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Letter to the Big Blue Nation: On an extraordinary season

It is the nature of the world today that we are constantly moving onto what comes next. Before we can even close the book on a day of work, school or our personal lives, thoughts immediately turn to tomorrow. For those in the athletic realm, concern over the next season or recruiting class begins as soon as the final buzzer sounds on the year's last game.

At the University of Kentucky Athletics Department, our players, coaches and staff are already setting goals and preparing for what we believe will be a great 2012-13, and that's healthy. However, as we enter a couple of short summer months, I want to encourage us all to pause for a moment and reflect on what has been accomplished over the past year.

Of course, the indelible moment from 2011-12 is the national championship John Calipari and our men's basketball team brought home. From the moment I arrived in Lexington 10 years ago, I have wondered what it would be like to be a part of winning this school's eighth title. After experiencing this remarkable season and the celebration that followed it in New Orleans and back in the Bluegrass, I can attest that it exceeded my expectations, but not because of how it made me feel, at least not directly. Seeing the hard work and sacrifice of a supremely talented group of young people rewarded with the sport's ultimate prize is such a powerful lesson for all of us. Then, witnessing the joy it brought to the entire Big Blue Nation made it all that much more special. I hope you will look back on those moments as a reminder of the reasons why we came to love sports in the first place.

Thankfully, we had plenty of such reminders this past season. When I set forth the 15x15x15 plan almost four years ago, I viewed its goals as ambitious, yet achievable, but I'm not sure even I could have envisioned winning four conference championships and a national crown this year.

Our women's basketball program has made incredible strides in recent seasons, but none more significant than this year's Southeastern Conference title. From Duke to Louisville to Tennessee, there were so many incredible victories, especially in Memorial Coliseum, where you, the fans, have helped to create one of the best environments in the country. Matthew Mitchell's new contract hopefully will be the start of turning him into a UK institution like Harry Mullins and Dennis Emery. Mullins and the rifle team, on the heels of a national title, continued to spoil us this year with yet another conference championship and a second-place national finish, while Emery led men's tennis to a perfect record in the nation's toughest league.

In my decade at UK, I cannot remember having a group of coaches like the one we have now. Calipari, Emery, Mitchell and Gary Henderson all won well-earned SEC Coach of the Year honors in their respective sports, but there are outstanding coaching staffs all over our campus. From Craig Skinner and Rachel Lawson making volleyball and softball annual contenders, to Jon Lipsitz rebuilding women's soccer into an NCAA Tournament team, to Tim Garrison's excellent first year leading our gymnastics program, we are fortunate to have strong leadership throughout our 22 sports.

Serving as an example for what we want our coaches to be is Don Weber. For the past 28 years, Don has led our track and field and cross country programs with character and dedication and I felt a mixture of sadness and gratitude as I talked with him about his decision to retire. Don has been a vital part of making the job he left such an attractive one, but more importantly, he has done so much to enrich the lives of the young people he worked with. We thank him and wish him and his family the best.

The kind of leadership that Weber embodied is so important because, as a department, we measure ourselves first and foremost by the way our student-athletes develop as both competitors and people. On the field, the honors that stars like Anthony Davis, A'dia Mathies, Luis Orta, Greg Ferrucci, Stephanie Klefot, Austin Cousino and so many others have raked in tell me all I need to know about our Wildcats as competitors. Our student-athletes are making memories that will last a lifetime, and none more than Matt Roark. Could you have imagined a wide receiver battling his way back from the bench to a starting role, then ending the Tennessee streak playing quarterback and being carried off the field by fans in the final game of his college career?

Ultimately, our responsibility is to prepare student-athletes for life after college and I am proud of how many Wildcats will have the opportunity to pursue professional careers. Roark will be one of eight Wildcats to enter NFL training camp this summer, while a record nine baseball players were selected in the MLB Draft. Later this month, a record six basketball players are expected to go in the NBA Draft.

Eric Quigley is another student-athlete who is pursuing a professional career. Even if I didn't know the SEC Player of the Year and national runner-up has the talent to do big things on the tennis tour, I would be excited to see what the future holds for one of most impressive young people I have ever had the privilege to watch for four years. He is the most decorated player in the history of our program, but it's his sportsmanship, leadership and service that make him so unique.

The thing is, though, that Eric isn't nearly as unique on our campus as he would be at many other places. During one of the best overall seasons in the history of UK Athletics, our student-athletes logged over 4,000 hours of community service, nearly half a year's worth. They did it while remaining committed in the classroom and achieving a grade-point average of just below 3.0 for both the fall and spring semesters.

It goes without saying that we will never be satisfied with our work, because the moment we do will be the moment our competition surpasses us. I hope fans continue to demand greatness in all that this program does, because that's a major reason for our success, a major reason why we are UK.

What I am asking you to do is to be thankful for what we have and for who we are. As we gear up for another season, I ask you to continue to take pride in calling yourself a Wildcat.

'Til the Battle Is Won,
Mitch Barnhart


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