LEXINGTON – The momentum gained from the University of Kentucky’s best baseball season in school history continues to pay dividends.
At a press conference here Tuesday, UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart announced new five-year contracts with head baseball coach Gary Henderson – reportedly for some $2.1 million – and raises for assistant coaches Brian Green, Brad Bohannon and Keith Vorhoff.
Barnhart also indicated that either a new stadium for Kentucky baseball – the most likely scenario – or at the very least, a significant refurbishing of the current home, Cliff Hagan Stadium, may soon be in the works.
This all comes on the heels of the best season by UK baseball in the 107-year history of the program. The Wildcats won a school-record 45 games (with 18 losses), finished just one game back in the brutal Southeastern Conference, and lost a regional final to eventual College World Series semifinalist Kent State.
And it was largely the credit of Henderson, who just wrapped up his ninth year at the school and fourth as head coach. He was named SEC Coach of the Year for his efforts this spring.
“He (Henderson) has led our program to a spot now where we have a chance to move forward in a very special, unique way,” Barnhart said Tuesday. “We wanted to make sure that we honored the efforts that he has made here over the last few years, and especially this year, and also set the stage for moving forward, which gives us a chance to hopefully have a lot of fun in this league and give some players a chance to compete for championships and make a run at that College World Series, which would be very, very special.
“We want everyone to know that we are going to be working with Gary for a good number of years to come.”
Henderson is not the most colorful guy in the public eye, but he has long been immensely respected by his peers in baseball, and he is, by all accounts, a top of the heap kind of guy when it comes to character.
Henderson and his assistants put the UK players in positions to succeed, and appear to deeply care about their welfare on and off the field.
He appears humbled and grateful for the show of support of Barnhart and others in the UK administration.
“I want to thank Mitch (Barnhart), Dr. (Eli) Capilouto and Marc Hill for their commitment to the program,” Henderson said Tuesday. “It is substantial, and I appreciate it. It has been very helpful to receive support in terms of getting us to where we want to go and do the things we want to do.
“We have had a good nine years,” Henderson added. “There have been some ups and downs like there are in all athletics. There have been a lot of fun times over at Cliff Hagan (Stadium), and there are a lot of things left that I want to accomplish. I am really, really excited about the direction that we are going, and there are a lot of things left to do.
“It’s a good place to be at this point.”
Much of the talk at Tuesday’s press conference was about the possibility of a new stadium for UK baseball.
While all signs are that the financing for such a project remains uncertain, the determination from Barnhart to get there is hard to question.
“I don’t think you can look around our program and see the things that we have built and say we’re not committed to the growth of our Olympic programs (including baseball) and the facilities that they have,” Barnhart said. “We’ve done a good job, I think, of getting facilities for our programs and we’ve been able to pay cash for those.
“Our plan moving forward is to make sure we fit into the master plan of the university and then make sure we’re positioned properly to take the resources financially that we’ve grown or we’re going to get financing for one way or the other, or the combination of both, to do something as quickly as possible for Gary and his team.
“We know our facility (Cliff Hagan Stadium) needs some help, whether it’s there (next to the Nutter Center) or whether it’s moved to Alumni Drive, or something like that. Obviously those are probably our two options, and how we make that all work as fast as possible is critically important in the ability to help Gary.”
Henderson said the desire for a new baseball stadium played no role in his recent contract talks with UK officials.
“In every day life, in the relationship with Mitch Barnhart and Gary Henderson, it’s pretty much on-going,” Henderson said, referring to a stadium upgrade. “But I didn’t feel like that was something I wanted to put in the contract. I just didn’t think it was necessary.
“I think Mitch is going to do everything he can as quickly as he can. There are limitations in all areas of life, but my feeling is that Mitch is committed to a new facility as much as you can be committed to it, and I have all the confidence that he’s going to do what he can to make that happen.”
Henderson said he loves living in Lexington and working at UK.
“I think Kentucky is a great place to work,” Henderson said. “I think Lexington is a great place to life. I feel really good about our coaching staff, and in order to continue to feel good about that, you have to win. That’s just the bottom line.
“The sense of accomplishment is there,” he added, referring to this past season. “It’s good. It’s great. But it’s all about 2013 now. So you enjoy it for a short moment. You’re happy with the direction but not satisfied with the results. We’ve got some things to prove.
“We’re not going to sneak up on anybody in 2013.”