UK Athletics


  • 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 10th athletics director. In April 2018, Barnhart signed an extension on his contract which will keep him at Kentucky until at least 2023.
  • Twitter: @ukmitchbarnhart


Entering his 20th year as Director of Athletics at the University of Kentucky, Mitch Barnhart continues to add to his accomplishments as one of the foremost leaders in collegiate athletics.

The 2019 AD of the Year as selected by the SportsBusiness Journal, Barnhart’s acumen was put to its strongest test in 2020-21.  As if it were not enough to guide UK through the severe challenges in health care, competition and finances caused by Covid-19, Barnhart also was Chair of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Committee, a task which required him to take a lead role in re-creating and executing the organization’s most prominent event in the midst of a pandemic.

And, as he has done so often during his two decades at Kentucky, Barnhart rose to the occasion by drawing upon his wisdom, experience and – most of all – his steadfast dedication.

Working alongside the NCAA staff, in the span of only two months, Barnhart and the tournament committee scrapped the time-tested format and invented a new procedure by bringing all 68 teams to one location and supporting them with numerous health and safety protocols. As a result, all but one of the scheduled games was played and the mission was completed when Barnhart handed the championship trophy to the victorious Baylor Bears.

Meanwhile in Lexington, with assistance from the Southeastern Conference, UK HealthCare, and state and local officials, Barnhart kept the Wildcats on the prowl en route to one of the most successful years in UK Athletics history.

The Kentucky football team was able to play all of its scheduled games and topped the campaign with a fifth-straight postseason appearance, and third-consecutive bowl victory, with a win over No. 23 North Carolina State in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl.

In February, the women’s swimming and diving team won its first SEC championship. A month later, UK rifle claimed its third NCAA championship.  That was followed by another national crown, as the volleyball squad earned the NCAA title, the first by an SEC school in that sport.

All totaled, UK finished 12th among 358 Division I teams in the 2021 NACDA Directors’ Cup all-sports standings, the third-best finish in school history, the fourth year in a row in the top 20, and ninth in a row in the top 30. The national championships give UK a total of five during Barnhart’s term, joining men’s basketball in 2012 and rifle in 2011 and ’18.

The consistent performance is a result of Barnhart’s work since his arrival in the summer of 2002.  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 been a hallmark of his 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 Barnhart has instilled in the department he leads: character, integrity, knowledge, stewardship and competitiveness.

A department-wide 3.0 grade-point average among student-athletes and increased community service have been long-standing goals for Barnhart.  The GPA benchmark was first met in the spring semester of 2010 and has now reached a streak of 18 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 17-year history of the NCAA Academic Progress Rate, making UK one of just two SEC schools to never incur an APR penalty.

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.

The Directors’ Cup standings have reflected the progress in the fields and arenas of competition. Barnhart inherited a department that finished 50th nationally in 2002-03, his first year in Lexington.  By 2012-13, UK climbed to No. 25 in the country, UK’s first top-25 finish. A year later, UK advanced to No. 11.

Kentucky cracked the top 10 for the first time by coming in at No. 10 for the 2016-17 school year.  The next goal is a top-five finish for the Wildcats.

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 SportsBusiness Journal and he received the Sports Business Award from the Bluegrass Sports Commission that year.

Four years after his first nomination by the SportsBusiness 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. On that count, UK has had plenty to celebrate.

During a 2018-19 season that saw five teams (men’s soccer, men’s basketball, rifle, volleyball and softball) post top-10 national finishes and the football program post its best season in 41 years. Wildcat student-athletes earned prestigious individual honors as well. Softball’s Abbey Cheek was named NFCA National Player of the Year, football’s Josh Allen was named National Defensive Player of the Year and women’s basketball’s Rhyne Howard was named National Freshman of the Year.

Despite being abbreviated by Covid, the 2019-20 athletic season produced similar results. Lynn Bowden Jr. won the Paul Hornung Award as the most versatile athlete in college football and Mary Tucker was named National Athlete of the Year in rifle.

The individual laurels continued in 2020-21, with Tucker, Madison Lilley (volleyball) and Liam Draxl (men’s tennis) being named National Athlete of the Year in their sports. In addition, Lilley was voted SEC Female Athlete of the Year, covering all sports. A school-record total of 20 Wildcat athletes and coaches participated in the Tokyo Olympics.

Off-the-field recognition has come just as often, with softball player Katie Reed being named the winner of the 2019 Senior CLASS Award, C.J. Conrad winning the 2018 Pop Warner National College Football Award and football’s Landon Young being named captain of the 2019 National Good Works Team. Swimming’s Asia Seidt was honored as 2020 NCAA Woman of the Year, 2019 Arthur Ashe Female Sports Scholar of the Year and SEC Female Scholar-Athlete of the Year for all sports.

While UK has been able to sustain success, Barnhart is always seeking improvement. One recent example is UK’s newly launched Student-Athlete Experience Division. Through the division’s work – known as “The Kentucky Road” — UK has renewed its commitment to prepare student-athletes to enter life after UK by equipping them with requisite professional skills and helping them identify and pursue internship and work opportunities while continuing to provide the academic support that has made UK Athletics a trendsetter in college athletics for the last four decades.

An example of cutting-edge performance has been in the area of personal branding. A current hot topic among athletes, UK was at the forefront as the first school in the nation to implement the INFLCR platform, which provides student-athletes access to photos and highlights to enhance their social media presence. Additional assistance comes in the form of educational seminars, such as financial literacy, and the extension of scholarships as needed to complete bachelor’s degrees.

Investment in the success of UK student-athletes in all facets has been a theme of the Barnhart era, beginning with the provision of funds for full coaching staffs and scholarship allotments for every UK sport. Barnhart has also strategically invested in improvements to UK Athletics’ facilities. Investments in new construction and renovation to facilities include 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.

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 is fulfilling a $65 million commitment for athletics to fund nearly two-thirds of the new 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.

A steadfast believer in the transformational power of college athletics, Barnhart is influential on the national level. Already having 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, he will stay on the national stage as a new member of the College Football Playoff Committee.

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 has proven himself well suited for the task.

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, the latest instance of his active involvement in SEC 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 legacy at UK includes helping develop administrators who have gone on to become athletics directors at nationally prominent universities, including Greg Byrne of Alabama, Mark Coyle at Minnesota, Rob Mullens at Oregon, Scott Stricklin at Florida, John Cohen at Mississippi State, Kevin Saal at Murray State and DeWayne Peevy at DePaul.

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, Kansas. 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. He has also twice performed tandem parachute jumps with the Army Golden Knights. Impactful in community service, Barnhart has taken part in mission trips and was on the national advisory board of K-Love Radio.

Barnhart and his wife, Connie, also actively serve and support the Christian Student Fellowship and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes on campus in an effort to minister to young people. Connie serves on the board of Easter Seals, using her background in physical therapy to assist others in rehabilitation services.

The Barnharts have three children, Kirby Willoughby, Blaire Jansen and Scott; Kirby’s husband, McKenzie, and their sons Cooper, Reece and Gunner; Blaire’s husband, Andrew; and Scott’s wife, Cassie, and their daughter Rylee.


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