LEXINGTON – University of Kentucky rifle coach Harry Mullins accepts that his sport does not play the significant part of our popular culture that games like basketball, football, baseball (and in the north, hockey, Mullins notes) do.
But there’s also some irony in that fact for the 47-year-old Mullins, who’s made UK a national power in rifle in 25 years of coaching at the school.
“I don’t expect rifle to ever get in the spotlight like the major sports, but I am surprised that it’s not more prevalent as far as publicity goes, and involvement, with as many people that own firearms,” Mullins says. “I find it kind of ironic in a country where it’s easier to buy a gun than in 90 percent of the countries that compete in the sport internationally, and yet it’s a huge sport in Europe. And here (United States), it is – I don’t want to say hidden – but it’s definitely not in the spotlight.”
But therein lies part of the rub: Guns are a hot, emotional topic in this country...a very political topic...and some people don’t differentiate between those who aren’t responsible with firearms from athletes who truly see guns as a sport. And when we say sport, we’re not talking about the weekend, recreational deer hunters, we’re talking about the disciplined, talented athletes coached at Kentucky by Mullins and his assistant coach, Stacy Underwood.
“Part of the issue is because we do use guns (smallbore guns and air rifles at the college level), we always fight that political battle,” Mullins said. “Even though our athletes look at a rifle just like a basketball player looks at a basketball, minus the safety aspect, just as a tool for them to accomplish their sport.”
There’s also some irony in that rifle requires, arguably, more discipline, both emotional and physical; hand-eye coordination and more hours of training (both on a shooting range, and also in strength and conditioning work) than any other sport.
In some cases the strength and conditioning work is as much for the benefit of the athletes emotionally as it is physically, because of the self esteem benefits needed to excel in rifle.
You need all that self esteem – and lowered blood pressure that comes from cardio exercise – when you’re competing in rifle and eyeing down a bullseye (so to speak) that appears the size of a pin hole 50 feet away.
“You will use your body four and a half to five hours during a rifle competition, so you have more control over your body when you push it to its limits in training,” Mullins says.
“I always equate it to basketball, which is the easiest thing in our state to do,” Mullins adds. “Take Anthony Davis. If I said to Davis, ‘Okay, there’s no time left and we’re down 99 points, and you have to make 100 straight free throws in front of 23,000 people.’ Now, the first 10 are going to be pretty easy, the next 10 are going to be a little bit harder and the next 10 even harder.
“And yet, nothing has changed. The basketball hasn’t changed. The free throw line hasn’t changed. But that’s the kind of discipline that our guys have to go through.”
Mullins doesn’t use the word “guys’’ literally. There are 10 men and five women on this season’s Wildcats, and it’s not at all uncommon to see women more than hold their own in rifle.
In fact, sophomore Emily Holsopple of Wilcox, Pa., was generally regarded last season as the best freshman shooter in the country, excelling in both air rifle and smallbore.
Junior Henri Junghanel of Germany – the Wildcats’ lone international athlete – paced UK through much of last season in both guns, and senior Ethan Settlemires of Kossuth, Miss., ended up winning the individual NCAA championship in smallbore in 2011.
Mullins’ Wildcats have been a force in NCAA Rifle for the better part of 18 years. Kentucky had finished fourth in the nation twice, third on four occasions, second four more times, and then finally broke through last spring at the NCAA championships in Columbus, Georgia.
And Mullins says UK will be very much in the hunt to repeat when the NCAA finals are held March 9-10 in Columbus, Ohio.
Next up for the 11-1 Wildcats is an NCAA qualifier on Feb. 18 (starting at 8 a.m. at UK’s Barker Hall), and then the Great American Rifle Conference championships, Feb. 25-26, in Oxford, Miss.
Some 25 schools compete in rifle at the highest level of the sport at the college level, though a lot more than that do it more or less as a club (non-scholarship) sport.
Mullins has coached a slew of great shooters, including 2000 Olympic Gold Medalist Nancy Napoliski, and former NCAA Woman Athlete of the Year nominee Taryn Lewis.
Mullins himself won several conference championships and held numerous school records, particularly in smallbore, as a competitor for the UK rifle team from 1982-86.
Former athletics director C.M. Newton was the first athletics director to give UK’s rifle program any scholarship money, in the mid ‘90s. But Mullins said Mitch Barnhart took the profile of rifle at UK to another level when he took over as A.D. 10 years ago.
Under Barnhart, Mullins became a full time coach, with 3.6 scholarships at his disposal – the maximum allowed by the NCAA – to split among the dozen or so athletes who make up the Wildcats most years. Barnhart also provided funding for Underwood to become a full-time assistant to Mullins.
Barnhart was also one of the first to congratulate Mullins and his Wildcats when they won the NCAA championship last spring.
“Mr. Barnhart has made this a great thing to be a part of,” Mullins said. “It was very rewarding to inform him of the NCAA championship, knowing the sacrifices that he’s made to help give us the opportunity to be able to compete, as opposed to some athletics directors around the country where the emphasis is just on the major sports. He puts the emphasis on all of us.”
And Mullins’ rifle kids, like many athletes in the other sports here, leave UK richer for the experience.
“You’re not going to get rich competing in rifle,” Mullins said. “You aren’t going to sign a cereal (endorsement) contract or a Nike contract. But when you walk out of here, we want you to have that pride that you’ve had the opportunity to compete for four years at the University of Kentucky.
“There are trials and learning curves and things, but what I try to instill in these kids is to dream big, but then take small steps to get there every day. You know, be the best you can be every day. Because you never know what tomorrow will bring.”