University of Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart, one of college athletics most respected statesmen and currently the longest-tenured A.D. in the rugged Southeastern Conference, provided some insight during this week’s Big Blue Nation radio show as to SEC discussions on future football scheduling models once both Oklahoma and Texas join the league.
Visiting with host Darren Headrick, a former award-winning minor league baseball broadcaster who handles Wildcats’ baseball, women’s basketball and other duties, Barnhart peeled back the curtain about on the SEC’s meetings for working toward a new football model – and potential schedule-format adjustments for all SEC sports.
“Every sport that the SEC sponsors had a group of people on the committee, both athletic directors or SWAs and we worked with the conference office to sit here and say as we transition into this new-looking league in 2025, which is where right now it sits, they (Oklahoma, Texas) will join July 1, 2025, what does that look like?,” Barnhart said. “Is it nine games in football, is it eight games in football? Is it 20 games in basketball? Is it 18 in women’s basketball? Is it still 30 in baseball or do we drop it down and make it 24? How do we do that differently? Is it 24 in softball?
“Twenty-four in softball has worked really well; 24 softball games has allowed our softball programs to go out and schedule other people and allows them also to not beat each other up so badly that they get, last couple years, every team in the league has made it to the NCAAs. We’ve got a lot of questions. Each group came back with recommendations, it was funneled through the athletic directors and those recommendations will eventually go to the presidents.
“We’ve approved a lot of schedule formats for all of those pieces and we’re working our way towards that.”
Barnhart called the football-schedule conundrum “fascinating” while he admitted his preference for the current eight-game format and dismissed the notion that giving football student-athletes an opportunity to play against every other member at least once in a four-year span was an outdated notion. There is movement afoot to move the SEC to a nine-game conference schedule, particularly as both the league expands and the College Football Playoff is set for expansion.
There are different models for a nine-game league slate that could allow teams to maintain their traditional rivalries and more frequently rotate through the other member programs of the SEC.
Barnhart also candidly said the Wildcats’ current non-conference scheduling model has allowed the Wildcats’ roster to stay healthier for the SEC slate.
“The football is one that continues to be fascinating,” Barnhart said on the show Monday night. “Eight or nine? Eight has worked really well for Kentucky, not going to lie to you. It has worked incredibly well for us and I would speak to us and for us only.
“I don’t want to speak for other schools and what they should do; each school is going to have to look through their own lens. But I will tell you eight has worked well for us because we’ve been able to schedule and been able to keep our players healthy to try and limit injuries and create opportunities for us to rest some guys so that when we get to conference play, even sometimes if we don’t have the greatest depth, we’ve been able to keep a strong roster.
“Eight’s worked well for us; that allows us to play the in-state game with Louisville as well as the three other games. Frankly, about every other year we’ve been able to have eight home games and that’s a big deal financially for our programs, to be able to have eight home games.”
Barnhart knows the counter-argument to the eight-game model; he also cited the key to have football – and in Kentucky’s case, also men’s basketball – help fund the remainder of sports on campus.
“Everybody will say, ‘There’s probably more money in television,’” he said. “There could be. There might not be, and on those years when we give up, if there is nine (SEC games) and we have to go on the road five times for conference play, that makes it incredibly difficult to schedule the rest of those games at home and make sure that we’ve got the balance that allows our program to have some financial success to keep the rest our programs [financially stable]. Two programs feed the other 21, and so we’ve got to have the ability for them to create revenue so that all the other teams that we’ve all enjoyed the successes that they’ve had, as much as we’d like to think they can stand on their own, they can’t do it.
“There’s been conversation about is it two divisions still or is it one big deal. There’s lots of conversations and lots of modeling going on. Do you have a permanent opponent, do you have two permanent opponents? So what is best? You’re going to have to go through that same conversation in basketball as well, on the men’s side and the women’s side. If you have a permanent opponent on that side, who wants that team?
“I think that fairness and equity are always in the eyes of beholder and what I think is equitable and fair is probably not what others think is equitable and fair. Everyone’s going to have to give a little bit and find balance in the conversation.”
With that backdrop, Barnhart doesn’t buy into the notion that a nine-game schedule with constantly rotating opponents is better for players; he points simply to modern college football and specifically the almighty NCAA Transfer Portal.
“There’s a couple of A.D.s in our league who have said, ‘Hey, it’s really important for these kids to be able to see every place (in the SEC),’” Barnhart said. “Well, they’re not staying long enough to do that. I mean they’re either going pro or transferring and moving out.
“The rosters are flipping so rapidly I don’t even think that that’s part of the conversation anymore. I think you’ve got to think really diligently about how you’re managing those conversations and the equity and competitive fairness I think is what we’re trying to get to.”