Mitch Barnhart Receives John L. Toner Award
LAS VEGAS, Nevada – University of Kentucky Director of Athletics Mitch Barnhart received the 2022 John L. Toner Award Tuesday night in Las Vegas during the annual National Football Foundation Awards Dinner in Las Vegas.
First presented in 1997, the John L. Toner Award recognizes athletics directors who have demonstrated superior administrative abilities and shown outstanding dedication to college athletics and particularly college football. The award is named in honor of its inaugural recipient, the late John L. Toner, who was a former athletics director and football coach at Connecticut. Toner, an NCAA President from 1983-85, joined the NFF Board in 1988 and served as the vice chairman from 2000-2008.
“For two decades, Mitch Barnhart has skillfully guided Kentucky as one of the foremost leaders in collegiate athletics,” said NFF President & CEO Steve Hatchell. “He is committed to ensuring Wildcat student-athletes have success both on and off the field. We are pleased to honor him with the 2022 NFF John L. Toner Award in recognition of his distinguished career.”
Hired in 2002, Barnhart is in his 21st year as Kentucky’s director of athletics. He has steadily invested in the growth of all UK teams while maintaining a singular commitment to the holistic development of Wildcat student-athletes.
Matching resources to expectations has remained a hallmark of Barnhart’s tenure, with the proof coming in the form of student-athlete support, staff enhancements and $300 million in facility improvements since 2007. At the heart of everything are the core values he has instilled in the department he leads: character, integrity, knowledge, stewardship and competitiveness.
On the football field, Barnhart hired current Wildcats head coach Mark Stoops prior to the 2013 season, which has resulted in one of the best runs in program history. The 2018 Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year, Stoops has led UK to seven straight bowl games, including four straight victories following the team’s win against Iowa in the 2022 Vrbo Citrus Bowl. The Wildcats posted 10-win seasons in both 2018 and 2021 after not reaching double-digit victories since 1977. The Wildcats have a rematch with Iowa in the TransPerfect Music City Bowl on December 31.
In 2018, Josh Allen earned both the Bednarik Award and Nagurski Trophy as the top defensive player in the country. In 2007, standout tight end Jacob Tamme was selected as an NFF National Scholar-Athlete. Kentucky is also one of just 26 programs at all levels of play to have at least one player represented in all 16 years of the NFF Hampshire Honor Society (2007-22), which honors college football players who each maintained a cumulative 3.2 GPA or better throughout their college careers.
With assistance from the SEC, UK HealthCare, and state and local officials, Barnhart kept the Wildcats on the field and healthy in 2020-21 while facing the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Kentucky football team was able to play all of its scheduled games and topped the campaign with a win over No. 23 North Carolina State in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl.
That season, Barnhart also served as Chair of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Committee and was instrumental in setting up the new procedure to bring all 68 teams to one location and support them with numerous health and safety protocols. As a result, all but one of the scheduled games was played successfully.
At Kentucky, Barnhardt established longstanding goals of a department-wide 3.0 GPA among student-athletes and increased community service. The GPA benchmark was first met in the spring semester of 2010 and has now reached a streak of 20 consecutive semesters. In spring 2020, UK achieved a cumulative GPA of 3.534, the best in school history.
UK athletes have set records for graduation rates and maintained a perfect mark in the 18-year history of the NCAA Academic Progress Rate, making UK one of just two SEC schools to have always achieved APR compliance.
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 Dominican Republic and Panama. And, even during the pandemic, the Wildcats came up with new ways to serve the public.
UK teams have won six national championships during Barnhart’s tenure, including men’s basketball in 2012, women’s volleyball in 2020 and rifle in 2011, 2018, 2021 and 2022.
The growth of UK Athletics began earning national recognition for Barnhart in 2015, when he was named one of four Division I Athletics Directors of the Year by NACDA. He also was one of four finalists for 2015 Athletics Director of the Year as chosen by the Sports Business Journal and he received the Sports Business Award from the Bluegrass Sports Commission that year.
Four years after his first nomination by the Sports Business Journal, Barnhart was named 2019 Athletic Director of the Year, but he has always been more interested in the achievements of UK student-athletes than his own.
Barnhart helped launch UK’s Student-Athlete Experience Division known as “The Kentucky Road,” through which UK has renewed its commitment to prepare student-athletes to enter life after college by equipping them with requisite professional skills and helping them identify and pursue internship and work opportunities while continuing to provide academic support.
Barnhart also has strategically invested in improvements to UK Athletics’ 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. The home of Kentucky football, Kroger Field, underwent a $126 million renovation completed in 2015 and the $45 million Joe Craft Football Training Facility opened a year later. A new $49 million baseball stadium – Kentucky Proud Park – opened in fall of 2018.
Seeing pressing facility needs on campus, Barnhart is fulfilling a $65 million commitment for athletics to fund nearly two-thirds of the Don & Cathy Jacobs Science Building on campus. 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. Additionally, UK has also completely phased out the athletics fee previously paid by students as part of their tuition.
He has served on numerous committees and boards for the NCAA and the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA), including his five-year term on the Men’s Basketball Tournament Committee. Since 2021, he has been a member of the College Football Playoff Selection Committee. In 2022, he was named to the (state of) Kentucky Sports Hall of Fame.
On a league level, Barnhart – the longest-tenured athletics director in the conference and second-longest among ADs in the Power 5 conferences – was named chair of the SEC Athletics Directors in 2017. Of recent note is his work with the SEC Compliance Committee and the SEC Network Content Committee, which helped launch one of the largest cable channels in television history.
Barnhart arrived at UK from Oregon State, where he served four successful years (1998-2002) as athletics director. Among the highlights of his tenure with the Beavers was the hiring of College Football Hall of Fame Coach Dennis Erickson, who led a massive turnaround at the university. In 1999, Erickson led the Oregon State football program to its first winning season in 29 years and first bowl appearance in 35 years. Then, in 2000, the Beavers earned a share of the Pac-10 title for the first time since 1964 and defeated Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl to finish with an 11-1 record and the No. 4 final ranking (the highest finish in school history).
Before Oregon State, Barnhart worked in athletics administration posts at Tennessee (1986-98), SMU (1983-86), Oregon (1983) and San Diego State (1982-83).
Barnhart is a native of Kansas City, Kansas. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Ottawa University (KS) in 1981 and a master’s in sports administration from Ohio University.