There will be no Southeastern Conference
championship banners raised at the University of Kentucky over the
summer, the first time under athletic director Mitch Barnhart the
Wildcats failed to capture a conference title in any sport.
That doesn't mean Barnhart considers the 2007-08 year a
"It was a year of consistency," said Barnhart, who just
completed his sixth year with the program. "I wouldn't say we've
had huge performances. But we had so many great finishes in other
areas, academically as well as athletically, and we grew in a lot
of different ways. It was one of our most consistent years."
Consistently emotional may be more appropriate.
From the giddy celebration on the field after the football team
knocked off No. 1 LSU to the men's basketball team's roller coaster
season under first-year coach Billy Gillispie to the death of "Mr.
Wildcat" Bill Keightley to the sudden departure of baseball coach
John Cohen, you'd couldn't blame Barnhart if he kept a vial of
Dramamine in his office just in case.
"We've run the gamut," Barnhart said.
Nowhere were the pendulum swings greater than in men's
basketball. The sky-high expectations around Gillispie's debut -
there were 23,000 people at Big Blue Madness - were quickly
tempered by losses to Gardner-Webb and San Diego. Both losses came
at home and left some wondering if Barnhart made the right hire.
Barnhart says he never wavered on his choice, even if it meant
Gillispie had some tough lessons to learn about the crucible that
comes with leading college basketball's all-time winningest
"I don't think you can explain it to anyone until they
experience it for themselves," Barnhart said. "Until you walk
through that, you just don't realize it. It's just an incredibly
difficult experience but also deeply rewarding. It's the fabric of
the state and I think Billy enjoys that."
The boos of December ended with roars in March after Gillispie
led the Wildcats to a second-place finish in the SEC, a remarkable
turnaround despite the loss of do-everything center Patrick
Patterson to injury and a thin bench that provided little help to
stars Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley.
"I really felt like our players came to understand what was
expected from our league and from our coach and those two things
began to get in sync together," he said. "Had Patrick not been
hurt the last couple weeks of the season, we could have made some
noise early in the NCAAs I think."
The turnaround seemed to solidify Gillispie's status among one
of the most vocal fan bases in the country. Though Gillispie has
professed his love for "Big Blue" he has yet to sign a formal
contract with the program 15 months after his hire.
Gillispie is still working under the memorandum of understanding
he signed during his whirlwind courtship by the Wildcats in April
2007. The seven-year deal will pay him $2.3 million annually, with
$850,000 in performance and academic bonuses available if he can
return the school to its former perch among college basketball's
After months of stalemates, progress has been made recently
during informal talks between Gillispie, Barnhart and university
president Lee Todd, and a deal is expected soon.
The lack of a deal hasn't stopped Gillispie on the recruiting
trail. He raised some eyebrows during the spring after securing
verbal commitments from 15-year-old Michael Avery.
The National Association of Basketball Coaches put out a letter
last month asking members to refrain from accepting commitments
from players who haven't completed their sophomore year of high
school. Barnhart has no issue with the NABC's recommendation, or
Gillispie's efforts to establish contact with younger players.
"I think the families Billy has been involved with are strong
families," Barnhart said. "The parents are invested in the future
of their child and are very active in the process."
The same can be said of Barnhart and the future of the athletic
program. Barnhart and football coach Rich Brooks got together
shortly after the Wildcats beat Florida State in the Music City
Bowl and worked together to sign offensive coordinator Joker
Phillips to a new contract that will make Phillips the head coach
upon Brooks' retirement.
"He was being courted by several teams to do something
different and it made no sense for him to leave our program,"
Barnhart also reacted quickly when Cohen left the Wildcats for
Mississippi State just days after the baseball season ended, naming
assistant Gary Henderson head coach hours after Cohen's departure.
"I've always believed that there are great assistant coaches
out there ready to be head coaches," he said. "Each situation is
unique and different, but what I prefer to do is have people from
within step up and have some continuity."
It's the kind of continuity the Wildcats can afford thanks in
part to the football team's on-field success. Back-to-back 8-5
seasons have packed Commonwealth Stadium and allowed the athletic
department - which is its own entity separate from the university -
to pay the bills and then some.
Each program has the full allotment of coaches, and Barnhart has
encouraged head coaches to not make money an issue while filling
out a staff.
"We've been very fortunate that we've been able to get some
quality people on board, and it's helped us tremendously," he
Still, there are challenges ahead. Though Rupp Arena remains one
of the top college basketball venues in the country, it has no
revenue-generating luxury boxes. It doesn't help that the city of
Louisville plans to open a downtown arena that will be the home of
the archrival Cardinals in time for the 2010 season.
Barnhart, however, says he's not in a hurry to renovate or
replace Rupp, and when he talks about the arena he could just as
easily be talking about the program he's spent the last six years
trying to rebuild.
"Being first isn't always best," he said. "Sometimes it's
best to wait and make sure that you have everything in place."