It’s a warm morning in Lexington, the last strands of summer makes a case as sunlight grows in strength bouncing off the seats of the recently refurbished Commonwealth Stadium. The football palace is literally shining. And the blues and whites of the school colors pop with each ray.
Mitch Barnhart stands on the patio of a newly built hospitality suite overlooking the fifty yard line. He appears pleased, maybe happy, he wouldn’t gloat of what he has helped come to fruition. Not his style.
But make no doubt that the University of Kentucky Athletics Director is the driving force in revamping a football program including hiring Florida State’s highly regarded defensive coordinator Mark Stoops three years ago to be the head coach of the Wildcats.
Yes, he has the power to hire and fire. He runs a one-hundred million dollar athletic department. The powerhouse basketball team with coach John Calipari gets the national attention, but for over a decade Barnhart has been the architect of a well rounded sports program from track and field to volleyball to softball. Barnhart has done it so well, that he was named the best athletics director in the nation earlier this year.
“Wherever Mr. Barnhart wants to go,” the field gate guard said to the camera crew earlier when told we had an interview scheduled on the mezzanine level of the double decked stadium. That’s not hyperbole, he commands that respect probably, because he doesn’t demand it.
The athletic built, 50ish Barnhart is not a demonstrative man. At first he is even hard to read some might say, but there is no denying an inner strength is there. It’s the respect that comes from actions, someone to reckon with when push meets shove. Someone who quietly goes to his basement and works out on the heavy bag, “I’ve always had one. It’s a great way to get out frustrations.”
The traits of a martial artist, which Barnhart is and has been for years. He’s never fought or pretends that he wanted to. After his own athletic career a friend introduced him to Krav Maga. That led to ju jitsu and other aspects of MMA. He has stayed in shape through training, and has become a student of the layers it offers.
“A lot of it is core strength, as I’ve gotten older I found I need that,” he calmly explains, “And secondly it helps with discipline for other things.”
Such as the 170 days a year of travel, the speaking engagements, committee meetings, and pre-dawn to late nights necessary in running a high profile collegiate organization.
His approach and appreciation for MMA is reminiscent of the early stars of the UFC. Old school might be too cliche’ but there are fewer today who succeed by what they do NOT what they say, or tweet. It’s no wonder Barnhart speaks knowledgeably and respectfully about Matt Hughes, Chuck Liddell, and Anderson Silva.
“It was very cool to watch those guys, such great practitioners. To be really, really good you had to do three or four things very well you couldn’t just do one thing.” Much like taking care of the two money makers, football and men’s basketball that supply the cash for the rest of the teams and more important making their coaches and players know they matter.
He has a “very special friendship ” with former UFC champion Rich Franklin, a UK basketball fan. The Cincinnatian wanted to come to a game and Barnhart wanted to see him fight and things worked so well in their mutual likes that Barnhart has trained at times with Franklin.
What his MMA training, the physical and mental toughness created, has expanded to is his passion to climb to new heights. Barnhart has scaled Mt. Rainier twice, as well as Mt. Kilimanjaro and the Grand Teton. More climbs, more mountains are future goals.
For now he will bounce from airports this week, going to Calipari’s induction in the Basketball Hall of Fame in Massachusetts, then onto South Carolina to cheer on the football team. It is the latter program that is his current mountain, bringing sustained success in the country’s top gridiron conference, the Southeastern.
Between all of this he will find time to check the DVR keeping up with the fights. He’ll go back to that heavy bag in the basement when he gets home, maybe even get out one of “the complete collection” of Hall of Famer Bas Rutten’s training DVDs and “do the 10 minutes round, the 8 minutes, fives minutes with Bas, ” he laughs.
He can relate on a level to Dana White and the UFC. He too deals on an almost weekly basis to putting on sports events from the 60- thousand plus football games to the 24 thousand Rupp Arena basketball games and a few more thousand cumlative at the other almost two dozen scholarship sports.
“The fans come for more than just a competitive game, they want to be entertained.”
Our interview for the upcoming Inside MMA is over. Time is drawing near for his flight. He has it down to a science -how long the drive to Blue Grass Airport, to go through screening and get to the gate.
That’s the cold hard logistics of business travel. He takes a moment to soak in the increasing early heat of the day. Considering always new heights, more challenges.
A calm, collected man who sets goals and does it without exaggeration or boast. The essence of martial arts .
Got something you’re burning on? Tell the man himself on Twitter.
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