the tension.
However, Kentucky probably has the best football fans out of that group. They have been a hardy lot over the decades, continuing to show up and support teams that were routinely overmatched in the SEC. Now that times have changed a bit, Kentucky football fans are legitimately excited about their trajectory—including a rare preseason ranking in the top 25.
In recent years, the football program has overdelivered, while men’s basketball has underdelivered. That has seemingly empowered Stoops to fire back as much as he did at Calipari, including stating Saturday that “I stay in my lane. So that’s in defense of my players, in defense of the work that we’ve done. And believe me, we want to continue to push. But don’t demean or distract from the hard work and the dedication and the commitment that people have done to get to this point. I don’t need to apologize for that, and I won’t.”
There was a time at Kentucky—basically from 2009 to ’15—when John Calipari could swagger around like the unchallenged big dog he has always longed to be. These are no longer those times, and the blowback from Stoops and Barnhart underscores that. Football is king in college athletics, and football is rising, while men’s basketball is idling at Kentucky. For once, Cal doesn’t have all the juice on campus.
Calipari and Barnhart have never been a natural personality blend—one loves the spotlight; the other recoils from it. Barnhart passed on hiring Cal the first time he filled the men’s basketball job, making the memorably terrible choice of Billy Gillispie instead, then had no choice but to bring in the guy who took Memphis to the brink of the 2008 title. For many years, assistant AD DeWayne Peevy served as something of a buffer between Cal and Barnhart, but he’s now the boss at DePaul. His presence might be missed.
This much we know: An athletic director who usually does his business behind closed doors went very public with his displeasure about this football-basketball Cat fight. Mitch Barnhart’s remarkable message: If intradepartment teamwork isn’t your thing, there’s the door.
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