“Mostly, high school and college was preparing for what I do today,” Barnhart, 53, said. “I spent a lot of time in broadcasting and journalism. I got the opportunity when I was a kid to learn public speaking and the written word. As I went on, I found other opportunities to expand on that.”
‘A very special place’
The Kansas City native and Shawnee Mission North High School and Ottawa University graduate now is entering his 12th year as the university’s athletic director. Barnhart said he looks back on his time at OU very fondly.
“OU is a very special place for me in a lot of ways,” Barnhart said. “I came to OU to work in the athletic department. I laid out the game programs, sold ads and printed the game programs. As a student, I did that.”
Barnhart said his father died when he was young and the college helped him. He was heavily involved as a member of student government, broadcasting the athletic games and working at the student newspaper while at OU. Aside from academics, Barnhart also recalled becoming a member of the golf team in an untraditional way.
“It’s actually a funny story,” Barnhart said. “The golf team was struggling for numbers one year. The coach asked four of us if we wanted to play and we said, ‘Yeah, we’d like to play.’ The coach said, ‘Good, we’ve got a tournament this weekend.’”
Barnhart spent a lot of time around athletics in college, which led him to meet his now-wife of 31 years, Connie, who played basketball at OU. He also spoke highly of the late Dr. Ronald Averyt, former history and political science professor at OU from 1961 to 1999.
‘Had to earn my stripes’
Barnhart’s career has taken him and his family many places. After graduating from OU in 1981, he completed the master’s program at Ohio University in 1982, and from there worked at several colleges.
“(Ohio University) really opened up my eyes to sports marketing and administration,” Barnhart said. “I always thought I wanted to write sports.”
After interning at San Diego State’s Aztec Foundation, Barnhart worked as a regional director for the University of Oregon’s Duck Athletic Fund in 1983. He then moved up to the assistant executive director position for the Mustang Club at Southern Methodist University from 1983-1986 before becoming the senior associate athletic director at the University of Tennessee for 12 years from 1986-1998. Following his first head athletic director position at Oregon State University from 1998-2002, Barnhart became the University of Kentucky’s athletic director in 2002 and has been the overseer of Wildcat athletics since. Barnhart explains his career as an opportunity to continuously learn.
“I got to learn a lot of different cultures,” Barnhart said. ”I had to earn my stripes. I wasn’t a big-name athlete or anything like that, but [my family and I] have been blessed and have friends all over the country. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
Combined with his experience from Tennessee, Barnhart enters his 24th season in the Southeastern Conference, his 12th with the Wildcats. While he still has great love for his hometown sports, Barnhart admitted his time in the SEC has led to a passion for the conference.
“My heart and soul is in this league,” he said. “I’ve got great friends here. I’m still a big Royals fan, still a big Chiefs fan. Middle America and the Deep South are not so different as far as their values. They are both hard working. I have learned that the Deep South is very deeply rooted in college sports.”
‘Want to win like crazy’
Barnhart has played a pivotal role in helping turn around the athletics program at Kentucky.
“I came into a program that was on probation in football and wasn’t really competitive in a lot of other sports,” Barnhart said. “We began to get coaches to come and stay and build programs. I’ve never looked at it like it was my accomplishments.”
The Wildcats have finished 29th in the NCAA Division I Director’s Cup standings twice the past three years, according to the University of Kentucky’s athletic website. That’s a big improvement for the university, Barnhart said, adding that it previously was ranking in the 55-60th place range. The Directors Cup is an award given to the American college that excels the most in athletics that year. It is sponsored by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics and is awarded to one college in each of the National Collegiate Athletics Association’s three divisions as well as one college in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.
Barnhart also implemented the “15 by 15 by 15” plan for Kentucky athletics in November 2008, according to the website. His plan is for Kentucky to win 15 conference or national championships and be one of the top 15 athletic programs in the country by 2015.
“I felt like we didn’t have a lot of big goals,” Barnhart said. “We have 11 (of the 15 championships) now and four to go.”
One of the largest and most recent championships came in 2012 when Kentucky was crowned the NCAA men’s basketball champions. Aside from the vast improvement of the athletic program, student-athletes also have had steady academic success under Barnhart’s regime. Student-athletes have an average GPA of almost 3.1 on a 4.0 scale and have averaged a 3.0 or better five of the last six semesters, he said.
“The goal at the end of the day is to build people with great character and match that with integrity of how we hold ourselves,” Barnhart said. “We want to give those kids a great opportunity. We also want to win like crazy.”
‘I love what I do’
There are never two days that are the same in the day of an athletic director’s life, he said, but even though Barnhart and his family are now settled in Lexington, he sill has strong ties to Kansas City and Ottawa. His mother and step-father currently live in Kansas City. In May 2004, his mother graduated from OU at age 70 with Barnhart at the ceremony as the guest speaker.
Barnhart and his wife have three children, Kirby, 25, a local gym strength and conditioning coach in Lexington, Blaire, 21, a senior at the University of Georgia, and Scott, 19, a sophomore at Belmont University in Nashville.
Turnig 54 in two weeks, Barnhart said he’s doing his best to tackle the future as it comes to him.
“I love what I do,” Barnhart said. “I never look ahead too far. We are just taking it a day at a time.”