As Tyler posted about earlier, Mitch Barnhart stated before UK’s 40-0 blowout loss to Vanderbilt earlier today that he was thankful for the “real fans” that show up to the game this afternoon, easily one of the lowest attendances in the modern era for Kentucky football. He also said that those who want Joker fired must have “personal agendas” against the embattled head coach.
Of course, this has stirred up a lot of controversy among UK fans, since the general consensus across BBN at this point is that a new coach is a necessary first step in building up a program that has fallen so far since Rich Brooks brought it back to respectability in 2006. Barnhart has taken a lot of criticism for his role in the stagnancy of the football program over the last few years, and his directed comments after a shutout loss against a mediocre opponent didn’t exactly help his case. But there are two sides to every story, so let’s look at things from both sides of the issue.
From Barnhart’s perspective, it is next to impossible to make UK fans happy. To be fair, Big Blue Nation’s perception of Rich Brooks after a couple of seasons was less than complimentary, and it turned out that all he needed was a little more time to build the program and shape it into the type of system he wanted to run. Now, I’m not saying that the Joker situation is the same, because it’s not. Phillips took over a program that was steadily improving overall and could not continue to build upon the team’s win total. To Joker’s credit, however, he did finally get Kentucky over the hump against South Carolina and Tennessee, and wins like this cannot be overlooked when you’re dealing with a program that had been bottom-feeding in the conference for years. Barnhart undoubtedly has received countless calls and emails trying to convince him to clean house immediately. Yes, it is part of his job, but it has to get old. Not everyone is exactly rational when expressing their heartfelt opinions, as demonstrated by a man who may have broken a new record for curse words in thirty seconds while Barnhart walked by him at a volleyball game.
From the fan’s perspective, however, enough is enough. For the most part, I think that UK fans still have a lot of respect for Joker as an individual, and for good reason. He is a stand up guy. This is one reason why it is hard to let him go. Phillips does a ton for the university and for the Lexington community off the field, but in the end his job is to coach a football team to victories, and based on his comments about his job security today, he understands that. Barnhart had every intention to reward the few fans who braved the weather and horrible football with his words, while inspiring the rest of the fan base to show up for Senior Day by challenging their status as “True Blue.” He also wanted to protect his head coach, a guy that he likes a lot. The result, though, was the isolation of a fan base that has suffered a lot over the past couple of seasons. Even fans who showed up to the Vandy debacle felt offended by Mitch’s “personal agenda” comment. And that’s fair enough. Many fans hate to see Joker go on a personal level, but legitimately believe that seeing him off has to happen before their beloved program can improve. Stating that these fans want Joker gone for personal reasons may not be the best way to handle relationships with these fans. Barnhart’s comments may prove true in some cases, and may have been targeted specifically at calls, emails, or statements directed at Joker on a personal level, but to assign this hatred to everyone who thinks it is time to turn the page is a little much.
Love Barnhart or hate him, UK’s athletics program as a whole has grown under his leadership. We do basketball better than anyone else, and multiple secondary sports have been provided with extra funding and upgrades that they deserve, and have improved significantly as a result. Look no further than UK baseball’s #1 ranking, softball’s emergence as an SEC contender, volleyball’s run to the sweet sixteen, and women’s basketball’s resurgence as a national power. But if Barnhart is going to reestablish a solid relationship with the majority of fans, some changes have to be made to the football program. There is clearly a lot of pressure on him to make a move, and I’m not convinced that his comments tonight mean that a decision has been made one way or the other. It’s a waiting game at this point, and Barnhart and a large portion of Big Blue Nation appear to be in an awkward staring match at this point. Meanwhile, as Senior Day looms, UK must find a way to get its fans back.
The seniors deserve that much.