At the start of the week, Matthew Mitchell was gearing up for a potentially historic season. Just a few days later, he shockingly passed the torch.
Mitchell’s decision to retire from coaching and step away from the Kentucky Women’s Basketball Team was announced to the public late Thursday night. The 13-year head coach of the Wildcats cited his ongoing health concerns that have come as a result of his brain surgery over the summer. He intends to spend more time with his wife and two girls. He believes that now is the time to move forward.
But why now? With a preseason No. 11 ranked team and a National Player of the Year candidate, why did he choose this exact moment? The regular season is now 12 days away. How exactly did this decision surface?
It wasn’t until Wednesday of this week that Mitchell called Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart to break the news: the program’s all-time winningest coach had to step aside. He physically could no longer give 100 percent.
“Obviously, Matthew is incredibly special to us,” Barnhart said during interim head coach Kyra Elzy’s introductory news conference. “He’s a 100% guy. If nothing else, he doesn’t do anything halfway. It is a 100% deal. He’d been sharing with me a little bit about the challenge of getting back to 100% after surgery. I think it’s been documented. We talked a few times and he just couldn’t quite get to where he felt comfortable. He called Wednesday and said, ‘Can we talk for a few minutes?’ and he said, ‘I just don’t feel like I’m where I want to be. I’m not 100%.’ He went back to that phrase.”
Elzy, who has worked under Mitchell at Kentucky since 2016 and also spent four seasons under Mitchell from 2008-12 before taking a position at Tennessee, is more than prepared for the moment. She’s been leading practices since they began a month ago and knows the current roster better than anyone within the program. And despite Mitchell’s absence the last several months as he’s continued his recovery process, the thought of him stepping down didn’t cross the minds of the Big Blue Nation. He was present for Media Day and said that the plan for him was “to be full speed a little bit before we start the season.” It felt like business as usual.
That was on Oct. 29, exactly two weeks before he would step down. But Barnhart says that Mitchell is confident in his decision.
“He [Mitchell] was resolute in saying ‘I think it’s time,” Barnhart said.
The Kentucky AD briefly mentioned the possibility of keeping Mitchell on board within the program in some capacity but did not provide any concrete details, as that decision will likely be a ways away. With the season less than two weeks until opening tip, the turnaround process is going to have come quick and smooth for Elzy and company.