MITCH BARNHART: I appreciate everybody coming on a Sunday night again. And we’re excited to announce we have accepted an invitation to the Belk Bowl in Charlotte. Had a chance to visit with the executive director Danny Morrison this afternoon. And Danny, he and I have talked on a couple of occasions, and he’s been at a couple of our games, so we’re excited to spend some time with him. He’s a good man that’s really worked hard to put on a good bowl.
Had a chance to chat with a couple other folks that have been to the bowl, and they say it’s just a wonderful experience. I’m looking forward to sharing that with our coaches and our team and our fans. So it will be really good.
It’s our first time playing in this game. And we know that they create an experience that is uniquely different than some of the other bowls we have been to, which I think will be exciting for our players. We can’t wait to get to Charlotte and compete against Virginia Tech. Obviously, (Virginia Tech is) a program that’s had a lot of success and done a lot of really good things. Whit Babcock will bring their team, as athletic director. I’ve known Whit a long time, and their team will come down and be well prepared. And, a lot of history with their program, obviously, an ACC opponent. That’s always good when you can match up against another Power Five, Autonomy Five school and have a chance to compete. So it’s a great opportunity.
Bowls have become a little bit of a regular thing under Coach (Mark) Stoops’ era. We’re appreciative of being four years in a row now and an exciting time for us to just continue to take a step in our program. And (with a record of) 7-5, to go have a chance to get our 8th win is exciting. Don’t want it take that lightly. I think that you get, sometimes we get a little bit nonchalant about the things the that happen, the successes we have in our program, and don’t want to do that. The things that this team has accomplished this year took an incredible amount of work from a lot of people. There was a lot of injuries, a lot of things to overcome. And this team did a remarkable job of staying together, working hard together, changing the way they play, the personality of who they were, and found a way to get to a really remarkable spot in winning five of our last seven games to close the regular season. So I don’t want to forget about that. I also don’t want to forget about the incredible role that our fans played. The weather had an incredible impact on our year. It was an interesting year from a weather perspective. Short of my days in Oregon, I don’t ever remember a seeing as much rain as I saw in one football season. So to play in that and to overcome some of that time after time after time was pretty remarkable what our young people did. And so really happy that they get to take it one more step and for our seniors to have an opportunity to go to bowl game again and walk out in post-season play. And I think that’s a remarkable deal.
But make no mistake about it. The bowls are important to college football and it’s important to the growth of our program and to us being able to continue to be consistent in building the foundational piece to our program and building the opportunity for us to continue to climb up the mountain of things we want to do towards championships in the SEC.
The other thing I would say is people have become accustomed to the crowds that our fans bring, our fan base brings. You look at the last three bowl games we have been to, we had an opportunity to go to the Gator Bowl, we’ve had a chance to be in the Music City Bowl, we’ve had an opportunity to be in the Citrus Bowl. We have been in some really good bowl games and our fans have absolutely supported us. And we’re going to need that kind of support as we go to Charlotte. I know that Virginia Tech will have a strong fan base there. I would anticipate our fan base will support us. It’s drivable. We can get there in a good spot from Kentucky. We have a large fan base and alumni association base in Atlanta. It’s one of the largest we’ve got in the country. I’m hoping they will drive up the highway from there and have an opportunity to get to that spot.
Our tickets will go on sale tomorrow morning at 9 o’clock on ukfootballtix — that’s T I X — .com. So everybody that wants to have an opportunity to get into that. We have had the presale that went on for our fan base, and then a lot of people wait to find out where we’re going and what’s going on with that. And so now we encourage them to jump in on that so we can get moving along.
But, again, the game is another step forward toward trying to build a championship-caliber program. And you build championships one bowl at a time and one step at a time. And so this is another step for our program and looking forward to doing just that. It’s a national audience on December 31st at noon, a day that everybody sort of settles in and begins to watch a couple full days of football and we’re anxious to be a part of that. So, anxious to represent the Southeastern Conference, and hopefully add another victory to a very storied history of bowls in the SEC.
So let me stop there and take questions that you might have and then get the guys you want to talk to about the game up here and what they have to say about Virginia Tech and the bowl.
Q. Obviously, there was a lot of speculation today about the Gator Bowl. At what point today did you realize the Belk Bowl was going to be an option and was that y’all’s preference?
MITCH BARNHART: I think the two things that you can get really misguided in these things, if you’re not appreciative for wherever you go, all right? You can’t get into these things and think that unless you’re undefeated you own the day. And sometimes when you’re undefeated you don’t get to own the day. So at the end of the day we’ll always be appreciative of where we go. We knew that there was two or three options available. And, basically, two options available to us depending on how many teams got up in the bowl situation. And we knew that in terms of order of choices and how people pick bowls that there was two, about two places that we were going to get to go. There was also a non-repeat rule in our league — two-year, they try and keep people from repeating within a two-year period of time going back to those bowls unless it’s absolutely necessary. So we knew that that sort of narrowed the field a little bit. And then there’s a geographical piece and where will your fans go and those kind of things. So I knew that we would get a phone call mid-afternoon after the rankings came out and they would say that hey, this is where it’s sort of landed, and we would probably, there would probably be not a lot of room in that and that’s okay. We haven’t been to Charlotte before. We’re excited about it. I think I’ll let these guys speak for it, but new experiences are good. We have been to the Music City Bowl several times and that’s a good thing. We, obviously, couldn’t go back there because of the two-year window, and that’s okay.
The Gator Bowl was much talked about and there was that conversation. Then you get into opponents and things like that that happen, and then you talk about the Belk Bowl. And this is a bowl that has been good to our league. It has been supportive of the SEC. It’s not even really in the SEC footprint, so to speak. It’s out of our footprint. And so for them to jump into our footprint and be supportive of our league with the ACC, it’s a really good matchup for us against a really good opponent. So I’m excited for our players to get to experience something new. I’m excited that our fans can get there fairly easily. You know, it’s a six-hour trip from Lexington. And so I think there’s a lot of moving pieces to these things and they’re really hard. The SEC staff has a really difficult job of trying to match all this stuff up and make it work together. And I think they do a remarkable job year-in and year-out. Mark Womack does a tremendous job of trying to do that. And so I thank him for all of his efforts and what he does year in and year out for college football. I mean, it’s a really difficult task. At the end of the day, we’re ready to play and ready to go to Charlotte. So I hope that answers the question.
Q. You mentioned the alumni in Atlanta. It’s, like, a four-hour trip and how appreciative would you be or are you that they have that opportunity, you mentioned that, and how important is it that they make that trip?
MITCH BARNHART: Yeah, very important. You don’t get a chance to watch our football team a lot of times unless you’re driving up — when you’re in Atlanta, you get the game at Georgia, maybe sometimes a game across the line at Auburn or Alabama, sometimes. Very few times we get to play over there. So having an opportunity to drive just a little bit up. It’s in late December, clearly end of the year. Most folks have that day to sort of gather their relaxation for the New Year’s or whatever and so hopefully they will jump in the car and take a day and drive up that morning and come up and watch us play. We’re excited that that would be good for our fan base. We always talk about Catlanta, but that group has traveled remarkably well. We had a bunch come down to Jacksonville when we played a couple years ago. They came to the Citrus Bowl when we played last year. And they’ve traveled to follow us very, very well, so I’m assuming that group in Atlanta will travel extremely well to come up the highway to watch us.
Q. Have you talked to Coach Stoops since you got the word?
MITCH BARNHART: Yeah.
Q. What’s was his response?
MITCH BARNHART: He’s good. He’s ready to go. He wants to play. This is an opportunity for us to get more practice time. It’s an opportunity for us to play a really good opponent. I know it’s, somebody said, I think it’s Bud Foster’s last game as defensive coordinator. I think someone said that, if I’m not mistaken. He’s retiring at the end of this year. And so Bud’s a Somerset, Kentucky guy, and so there will be some pieces to that which it will be a privilege to shake his hand and thank him for his career in college football. He’s done a lot for the game. I want to be respectful of that. And then, I think there’s a lot of connections. I was talking to one of our coaches, (he said) I’ve got, like, a hundred family members who all went to Virginia Tech. So it will be one of those, there will be some that have going on I’m sure. But I think that if you can’t get excited about playing against a team that’s got the storied history that they have done, they have done great job at Virginia Tech. And to play against a team like that, that’s got a really nice tradition in football. And if you can’t get excited to play on a national stage on New Year’s Eve, then something’s wrong. We’re excited to play.
Q. Danny Morrison had some nice things to say about you after they hosted the rifle championship there at TCU. Do you remember anything about that?
MITCH BARNHART: Yeah, we won a National Championship down there that year. So Danny was the AD at TCU and I had a chance to go down there and spend some time and watch our team compete. And Danny’s a first-class guy. He puts on a good deal. We were down there, and so, yeah, he gets college athletics. He helped build that program up at TCU. So where they are today at TCU has a lot to do with Danny Morrison. So he went back to Charlotte and he’s done some nice things in Charlotte and he’s taken on the leadership of that bowl. And he’s working really hard to do, to put on a good show for these young folks who are going to come over there and play. And they get to play in a pro stadium too. Let’s keep in mind they’re going to play in the Panthers’ stadium and to have an opportunity to showcase themselves on a national stage. And so there’s it’s an incredibly good opportunity. And like I said, Danny’s a really good man.
Q. You mentioned the weather. Factoring that in, how do you kind of evaluate the attendance throughout the season this year and ticket sales as a whole?
MITCH BARNHART: Our ticket sales were fine. The fans, our fans were incredibly dedicated. There were some days I’m not sure I would have stood out there. They were incredible. I’m not going to, I will thank every one of them. They were awesome. I looked out last couple games, there was some times that it was raining about as hard as I’ve seen it rain in my career and they hung right in there and supported college football and our kids. You can sit there, and someone can say, hey, there was a bunch — let me tell you something. There was a lot of empty (seats) — it rains that hard there’s going to be a lot of empty seats in a lot of stadiums. And our fans, there’s, we had, you know, many, many times 50, 55,000 tickets out for games and 30, 35,000 people standing in there just getting drenched. I’m not sure how many sick days were after that at work, but I promise you there was some folks that called in sick because there had to be pneumonia somewhere (laughter). The doctor bills were incredible this year and it’s just not our staff. So our fans were phenomenal. Really, really good. And we may get to Charlotte and maybe it needs to rain for us. You know, maybe we need a little rain. That’s a little part of our family mantra, but we’ll talk about that later.
But we, I’m thankful for our fans. They were incredible this year to go do what — I mean, even the one at Georgia. That wasn’t even a home game and we had people down there, out there in that deluge. So thankful for our fans, they were tremendous.
Q. A few weeks ago Stoops was asked about whether he would like to play in the rain. What do you think about that?
MITCH BARNHART: Hey, if we win I’m good, let’s go. But you know, I think our guys have gotten used to it a little bit, I don’t think they feel it much, we sort of learned how to play in it.
Q. It seems like the past few years there’s been more of an emphasis on retaining, not just the head football coach, but the assistant football coaches also. Is that something that’s gradually grown over the years or has it always been like that since you’ve been here or what’s your philosophy?
MITCH BARNHART: I think at Kentucky, when we first came in 2002, I would call Kentucky a transition school. With the exception of men’s basketball, people were big into transitioning into another spot. I think what we tried to keep is Kentucky to be a destination place where people want to come. Lexington’s an amazing city, University of Kentucky is a land grant, big-time institution. It’s a place where you can stay a long time and have a really great quality of life. So what we wanted to do was try and create that dynamic for our staff and our coaches. Realizing people chase dreams and there’s certain folks, assistant coaches, every once in awhile they want to go be a head coach and that’s okay. But if you want to be here and you’re doing what we think is the job necessary to represent Kentucky, then we want you here. So we’re going to do everything we can within our bounds to keep you. Now that doesn’t, we can’t go crazy and have lack of responsibility to the overall piece, but we want to make Kentucky a destination place rather than a transition place. And so we have done that. You look at — I mean, just point to (volleyball coach) Craig Skinner. Here’s a guy who is here 15 years, he’s been to 15 straight NCAA’s now he’s in the Sweet 16 again, three straight SEC championships, guy’s had many chances to leave, early on, eight, 10 years in. He stayed. Why? Because it’s a pretty good place. It’s a pretty good place. We got (softball coach) Rachel Lawson, I could go down the list. People have had chances to walk away from this place. Anything about the things that we’re doing special, we can give some financial resources to that, we can do some facility things like that. But it speaks volumes about three or four things: Our fan base, the institution, and this wonderful city. I mean, it’s a pretty good place to call home. And it’s hard to replicate that other places. You hear coaches, you heard a lot of these coaches say in this crazy, crazy thing that’s going on right now, hey, the grass isn’t always greener somewhere else. And all of a sudden you got something that’s pretty good, sometimes it’s pretty good to lock in and enjoy that and work at it. And I think a lot of our coaches have taken that on we have got 16 head coaches, 10 of them have been here longer than six years, six of them have been here longer than 10 years and they have all been relatively successful.
Q. You mentioned the adversity they had this year. Obviously lost a lot of pieces, important pieces of the 10-win team last year. How important was the program just to get back to a bowl and not have a drop off after having such a great season last year?
MITCH BARNHART: I think that when you walk into it — I loved what Mark said early on, about — and they said. ‘Oh, this team can only win this.’ And Mark said — he didn’t believe that. Now that was before all the injuries, right? If you remember back, they said, coming out of the media days Mark was upset about the lack of respect he felt like our team was getting. That Josh (Allen) and Benny (Snell) and those guys had moved on and we didn’t have anything left to build a program with. And that wasn’t the case. He didn’t believe that and no one in that locker room believed it. Now, then all of a sudden injuries hit and things start chipping away at that foundation that you got and you got to sort of reframe who you are. I thought it was a remarkable effort on both fronts, coaches and our young people, what they did, to completely reframe how they think. You talk about sacrificial, a lot of people gave up what they do for the good of the team to go be better. And we hear that talked about an awful lot but very seldom do you see it played out in real time like our team did. Folks gave up positions, folks gave up reps, folks gave up opportunities that may have been best for them to collectively get to a better spot and go be something really valuable as a team. And then go through some tough, a couple tough losses. Ones that you sort of wish you had. And you still find your way to 7-5 and get to a bowl game I think speaks volumes about senior leadership, which you’ll meet a couple of those guys in a minute, it speaks volumes about the coaches and their leadership, but more importantly it speaks volumes about a group of guys in the locker room just saying, hey, you know what, we’re not done and we’re going to get back to a bowl game and we’re going to experience this thing together and keep building the foundation of what we’re trying to do. I truly believe and I wouldn’t sit here and tell you otherwise, I truly believe this is a program that can get to Atlanta for the championship game. I believe that. But it can’t happen unless you have that kind of leadership from a group of guys that continue to just to continue to build a base for you to climb from.
Q. There’s been a lot of talk as you mentioned about the Conference Coach of the Year for Mark. How disappointed would you be if that wasn’t the case? How disappointed would you be if Mark’s not named the coach of the year?
MITCH BARNHART: The one thing great about Mark is he’s really never concerned himself with that stuff. He’s been so — the awards are nice. I mean, I think they’re wonderful, and I think he would be the first one to say, ‘Hey, thanks.’ But at the end of the day I think he gets his greatest satisfaction developing our guys. And I say that because we use that word really, really loosely sometimes, but you look at what has been developed in our program in terms of players and you’re going to have a — we got a couple guys up for another couple sets of national awards this year. I mean I think it’s Wednesday night? Is that right? Thursday night. Thursday night is the national awards. We could have a couple more national award winners Thursday night. That’s, you know, that would be back-to-back years we have done some really remarkable things in terms of that. And there’s another set of young guys that are positioned to continue to grow the program. So Mark and the coaching staff have done a nice job of developing — are we perfect? No, we’re not perfect in what we do. But I think we have shown that there’s a purpose to what we do and how we do it and Mark has done a really remarkable job of developing young guys.