LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — Mitch Barnhart is confident the Game Day experience will “very, very special” when sports return to campus in the future.
“We look forward to the day that we get our fans back in our venues and we look forward to the day that we get our fans back in our venues,” Barnhart said Monday. “With that comes our cheerleading program and having an opportunity to engage with our crowd, create enthusiasm, and do those things that are most important.”
Once play resumes, the Kentucky cheerleading program will be under the watchful eye of newly hired coach Ryan O’Connor, who brings a track record of integrity to the program. O'Connor cheered for one season at Kentucky before wrapping up her career at Alabama. She has served as cheerleading coach at UAB, Ole Miss and most recently Western Kentucky.
Barnhart said the program received a lot of interest nationally during a search conducted by Executive Associate Athletics Director Sandy Bell, who settled on O’Connor. Barnhart said O’Connor “stood out among all" of the other candidates.
“(She is) someone I felt like we needed to have and bring some energy to our program that understood our values and understood our traditions at Kentucky and had an understanding of cheerleading,” Barnhart said. “ … what it meant competitively, how you train, how you get ready, how you put a team together, and then how you represent a university like the University of Kentucky and Big Blue Nation. That was really important to me … we wanted to make sure we worked our way through that.”
Bell added that finding the right fit was a “huge priority for us over the past few weeks” and said O’Connor’s experience at the Division I level and in the Southeastern Conference was “really, really important to us.”
O’Connor said she has the same core values as Barnhart and the rest of the program. She added, “we can’t treat one more important than the other” and stressed consistency on and off the floor.
“I asked them to respect themselves and to treat themselves as student-athletes,” she said. “I think it’s a perfect fit that we are a part of athletics. My core values as a coach really align with what Mitch was talking about. … We always talk about integrity and that’s a big word we talk about at the beginning of the year when we’re in our summer practices. For me, integrity just means, having the same intensity for every area of your life. You need to be the same person you are at practices as you are in the games, as you are in the classroom, and as you are (during) competition.”
Barnhart said approximately 100 to 120 student-athletes have made their way back to campus and the school has focused on a return to activity during the past few weeks.
“We continue to adjust our protocol as we watch the situations,” Barnhart said. “It’s pretty fluid.”
Barnhart was glad to hear Gov. Andy Beshear give the approval for fans in the stands for the Kentucky Derby and said that's a positive sign for college and other athletic programs in the state.
“That's encouraging to me that we will have opportunities to bring our people back together,” he said. “But that's one component in one piece of return to play and I said it publicly before there's a difference between returned activity and return to play. We're working our way through all those details.
“I think that that there's going to be clearly conversations as it relates to activities in our state. There's clearly conversations that will take place as it relates to activities in our league and so You know, we've got to combine all these pieces of information and pull them together in a spot where it's best for the University of Kentucky and our fan base and we’re not there yet.”
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at email@example.com or twitter @keithtaylor21