Travis Smith: You’re listening to the Higher Ed Athletics podcast where I focus on current events and governance in both higher education and intercollegiate athletics by having thought-provoking conversations with industry experts and leaders. Thanks for listening to the Higher Ed Athletics podcast with Travis Smith.
Welcome to the Higher Ed Athletics podcast presented by Athletic Director U. Today I’m joined by University of Kentucky Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart. Mitch, Rob Mullens from Oregon, your friend, told me you are the dean of the athletic directors in the SEC. So it’s fitting to have you on the Higher Ed Athletic podcast. So thanks for jumping on the phone with me.
Mitch Barnhart: Thanks, Travis. I appreciate it. Love doing these kinds of things to have a chance to viz about college athletics. I love the enterprise that we’re in and folks like Rob that I’ve had a chance to work with make it great. So, I enjoy being with you.
So let’s start from the beginning. What’s kind of your background story of deciding to work in college athletics? And at what point in that story did you know you wanted to actually become an athletic director?
I was growing up in Kansas City. I was a sports junkie and it sounds pretty trite in today’s world, everybody says that. I played everything. You did that back in those days and… but I actually also had an affinity for writing and broadcasting and I always admired Vin Scully and I wanted to be the next Vin Scully. That was my dream job back when I was 12. So I’d take the cassette deck, and I know it’s novel for some folks in today’s world, I take the cassette deck and go up into the rafters of different gyms all over the, all over the city and just… and do my broadcast. And I take it home and listen to it and try and compare my voice to Vin Scully, and somehow it just never, never got to be the same. I couldn’t understand that. But when you’re 13 and your voice is changing I guess that’s what happens.
But I started writing articles for a local newspaper when I was 14, 15 and just covering things that no one wanted to cover. I covered professional boxing. I covered Golden Gloves, covered a lot of high school football when I wouldn’t play in games and play in sports, I would do that. And so, they pay me a little money and, and slowly but surely I get a feel for the, the media relations bug at an early age and although it wasn’t called it that back then, it was, that’s what it was. And so, I sold some ads and for a local game program for a high school game program, they paid me like 2 bucks if I sold the ad and 5 bucks if I could deliver a hard copy of what it’s supposed to look like. And it was goofy stuff, but it was a way to make a little money. And it was things I could put on, on my very limited resume at that point in time.
And then I got a school called Ottawa University, knew that I was trying to find a college home both to play a little sports and to have an opportunity to get a really good education. And our family didn’t… my dad passed away when I was young. And so, my mom was… we were a family that never wanted for anything, but certainly needed to be very careful for how we managed our money and the things that we did. And they offered me an opportunity to come to Ottawa and be the student media relations, media and sports information, media relations director, whatever you want to call it. At that point time, it really was just a conglomeration of just duties, just, hey, keep the stats, do some press releases; a variety of things like that.
If you’ll organize Media Day, which, like there’s two people in media so that really wasn’t very hard. But I learned a lot and it was just sort of doing everything that the coaches needed, and I was a student. And they said, “Well, you know, you’ve managed that pretty well. How about we just, we trade you scholarship, financial aid for the ability to do this,” and sort of quasi full-time, so I did that. All the time, I was writing for local papers and then I bumped into a person who said in our conference, the Heart of America Conference back in, in those days. Rodger LaBeth was a gentleman at William Jewell College, and he said, I don’t know if… he may never remember this but he said, “There’s a place called Ohio University that does this stuff for, for folks that want to look for full-time employment in athletics.” And you know, back in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, that was a pretty novel deal. And so, I took a look at it, applied and, and I slipped through the filter then got in, so it was awesome. And so, we were fortunate.
And then, I obviously met my wife in college and, and we were married just after that in 1982 and we began a 36-year journey. We’re still on at 37 years, I guess we’re still on, and, and I haven’t had, all over the country, from San Diego State as an intern to now as Director of Athletics at one of the greatest places in the country at University of Kentucky and fan base that I just love and in an area that we have enjoyed raising our family.
I did notice you were… two things that stuck out by your education that you mentioned is Ohio back then was one of the first ones that was doing that for sport specific. Now it’s, it seems to be the most popular one and producing a lot of great talent that’s working in college athletics. And I wanted to ask about Ottawa though. So that school, at least, now is, is a private Baptist liberal arts university about 700 students, so I’m curious, a lot different than a lot of the stops you’ve had and, and still at UK, but is there anything that you picked up from that experience at being just at a small, faith-based institution that maybe you carried with you being an AD at a larger public institution, for example?
Yeah, I do. I think there’s a couple of things. I think one was very specifically that they care for kids. I had a, an advisor their doctor, [Rony Avrid 0:06:00], and I’ll never, you know, he had a massive influence on my… all my life and, and was actually, he passed away after we came to Kentucky and… but he was absolutely integral in, in my learning at Ottawa. And he challenged people to be learners, you know, and I really respected that. And he cared about student growth, and he cared about how you got to the next stage of your life. And, and I think that that had an impact on, on me. Because for a guy that grew up in a family that didn’t, you know, I didn’t have a dad and, you know, I was going away, college, I was by myself, and back then you didn’t have all the communications devices you did. And so, he was genuinely involved in what we did and said, “You know, this is how you learn and this is how you grow. And this is what you need to know and you need to be broad-based in your thoughts and you need to understand other people’s ways of view, of thought processes. But it doesn’t necessarily mean you agree but you have to at least be able to listen.” And so, I thought that was a really good thing that he taught at an early age. And so, being, you know, truthful with people. I’ve always tried to do that. I’m like everyone, I’m not perfect at that. But I think what they taught back then and it’s true today is the difference between truth and lies and feeling… is feelings and facts. I mean, truth, you deal with it in facts and, and sometimes our feelings get in the way. And, and I think at a small faith-based Baptist institution that Ottawa was is they, they dealt in a lot of… they wanted you to understand the world, that there was a big world and people believed differently, but at the heart of it was a Christian education that they said, this is the core of the truth that we want you to live by believe in. And I, and I grabbed onto that through my wife. I had it growing up but she really helped me latch on to that at Ottawa. And it was the foundational piece for our marriage and, and been that way for 37 years.
Seems like your leadership is pretty intentional with your athletic director tree is what I’ll call it. I think people talk about a coaching tree. But you’ve had a lot of former colleagues that worked with you at Kentucky that are now in, at high-profile branded institutions running as a, as athletic directors, Greg Byrne at Alabama; Mark Coyle, Minnesota; Rob Mullens, Oregon; Scott Stricklin, Florida; and you even have a former baseball coach, John Cohen at Mississippi State. How do you kind of put that in place, that guidance as the, as the head person of the department that you are able to give them that type of flexibility to, to maybe try and learn and, and be ready to go on to whether it’s a next stop as, as an AD chair, how do you kind of mold them and give them that space with your leadership style?
I think there’s a couple pieces. I think that you, you equip people to launch people. And so, I think that you, you find out what their dreams are and what they aspire to do, and then you try and put them on the path to get that done. And I think that’s a little harder to do from the, the athletic administration role in today’s world. There’s so many different facets that people are coming up and pathways and some people are coming from private enterprise. And so, it really becomes a little more difficult. But what we try and do at Kentucky is give people multiple responsibilities, give them a broad base of, of experiences, and give them an opportunity to learn and then obviously match that up with hopefully their dreams for them and their families and, and, and give them the best chance. And I’ve been absolutely blessed by some incredible, incredible people at this institution, you know, and just to have an opportunity to come in to work with them every day and, you know, and they’ve, they’ve obviously equated themselves incredibly well.
There’s some remarkable people out there. I’m also very proud of Kevin Saal, you know, back when Bob De Carolis was the AD at Oregon State and, and, you know, Mike Hamilton was AD at Tennessee and he’s doing some remarkable things now still in the world of sports, but he did some amazing things. And our associations with John Currie at Wake Forest was on my staff at Tennessee before I became an AD. So I love those relationships over time and I don’t, you know, that they, they do the work and they do the, the… all the stuff that gets them into those positions. But you got to… it is your provision and it’s their investment. And you can provide the opportunity, they’ve got to invest in that and take advantage of it. And, and that’s what they’ve done. These are really, really bright people that have taken the principles of our program and things that we’ve done and the opportunities they’ve been given. And they’re, they’re launched into going, doing their own thing. And what’s most disheartening piece of this whole thing is I get to compete against the dudes, incredibly difficult. And they’re really good at what they do. And so you sit there and say, “What am I doing? Why did we do that?”
But, you know, I have so much respect. I watch Rob Mullens on the CFP show the other day as he was the chair the other day. And I thought he was just fabulous. He did a remarkable job, just continues just to not, not astound me in any way shape or form, but just does remarkable job in representing college athletics and college football and, and just as a real pro as an administrator as all those guys are. And… but, you know, I think that that’s what we’re supposed to do in life is provide opportunity and give people their best chance. And if we put boundaries and guard rails around them and limit them, I think we limit their thinking and we limit the chance for growth of the enterprise of college athletics as a global piece, but more importantly, individually, it’s not, that’s not what we’re supposed to do.
The SEC, I think you’re filling up half the conference with, with your friends that you had to compete against. That’s nice though. That’s got to get rough by… with how many sports you all compete in.
So at a university like UK or other, you know, Power Five autonomy conference institutions where the brand is really, men’s basketball or football was known for, but as the athletic director and leading your department, how do you make sure to keep your focus on the non-revenue sports and their student athlete experiences too? Is that what you would say a challenge or maybe a challenge to balance or is that kind of a, just an enjoying part of the job that people just maybe don’t see that, that you’re doing?
Yeah, I think it’s the latter. I think that, you know, I grew up, I played a lot of, a lot of sports growing up. So I had the good fortune when I was a young person to play. I was on the swim team for a long time. I played on the tennis team. I played golf. I played baseball, wrestled, so I did a lot of what people would call the Olympic sports. But I had great enjoyment in all of them. I mean, back then you weren’t focused on one sport like young people are today. And, and so there’s nothing wrong with either, either path. I truly believe the greatest well-rounded athletes give you the… you know, are the ones that end up excelling to a great, great extent. Those folks are really amazing, usually amazing talents. But at the end of the day, there’s no right one path to success. But I believe that obviously football, men’s basketball, get the lion’s share of the attention and they provide opportunities for a lot of folks. But it is sheer joy watching people compete for the University of Kentucky at every level in every sport, and to see what they get to do and the, the… they take their expertise of whatever they’ve been given and they go out there and do something remarkable, that is special. Or, you see them achieve at a level that they never had achieved before, that is special. Or you see that the joy of completing a career and being able to take that degree and move on to something remarkable on. We’ve had, you know, everybody has got the stories, but we’ve, everything from dentists to doctors, to engineers to lawyers to, you know, we’ve had people now in public office and, and it’s just been remarkable to watch these young people come back and see with their families where they have, have jumped to. And so, it’s real exciting and, and I like that part of it.
But I think that you miss that opportunity if you don’t… be very intentional about fostering those chances for young people to play. And, and I’ll be honest with you, you know, we’ve got some incredible national stories for the national teams that represent our country. And I take pride in that. I love seeing our roster of our national teams, whatever those are, filled up with Kentucky kids, people who’ve played for Kentucky or people that have gone on to represent, you know, at a high level in the professional ranks, whatever that is, whether that’s everything from professional golf to basketball, we’ve given opportunity for young people to chase their dreams and that’s a really, really amazing deal. And those dreams are very, very different for each individual, but they cannot happen if we aren’t intentional about, about that.
We tell everybody all the time that you give us four years of your life, we’ll give you 40 back. And so, we call it the Kentucky Road. And it’s all about, you know, that experience of you come here. It’s a new Kentucky home. You jump on the Kentucky road with us for four years. And now it’s my old Kentucky home and you got a place that you will foster your growth for 40 years. And we think that’s so important and, and… but that’s all born out of young people coming in and having a chance to compete. And we think that locker room is a great teacher for things. And Travis, I would say this, we, that’s a phrase we use around here a lot and I don’t know if we’ve coined it. I don’t know if we developed it, but I’m going to call it the phrasing from Kentucky. We’re going to call it “generational leadership”. And it’s time that we have when we talk about generational leadership. What we’ve done, we’ve done is we, we point to this young generation and I get this question all the time. What’s wrong with kids today? And I will argue what’s wrong with kids today is my generation did a really, really bad job of raising them up. We have not fostered the responsibility. We have not taken responsibility of what we’re supposed to do at a high enough level. And we’ve said, “You know what, these kids, they’re, they’re not okay.” Well, that’s on us. Whatever that is that has not been done or they’re not doing it, you’re unhappy with it, that they’re not performing, that’s on us. Because we haven’t raised them up the way that we hope in terms of generational leadership. If we’re challenging them to lead the next generation, and in what is right and wrong boundaries, the moral ethics, culture, whatever you want to talk about, all the words we toss around so cavalier in today’s world, it’s our responsibility to do that. And I truly believe that athletics, there’s no better place to raise young people up to teach them those responsibilities of honor, of character, integrity, of being good, being well-educated, being really good stewards, and how to compete and raise up families and do those kind of things, there’s no better place to do that than the locker rooms of college athletics.
Yeah, on the generational leadership, I like that that, that phrase. It seems like the culture that you’ve been able to foster in your almost 20 years at UK and the colleagues that you’ve now produced, that are now leading other departments, hopefully, they are instilling that culture too. And then, maybe, whether you realize it or not, maybe you’ve already started the generational leadership thing, and so I think that’s, that’s some great value that people need to, need to consider.
I want to talk about your relationships, as athletic directors, and presidents or chancellors within an athletic conference. I don’t think that a lot of people realize that there is an established relationship through governance structure at the NCAA and the conferences where there is a communication loop between athletic directors and presidents. I mean, how much interaction does… do those two groups actually get in college athletics?
Yeah, I can’t speak for every institution. What I can’t speak for is the relationship that I’ve had with my presidents. And, and the other piece that I can relate to is, is sort of what my experience was with counsel and the board of directors and board of governors and into the conference office. And so, having been in, in place for, almost, as you said, almost two decades here, I’ve been 18 years at Kentucky. And obviously, I’ve been an athletic director for five, almost five additional years at Oregon State. So I’ve only had three presidents in that 21… at that 20-plus years span of time. So that’s been a blessing to me. I mean, to have that steady, that consistent leadership has been really important. And so, I’ve had three phenomenal presidents and very thankful for that.
So, my communication with them has been consistent and active. And I think that’s… I’m hopeful that’s where it is on most campuses. I don’t know that to be a fact, one way or another. I would, I would assume it would be. The leadership team of an athletic department is so important and critical to that of a university, and I think that’s just something that should be in place. I can’t imagine that it’s not. Athletics is the front porch of the university. People may or may not want to aspire to that thought, but we’re literally only 3% of the university’s budget, but, but we paint the front porch in a very unique way. And if we, if we mess up that front porch, people are just not going to be as quick to come inside and check out the rest of the house. Our goal is to make sure that front porch is really… really looks sharp. And when people come to it, they say, “You know what, that is a, a place that is intriguing because of the way they conduct themselves publicly. And by gosh, we’re going to go there for game just to have a reunion or whatever we’re going to do and we’re going to walk inside and check out the rest of the university.”
Presidents and chancellors need to have the confidence that we’re doing those kinds of things. And when we break that confidence, that’s hurtful. And so, the overarching piece of what college athletics means to a college campus, I’m not sure that that would be something each individual institution would have to define for themselves. But I would argue that at the places I’ve been in, I’ve been fortunate to be in some really good places, that it is, it is the emotional heartbeat of those institutions. And it allows people to see a glimpse of and catch a really cool picture of what the university wants to be or who they desire to be in.
And so, I think the communications, the organizational structure of the NCAA allows for that kind of interaction. It also gives you, you know, structure from the board of directors, the board of governors, to the D-I Council, and then through the conference office, and we’ve got the president, the group of presidents and Division I… the athletic directors in the SEC, and we’ve got leadership, executive leadership team in the SEC, and then we’ve got, you know, different committees that work very closely with each other and I think have great interaction. We’ve got a SEC network content committee in the SEC where there’s presidents and administrators on that committee working together to make sure that the better part of college athletics and universities are being thoughtfully considered as we get into the room with… we think about our network. That’s just one example. And there’s just there’s literally dozens of those examples that you could reach to.
How important do you think it is to have friends in the AD chair colleagues to other schools that we’ve talked about in a lot of this episode across the country to bounce ideas off of, or get advice on various situations that you may have never come across or you’re just trying to, whether it’s scheduling or it’s a crisis situation, you know, how is it… how important is that to have some of those people past and present for your career to be able to do that and say, “Hey, how would you handle this? How did you handle this when it happened to you?” or just trying to get some thoughts whenever… you might not have someone on your campus that you can go to and be that, that open about getting advice?
Well, I think there’s, you know, everybody has got places they go to get advice, you know, and I, you know, they… I think different people manage it different ways. I think there’s very specific questions as it relates to college athletics that you need to find people in the enterprise of college athletics and say, “Give me your thoughts.” I don’t have any, you know, little trite quick sayings or quips or anything like that, that I use, I tell today. But what I do believe is that the heartbeat of, of your actions and your knowledge, your intentions are one thing, your actions are another. And I will hopefully follow my intentions with proper actions. And what I do is I’ve got a handful of people that I go to seek, seek counsel. Some of those are in the enterprise of college athletics. And I think that’s critically important because there’s, there’s things that no one, with the exception of those folks in college athletics, is going to understand. However, there’s many, many occasions where there’s places I go outside that circle, to say, “Okay, you know, from a business perspective, does this make sense?” And I find people within our, our structure of business and I’ve got about three or four folks that I lean on heavily, just I call and say, “If you’re if you’re running this like the, the enterprise that it is, what, what would you think of this?” And, and I get their counsel, and I don’t… I don’t take any, I’m not embarrassed to say that. I think a wise person seeks counsel from other wise people. And so… and then I’ll be real honest to you, Travis, I seek, I seek counsel from my pastor and the people that I study with and, and, you know, “Is it biblically true, truthful? And is it something that’s going to be that I think is going to hold up in, in, in the eyes of my Christian walk?” And I think that’s critically important to what I do. So, those things have got to line up. And I do it that way and, and then people may or may not, you know, they can believe that or not believe that, that’s certainly in their heart that I know where my heart is, and I know what we try and do, we try and line those things up. But I truly believe that for things from the college athletics that are specific to the enterprise to college athletics it would be really hard for others to understand. Sure, you got to have some folks in the in the deal, but my circle is probably… that I see, what, my counsel from is probably, you know, literally, six to eight people. And I know who they are. And I’m, and I’m, you know, I’m consistent and talking to them regularly. And, and, and that’s why I think you can get consistent answers and you have an ability to, to, you know, follow the path that I think is matching up with your values.
That’s great. And I want to… a couple of quick questions from the Mitch Barnhart podcast I’m going to pull from and then I’ll ask my final question. And so, favorite book, and then what keeps you up at night?
Oh, my favorite book, obviously, I’d start with, with, you know, the, outside, the first one would be the Bible.
I mean, that’s where I get a start every day. So, but, but just my, for my reads and things like that I think the Team of Rivals is an amazing book. Once an Eagle is a great novel that was written and a lot of folks at West Point would know that book, a lot of young folks at West Point have to read that book when they come to West Point. So I like those two books as reads. I’m a big Mark Batterson fan. I read a lot of his stuff. Draw the Circle, In the Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day is one of my favorites, a tremendous book. I’m not a big leadership book guy. I think that there’s literally hundreds and thousands of books written on leadership and I think you got to be careful because I think it just… because I’ll be honest with you, for me, the leadership runs right back to a biblical truth, and I think that that’s the greatest lesson to leadership because Christ was the… he led, led, he changed the world in [three years to 12 vice presidents 0:25:08]. So I, I sort of think that’s a pretty good lesson to leadership and that’s what I follow.
And then what keeps you up at night? And I know you asked that on your podcast.
The reason I ask that question because I had an older lady when I was speaking in Columbus, Ohio, she spoke and she said, she said, “What keeps you up at night?” And I it was years ago, not years, probably 10 years ago, and I never forget the answer to the question. I have no idea why got it was, I said, “We’re chasing a culture we can’t catch.” And by that, I mean, as soon as we think we get our arms around a way to help guide and lead, it’s like Jell-O, it, it drifts, it squeezes out of our hands and goes in another. We don’t have a grip on it anymore. And so, we’re chasing it a lot. And as fast as we solve one issue, whether that’s social media, then another something pops up and how do you manage this and, and, “Oh, by the way, and if you want to try and run your place with, with this kind of a culture, all of a sudden, it drifts another direction.” So I think we’re just chasing a really tough culture that we can’t catch. And, and that’s hard. That’s really hard. And that’s why I think the challenges for leaders especially in a very, very public world of college athletics is extremely difficult.
I’m a believer that athletic administrators who often hold direct report cabinet positions to their president needs to know quite a bit about how higher education works and then certainly know what’s going on at their own institution outside of the world I’ve athletic. And Ross Bjork from Texas A&M told me on the podcast that he also think it’s incredibly important to be educated on state legislature issues as well. So what are your thoughts, kind of some parting advice on what an AD in today’s environment needs to learn outside of the athletic department, and then when should that process start?
Yeah, I don’t know if there’s any great answer at when you start and when you begin. I think that’s, that’s got to be relative to where you are in your position, where you are in your, in your… each institution is different in terms of size and scope. And there are some of them that are massively, massively big state-run, land grant institutions. And then there are some of them that are very small private institutions or small institutions that have a different mission. And I think that is all relative to where you are. And you’ve got to be able to figure out where you’re on that spectrum. I think it is important to understand and have an understanding of how it all works.
For a state-run institution like the University of Kentucky, there are things that are at every level, whether that is the, you know, the folks of higher education in our state capitol, whether it’s the board of trustees at our institution, whether it’s the president in his in his cabinet, whatever that, there’s a variety of levels of leadership that are really, really important to understand. So having said that, I think you, for my role as an athletic director, I think I want to be incredibly respectful of what my president is trying to accomplish. And each president has their own mission. My, my presidents have each been… every, every one has been unique in what they see as their, as their goal and their mission for this university and in their roles as the president. And so, I want to be respectful of that.
And I think we’ve got to be able to make sure that whatever we do aligns up with, with their mission. And, you know, I would, you know, I think that there are certain things we can do to help with that, whether that is a fundraising goal, whether that is a legislative goal, whether that is a research goal, whether that is a, you know, health, like at our place, our hospital here at the University of Kentucky is an amazing hospital. But it was in real trouble when, when we came to in 2002. And it is now aspired to be one a great University Hospitals in the country. And so, that’s been a real important part of our community because it’s a regional hospital.
And then I think you have to also figure out where you land in our state. In our state, when I came here, we had this thing called the Kentucky Uglies and I, Dr. Todd identified those something that was real important to fix. And so, he identified it and that was a goal for him and that became a goal for me, because I wanted to make sure that when we represented the people of our state that we represented them in the right way. And so, that all plays into how it builds one level at a time to the state legislature, to the state government. And in fosters into the, for us, the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and we want to be the state’s institution. We want to be the land grant. We want to help everyone. We want people of this state to feel like they’re a partner to us. And so, the only way you can do that is to understand your responsibility in each of those deals.
So I serve on the president’s cabinet. I’m very fortunate to have an opportunity to spend time on that leadership team. I don’t take my role more than I should or less than I should. I want to be exactly where he wants me to be. And so, I’m very… I want to make sure I understand that. And so I listen. I want to be a good listener, and not over, not, you know, they say, “Well, stay in your lane,” well, I want to be hopeful where I can be and I think we have good thoughts and we want to be… I think that, I’d say, helpful, as I’ve said that. But I think it’s important that… people sometimes try and do too much and they get places. And then all of a sudden you’ve done damage and not… you’ve not been helpful. And so, our place is… been incredibly supportive or helpful to our state. And so, I think that’s where we need to be. It’s a complicated issue. We’ve got state… we’ve got lobbyists like everyone else has got lobbyists and, and I have my president is on a lot of national committees, Travis, and I think it’s really, really important not to get ahead of your president, the people that have hired you into these positions. And I would hope the same, same as my coaches would say the same thing, “Hey, we don’t want to get ahead of where Mitch wants us to be. This is where Mitch is trying to lead us. And we’re going to be respectful of that and walk with him and that we need to do the same thing as we go up the chain.”
Well, Mitch, I think that whole last answer really summed up the purpose of what I seek in the Higher Ed Athletics podcast is really talking about both how each can help each other and why each are important to coexist together in any other evolving changes to the world of college athletics or higher education. So, thank you for taking time out of your day to be on the Higher Ed Athletics podcast. I really appreciate it.
Well, thanks, Travis, honored to be with you guys and look forward to doing it again someday. And if anyone is down on Kentucky way, make sure you come in and say hello. So thanks for, for letting us be with you.