Mitch Barnhart, Kentucky athletic director

Mitch Barnhart speaks with reporters before 2018 football media day at Kentucky.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Sports Business Journal has named Kentucky's Mitch Barnhart its athletic director of the year, bringing the spotlight to an administrator who assiduously attempts to avoid it.

But the award, presented Wednesday night at the 12th annual Sports Business Awards at the New York Marriott Marquis in Times Square, is appropriate and, most likely, past due. Barnhart took over an athletic program caught up in the old ways of doing things and often content with itself because it had a nationally prominent basketball program.

For half a decade, Barnhart fought the, "We're Kentucky, that's enough," mindset when trying to sell change. But he did sell it. Not with anything flashy. But with solid, quiet efficiency. He established a list of core values: "character, integrity, knowledge, stewardship and competitive greatness." And he has worked to achieve them.

When Barnhart took over 17 years ago, you'd find Kentucky ranked anywhere between No. 50 and No. 100 in the Directors' Cup all-sports standing. At the moment, UK is ranked No. 6.

It's one thing to just have finished the school's best football season in four decades. But Kentucky is finding success in non-revenue sports, both men's and women's.

"During Mitch Barnhart's tenure, we have reached unprecedented levels of academic and competitive accomplishment," UK President Eli Capilouto said. "This award recognizes his deep and compelling commitment to students and their personal success, and to the academic mission of the institution. You see that commitment in the program's strong graduation rate and grade-point average. Several teams have competed for and won conference and national championships, along with individual titles and recognitions in virtually every sport. And UK Athletics' financial investment in academic and need-based scholarships and in our instructional facilities is unmatched. At each step of the way, he built upon this momentum with respect and integrity. I know I speak for the entire UK family when I offer him our heartfelt congratulations on this well-deserved honor."

There were some missteps. Billy Gillispie. Joker Phillips. But steadily, Barnhart put UK on a solid course. He hired John Calipari. And Mark Stoops. He built the non-revenue sports. He oversaw the building of the Craft Center for basketball and new facilities for football.

Most people have no way of seeing the financial footing he put the athletic department on. For its entire history before Barnhart's arrival, UK was dipping into university funds for various expenditures. I remember going to a UK athletic association meeting in which a donation back for the library was being asked about, with the question, "Do we get this money back from the university in other ways?"

Today, there is no dipping into the university's funds. UK Athletics, unlike most schools' athletic departments, splits money from the sale of licensed merchandise 50-50 with the university, when most of it, let's face it, is sold because of athletics. UK gives back to the university with its media and naming rights deals. Recently, athletics committed to funding nearly two-thirds of the $100-plus million Jacobs Science Building.

All of this is dictated, quietly but gently, by Barnhart. The longest-tenured athletic director in the Southeastern Conference has built UK Athletics with little personal fanfare and in the face of some pretty tough criticism from time to time. But, as an avid mountain climber, Barnhart knows the value of finding a good hold, securing solid footing and taking the next step.

"I am honored and thankful to represent the University of Kentucky in receiving this award," Barnhart said. "It's truly a testament to the incredible work our student-athletes, coaches and staff have done to build a program to make the Big Blue Nation and the Commonwealth proud. I also want to say a special thank you to my wife, Connie, and my entire family for taking this journey with me. We have much work ahead of us though, and we can't wait to do it."

It hasn't been that long ago that UK was struggling to find funding sources for athletic expansion, with the academic side needing major improvements, too. Barnhart worked to secure a major multimedia rights agreement with JMI Sports and has used other sources and partnerships to fund $300 million in facility improvements in the past decade.

All of this is testament to the work Barnhart has done. But more than that, you can judge the quality of a person's work by those who have emerged from his tutelage to find success.

Among Barnhart's assistants at UK to find success as athletic directors elsewhere are Rob Mullens at Oregon, Scott Stricklin at Florida, John Cohen at Mississippi State, Greg Byrne of Alabama, Mark Coyle at Minnesota and Kevin Saal, who was named AD at Murray State earlier this year after 12 years under Barnhart at Kentucky.

Barnhart has served on numerous SEC and NCAA committees, is the chair of SEC athletic directors and was an influential voice in the beginning of the SEC Network. He just completed his third year on the men's basketball committee in the spring.

Barnhart is not a Times Square, name-in-lights kind of guy. He won't much relish the spotlight coming his way. But he earned it. And he deserves it.

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