Mitch Barnhart

  • Birthdate: August 27, 1959

Hometown: Kansas City, Kansas

Year Hired: 2002

Alma Mater: B.A. from Ottawa University (Kansas) and an M.S. in sports administration from Ohio University

History: Barnhart was hired by the university in 2002 succeeding Larry Ivy. Barnhart served in the same capacity at Oregon State University from 1998-2002. He is the university’s tenth athletics director. In February 2011, Barnhart signed a 3-year extension on his contract which will keep him at Kentucky until 2019.



It’s a word that can have a meaning of stark suddenness, as when a streaking meteor slams into an object in outer space.  Or, as in the case of University of Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart, impact comes as the result of a stream of accomplishments and service that grows steadily through the test of time.

Now in his 15th year at UK, Barnhart’s influence is felt not only in Wildcat athletics, but in conference and national forums as well.

Already having served on numerous committees and boards for the NCAA and the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA), Barnhart’s national leadership will continue to expand as a new member of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee, which brings responsibility for selecting, seeding and bracketing teams, along with administration of the NCAA’s highest-profile event.

With his extensive previous experience on the NCAA Division I Council, as chair of the NCAA Competition Oversight Committee and as a member of the NCAA Division I Baseball Committee, in addition to several other leadership groups, Barnhart is well-suited for his latest task.

On a league level, Barnhart has been active in Southeastern Conference projects. Of recent note is his work with the SEC Compliance Committee and the SEC Network Content Committee, which helped the highly successful launch of the largest new cable channel in television history.

Barnhart’s acumen and achievements are being recognized. In 2015, he was named NCAA Division I Athletics Director of the Year, one of four Division I ADs selected for the honor, at the annual NACDA convention. 

Barnhart also was one of four finalists for the Athletics Director of the Year as chosen by the SportsBusiness Journal and he received the Sports Business Award from the Bluegrass Sports Commission.

It is no coincidence that Barnhart’s multiple accolades came in the same year as the completion of his 15 by 15 by 15 Plan, an ambitious blueprint set in 2008 in which Kentucky would rank in the nation’s top 15 athletics programs and win 15 conference or national championships by 2015. At the same time, Barnhart set a goal of a 3.0 composite grade-point average for UK student-athletes and an even greater commitment to community service by Wildcat athletes and staff. All of the goals presented bold, unprecedented challenges for UK Athletics.

The academic goal was first achieved in the spring semester of 2010 and has an active streak of eight consecutive 3.0 semesters, hitting a peak in spring 2014 with a school-record 3.218 composite GPA. Community service has risen to more than 4,000 hours annually and includes outreach to the Lexington area, the Commonwealth of Kentucky and as far away as Ethiopia.

The Directors’ Cup objective was reached a year early when UK checked in at a school-record No. 11 in the 2013-14 national all-sports standings. Kentucky has a current streak of five straight top-30 finishes in the Directors’ Cup, including four of the top five rankings in school history. 

The final goal was reached when UK men’s basketball claimed the 2015 SEC Tournament title, the 15th championship won by Wildcat athletes since 2008.

Not content with reaching one set of goals, Barnhart has initiated a new objective – Elite 1-3-5. The aim is for each UK team to be No. 1 by winning a conference or national championship, continue a department-wide 3.0 GPA and rank in the top 5 of the Directors’ Cup standings by 2022 – in the process making UK Athletics not just outstanding, but an elite national program.

In addition to attaining the 15 by 15 by 15 Plan, championship performance also has been reached in other levels of measurement. In Barnhart’s term at UK, the Wildcats have won SEC titles for the first time in baseball, men’s golf and women’s tennis.  More league crowns have been won by teams that hadn’t done so in decades. National championships have been claimed in men’s basketball and, for the first time, in rifle.

With team success growing, individual accolades have naturally followed.  Since 2013, at least one Wildcat has won all four of the SEC’s top individual awards – the Roy Kramer Athlete of the Year, Boyd McWhorter Scholar-Athlete of the Year, Brad Davis Community Service Leader of the Year and the SEC Sportsmanship Award. UK and Georgia are the only two league schools that can make that claim.

The impact of Barnhart is recognized by the award-winning Cats. In her acceptance speech for the SEC Community Service Leader Award, golfer Megan Moir acknowledged the inspiration provided by the UK athletics director.

“I would like to thank Mr. Barnhart for the opportunity and the privilege of being a student-athlete at the University of Kentucky,” Moir said. “I have so much respect for you and you have shown me what it means to be a true servant-leader.  You are a man of high integrity and character and I have grown so much watching your leadership permeate throughout the entire athletics department. I think it is unique to find an athletics director like Mr. Barnhart – he can personally name each student-athlete and really takes the time to get to know us. It was not uncommon for Mr. Barnhart to stop and ask me about my family or for us to spend time talking about projects in the community we are involved in.”

The team and individual accolades didn’t happen overnight and they haven’t occurred by accident, either. They have been the result of a steady, methodical process which Barnhart implemented upon his arrival at Kentucky in 2002.

Barnhart began by providing funds for full coaching staffs and scholarship allotments for all 22 UK sports.

Next, Barnhart directed the construction of new facilities, including the Joe Craft Center; new stadiums for track and field, softball and soccer; the UK Golf House; and the Wildcat Coal Lodge dormitory. Commonwealth Stadium had major renovations completed in 2015 and a new football practice/support complex opened in 2016. A new baseball stadium and indoor tennis facility are on the drawing board. All totaled, Barnhart has completed or is in the process of more than $300 million of facility construction.

Additional milestones have occurred under Barnhart’s guidance. UK athletes have set records for graduation rates and maintained a perfect mark in the 12-year history of the NCAA Academic Progress Rate.

Even with the department’s growth and the increasingly competitive nature of college sports, UK Athletics has remained financially self-sufficient under Barnhart’s management, operating with a balanced budget and with the help of no state or University funds. Seeing pressing facility needs on campus as well, Barnhart has made a $65 million commitment for athletics to fund nearly two-thirds of the new Academic Science Building. He also directs an annual $1.7-million contribution to the University’s scholarship program. Millions more dollars from the athletics budget stay on campus each year through athletic scholarship payments, administrative support payments, merchandise royalties, and other avenues.

Barnhart’s legacy at UK includes helping develop administrators who have gone on to become athletics directors at nationally prominent universities, including Greg Byrne of Arizona, Mark Coyle at Minnesota, Rob Mullens at Oregon and Scott Stricklin at Mississippi State.

Barnhart arrived at UK from Oregon State, where he served four successful years (1998-2002) as athletics director. Before OSU, he worked in athletics administration posts at Tennessee (1986-98), Southern Methodist University (1983-86), Oregon (1983) and San Diego State (1982-83).

Barnhart is a native of Kansas City, Kan. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Ottawa University (Kansas) in 1981 and a master’s in sports administration from Ohio University.

In addition to the extraordinary achievements of his work world, reaching new heights is also a theme of his personal life. An avid mountain climber, Barnhart has scaled Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, along with two of the most challenging peaks in the United States, Mount Rainier in Washington and the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. Impactful in community service, Barnhart has taken part in mission trips and is on the national advisory board of K-Love Radio.

Barnhart’s family includes his wife, Connie; three children, Blaire, Scott, and Kirby Willoughby; Kirby’s husband, McKenzie, and a grandson, Cooper.

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