By Jamie H. Vaught
UK women's basketball coach Matthew Mitchell has sure come a long way since 1995 when he graduated from Mississippi State with a marketing degree.
And his first head coaching position was at Central Holmes Academy (now Central Holmes Christian School) in Mississippi in 1996. He was basically the jack of all trades, serving as the head coach of boys' and girls' basketball teams as well as the track and golf squads. He also worked with the football team as the defensive coordinator.
In addition, Mitchell spent one year as a coach and teacher at Manchester Academy, also in Mississippi, where he taught American history.
Then came along his big career break at Tennessee in 1999, serving as a graduate assistant to legendary coach Pat Summitt. He helped the second-ranked Lady Vols earn a Final Four trip in 2000. Since then, he has moved on to bigger opportunities and eventually getting the head coaching positions at Morehead State and UK in 2005 and 2007, respectively.
Mitchell hasn't forgotten his roots, saying he feels very fortunate and grateful when he got the coaching position at UT.
“I’ve gotten three jobs that I wasn’t necessarily the odds-on favorite for that job, but the Tennessee job when Pat Summitt hired me, she could have hired 5,000 people who had a better resume than I had and had a better background or more credentials and that was a really, really significant professional happening for me," recalled Mitchell at a press conference in early June after he and his wife, Jenna, pledged $1 million over the next 10 years to the UK's athletics department.
According to a UK news release, the donation is the largest ever given by a UK athletics employee to the athletics department. The $100,000-a-year donation will cover during the 10-year period and they are to be used for a variety of capital projects, including updates and renovations for football.
Looking back, Mitchell, 43, said he even wasn't the most qualified person for the UK job when it became available in 2007.
"I wasn’t the biggest name that Mr. Barnhart could have hired and so some people would call that good luck or good fortune," said the coach, adding that he didn't have a lot of credentials. "I call that a blessing. I call that a blessing from God. That’s the only way I know how to make sense of it. God’s really provided some unbelievable opportunities for me in my life."
Mitchell, who will earn a salary of $1.1 million next season, said he has been blessed financially.
"I just think all of that comes from God," he told the reporters. "As we try to give back to this community, part of that is UK is a huge part of this community. This university, in particularly this athletic department, brings a lot of joy to the people in this community and it kind of brings us all together and it kind of binds us together. It forms what you know as the Big Blue Nation, so we’re just unbelievably grateful for the opportunity to be at Kentucky and we want to be here a long time. This is our home."
Mitchell also said the family's 10-year donations would continue in the future even if the school was forced to dismiss him from coaching. If that happens, he says he still will be a huge fan.
"I’ll just be at all the games for everybody else. Then I’ll start calling in on all the call-in shows and really get riled up. It’ll probably be better for them that they keep me on for a while because we’re not going anywhere. We just sort of decided this is our home, so whether we’re coaching or not isn’t going to impact our love for this university. This is our school now. This is our city. This is our state and we’re going to be here, so that part of it doesn’t concern me at all and we’ll make good on our commitment no matter what happens."
Revenues generated by a good football program at Kentucky will help the other UK sports prosper, according to Mitchell.
"People need to understand football really makes so many things happen for the rest of us in this (athletic) department. We need football to be thriving and healthy at Kentucky, and with Mark Stoops as our head coach I don’t have any doubt that that is going to happen," said Mitchell. "The incredible renovation at Commonwealth is just really going to put our football program, I think, at the forefront of the country. It’s going to be a great experience at Commonwealth Stadium in the years to come. We’re excited to be a part of that and help that out if we can."
Mitchell is UK’s all-time winningest coach with a 170-71 overall record in seven seasons at the helm. In the last five years, the Wildcats have been to five straight NCAA tournaments, including three Elite Eight and four Sweet 16 appearances.
Kentucky is one of just seven schools to make it to the Sweet 16 in at least four of the last five seasons, joining Baylor, UConn, Duke, Notre Dame, Stanford and Tennessee.