WKYT | Lexington, Kentucky | Sports

Barnhart sets lofty goals for UK athletics

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - The signs are simple in design, plain and
to the point.
They sit above the nameplate on nearly every door inside the Joe
Craft Center, a message from Kentucky athletic director Mitch
Barnhart to the rest of the department that being good simply isn't
quite good enough anymore.
The signs - white with black block numbers - read "15x15x15."
The numbers have nothing to do with math.
"It's simply a reminder to our staff that by the year 2015 we
want to have a top 15 program nationally on the whole and we want
to have won 15 championships in one way, shape or form," Barnhart
said. "That would double the pace at which we've won championships
in this department the last seven years."
The push, which officially started last fall, got off to a slow
start. Only the school's rifle program won a conference title en
route to a runner-up finish in the NCAA championships.
Trying to get 14 titles in the next seven years when you compete
in the buzzsaw that is the Southeastern Conference isn't easy.
Still, after seven years on the job, Barnhart knows it's time to
start getting ambitious.
Kentucky finished 34th in the Directors' Cup - which measures
athletic success in all varsity sports - in 2008-09, up two places
from the year before. It's progress to be sure. It's also barely
enough to keep up in the SEC.
"It's just where we are," Barnhart said. "It's a tough test.
... But you look at the fact we didn't score any points in men's or
women's basketball or baseball, and we still finished 34th in the
country, that's pretty remarkable."
There were success stories to be sure, as 14 of the 22 sports
qualified for postseason play. The football team won its third
straight bowl game. The softball team made it to the NCAA
tournament. Rondel Sorrillo became a track-and-field force, scoring
points in three events at the NCAA championships.
There's still more to be done, however. Barnhart handed out
T-shirts at the department's annual "CATSPYs" banquet with the
word "finish" emblazoned across the front, a not-so-subtle hint
that it's time for the program to take the next step.
"When we get into the NCAAs, we've got to learn to make deep
runs and do the things other programs are doing," he said. "Are
we capable of that? Absolutely we are capable of that. We had a lot
of near-misses last year and we had a lot of teams that made a lot
of progress."
Not everywhere though. The men's basketball team missed the NCAA
tournament for the first time in 17 seasons, and the school opted
to fire coach Billy Gillispie after two tumultuous years.
The circus surrounding Gillispie's firing and the subsequent
hiring of John Calipari as Gillispie's replacement took its toll on
Barnhart.
"It's a difficult process, but at the end my best interest, my
greatest concerns have got to be for our program in total and the
players specifically," he said. "Those are things you have to go
through, and we were able to find our way through it."
The university and Gillispie are still finding their way through
the settlement, with the matter now in the courts. In retrospect
Barnhart admits he wishes he could have gotten Gillispie to sign a
formal contract instead of relying on a memorandum of
understanding.
"It's never been promised that it will be easy, so you journey
through it the best you can and hopefully find some time to enjoy
some successes later on," he said.
Sooner, though, would be better.
Barnhart admits he's amazed at how quickly Calipari has become a
sensation across the state, giving the program a shot of energy not
seen since Rick Pitino was patrolling the sidelines at Rupp Arena
more than a decade ago.
"I think he pours incredible energy into his job," Barnhart
said. "I'm amazed at the ideas that continue to come from him.
Some of them you just sit there and shake your head and go, 'No
way,' and others you go, 'That's a pretty good idea."'
The weight room at the Craft center is already getting a
facelift just two years after it opened, at Calipari's request, one
that will also lead to changes at other weight training facilities
on campus. It won't be cheap, but it'll be money well spent if it
works.
"If it helps us get where we want to go and that's back to
prominence at the top of college basketball, then that's important
for us," he said.
Barnhart added he's not concerned about allegations of NCAA
violations at Memphis that became known after Calipari was hired.
The coach has not been deemed "at risk" by the NCAA, and Barnhart
stressed Calipari is eager to help the Wildcats win the right way.
"There's one thing John says, 'I want my banners to count for
something, and I want to put the rings on the fingers and let them
stay there,"' Barnhart said. "That's important to him, and so he
is embracing any help that we give him to make sure we're able to,
at the end of the day, not have to look over our shoulders and
worry."
Besides, there are other issues on the table as well. The school
is exploring a potential deal that would replace Commonwealth
Stadium and Rupp Arena, which will be 42 years old when the current
lease expires in 2018.
The plan is still in the exploratory phase, though the issues
surrounding the school's facilities will have to be dealt with
eventually, either by Barnhart or his successor.
"Right now we still don't know whether it's going to work or
not," he said. "It's got a chance. If it works, it's
program-changing for us."
For now the focus will be making changes on the field, namely in
adding a conference or NCAA title or two sometime soon.
"If we win championships in this league, we've done something
and we're gaining ground," he said. "Our goal this year will be
to close the gap and finish some of the things we're getting close
to."

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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