Coach’s Chair: Matthew Mitchell, University of Kentucky

Matthew Mitchell confers with guard Taylor Murray. Photo courtesy of Kentucky Athletics.
Matthew Mitchell confers with guard Taylor Murray. Photo courtesy of Kentucky Athletics.

Matthew Mitchell has turned the University of Kentucky into an elite program since being named head coach in the spring of 2007. His teams have notched 20 wins in eight different seasons, and have been ranked in the top 25 for scoring offense, field goal percentage and attendance. The Wildcats have appeared in the NCAA Tournament for the last eight seasons, and 100 percent of Mitchell’s student-athletes have earned their degrees.

After graduating from Mississippi State, Mitchell spent four years working as a high school teacher and coach of both the girl’s and boy’s basketball teams. In 2000 he was named coach Pat Summitt’s graduate assistant at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. That year, the Lady Vols advanced to the National Championship.

From there, Mitchell worked as an assistant coach at Florida under coach Carol Ross, and then Carolyn Peck. He was head coach at Morehead State before coming to Kentucky. Eight years ago Mitchell switched up to a defensive, full-court trap philosophy that has become known to opponents as “40 minutes of dread.”

His associate head coach is Kyra Elzy, and Niya Butts is an assistant coach. Both played for Tennessee when he was a graduate assistant there. Hall of Fame coach Lin Dunn is also an assistant coach for the Wildcats.

Mitchell and his wife, Jenna Ramsey Mitchell, have three daughters, and are avid community service volunteers.

The Wildcats seem to have entered this season with a high level of energy. Does this year feel different to you than last, or comparable to any other memorable season?

I always think, we really try to make every season unique, and they are doing that this year. But after you’ve been in a place for 11 years, you have something to compare the season to. At this time last year we weren’t quite sure how we were going to make it through the season with a short roster of talented players. It’s very different this year in that we know from night to night that some of our younger players will struggle from time to time, but we believe in them, and we also know that we have depth.

I’m so excited about the character of the young women on our team. We have an unbelievable group of high-character women who are scholars, and who are delightful people to be around. We have to worry about being too nice at times, and it’s helped me calm down and just coach.

Your winning tools for success are honesty, hard work and discipline. How did you decide on those core values as the foundation for your program?

It’s how I was raised. My dad was a Little League coach and my mom was an educator, and they were incredible people and great role models, and they didn’t accept anything less than those three things. When I decided I was going to be an educator, I had already been on a journey. I was so fortunate to be around great people and have incredible mentors who modeled those three principles, also. Around time I was at Florida, I was thinking of being a head coach.

Coach Summit was able to define what she was about, so I gave some thought to what I wanted my life to be about and what I wanted to instill.

In 2009 you changed to a more defensive approach, which included an infamous full-court trap. Why and how did you decide to switch up to that practice?

We really had no momentum going into the season. We had been picked next-to-last in the league that year, and we didn’t have a player on the team over six feet tall. I knew I wanted to be at Kentucky, as it was where I was passionate about being. I didn’t know if I could stay there, but I was going to go down swinging. We had a fast group, so I knew we didn’t have a chance against Tennessee, which had size and Georgia and LSU had size. We knew we couldn’t survive if we didn’t make some kind of dramatic change, so we did it out of desperation and necessity. Some people credit me, but I told them it’s as easy as it gets, because we had no other choice. You had to know there was no other way that team could play. So luckily, I’m a man of faith, and we just had kids that bought in. We finished second in the conference, and we made the SEC finals and went to the Elite 8. It changed the trajectory of the program.

In 2015-2016, seven players left the program by the end of the season. What were you thinking after each player left? What, if anything, did you change after the dust had settled? What did you learn from that experience?

We lost to UConn twice in the Elite 8, and I got a little obsessed with trying to figure out what was wrong. What was wrong was that UConn was really good, and a lot better than us at the time. I went on a journey of trying to find one missing ingredient, which led to a series of decisions that created the spot we were in. Every time a kid left I was thinking that I always had the belief that we had people who wanted to be at Kentucky. The first two left and I figured they gave it their best and it was time to move on. I thought it was a positive, but after seven (players left) and the program was really close to melting down, I took a look at myself.

I decided I needed to improve myself and be intentional with all my relationships, and to be more mindful of those relationships. I had to find a way to strike a balance between being demanding and being approachable, so I began trying to be more engaging, and to engage at a more effective level. Obviously, if seven players wanted to leave, I wasn’t doing a stellar job. Fortunately I had a couple assistant coaches who decided to leave also, and I was able to hire the staff that I have now. Lin Dunn, for her to totally and selflessly come to my aid, was outstanding. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from her. Kyra, Niya and I have known each other for 20 years. (Director of player development) Amber Smith is a former player who knows what it takes to build a program, and she and the rest of my incredible staff help me get better and get better together. And I think we’re in a fantastic position to move into the next decade of our program. We know who we are, we know what we’re about and we have got some great people.

You’ve worked for some of the best coaches in women’s basketball. What was it like being Pat Summitt’s graduate assistant, and at one of the greatest times in program history, when all three “Meeks” were playing, and the Lady Vols went to the Final Four?

It was so amazing, and I tell people it was miraculous – my connection to that program – just starting out as a high school teacher and coach. When I first started coaching and didn’t know what was going on, I had aspirations to be the Lakers coach because I wanted to be like Pat Riley. I was a high school coach and that sent me to camps. Kim Rosamond, who is now the head coach at Tennessee Tech, was a camp counselor and she got me into Pat’s camp. I went just to learn and get better. I never dreamed I would work at Tennessee, but I kept working camp every year, and every year they’d give me more responsibility. Coach Summitt spent hours with the camp counselors every night.

Mickie DeMoss and I became close and she invited me to help her plan camp one year, and I developed a personal relationship with the staff. In the summer of ’99, Nikki Caldwell left for Virginia and the GA spot was open, and Mickie asked me if I’d be interested. I thought sure, and I’d get my Master’s there and then go back to Mississippi and be a principal. Getting there and working for Pat, she was on top of the sports world. She’d been to the White House three years in a row and was on a first-name basis with the President.

I drove her around to a lot of speaking events, ran errands for her and was in her presence a ton. What a great example for me. She was as big of a presence as she could be, but she was humble and kind and she treated me like a real person. If I screwed up she was all over me, and if I did well she praised me. She invested in me in a genuine way. She included me in so many things, and was transformative for my career. It was life-altering and career-changing. More than that was the investment, because she saw something in me and she made the investment. I am eternally grateful to Pat.

What is it like having Lin Dunn as your assistant coach?

We have so much fun, we’re great friends and we’ve had a great friendship that has lasted for a long time. We’re like family now. She cares enough to have the difficult conversations like ‘hey, I don’t think you’re handling this well. Like last year at Missouri, the kids weren’t driving to the basket. I get upset about lack of effort. The next day she told me that they weren’t listening to me because I was too angry. To have someone sit down and talk to you, she’s totally there to serve and to help; she’s not just there to pat me on the back. We have great conversations. I don’t have a lot of time to pick other people’s brains, so Lin is another resource to help me.

What is a Matthew Mitchell practice like?

Hopefully you will see a group that’s enthusiastic and energetic, that puts a premium on attitude and how you do things. A group that pays attention to details, like tucking your shirt in, and one that has a responsive connection between players and coaches, and vice versa. People trying to work for each other and trying to get better. Up tempo, up-and-down high-intensity drills with a premium on toughness and fitness, defense and rebounding. Hopefully you’re going to see a high-intensity high-energetic embodiment of a team.

What is your approach to goal-setting?

What can we do to teach you as an individual to be your best, and to seek to be your best as a person? Being your best player and being a great student is important. Our athletes have had a 3.0 or higher for eight straight semesters, and we’re bearing down on ninth.

As a citizen and as a human being, how you treat people, how you develop relationships and how you interact with difficult people is also something we work on. It sounds cliché, but we are striving to create an environment where athletes seek to be their best. We are trying to have a 3.5 team GPA, and right now we are knocking on the door. Basketball-wise, I don’t know what our ceiling is, but let’s shoot for the Final Four.

I used to list out specific goals, and then I’d just plow through season, coach hard and see where we ended up. Now we’re on a daily quest and search into how can help each young person develop and be her best.

What do you want your legacy to be?

That I cared about people and I tried to invest in people and help them be the best they could be. I would love for that to manifest in ways that people recognize excellence, and would love for our kids to do something that impacts the world and brings passion to their lives. I would love to go to the Final Four and win a national championship, but ultimately I’m faithful to God.

For Kentucky “Blue Madness:” each October, you dress up as a different singer and entertain the crowd. How did that tradition start?

We wanted to get Betnijah Laney, and Kyra Elzy was insistent at the time that Betnijah was excited about her visit and getting to go to Blue Madness when she was here. Kyra said, “there’s a new dance she loves called ‘the Dougie,’ and if you’ll just come out and do it, it’ll sell itself.” I wasn’t thinking of the ramifications – I was just thinking about getting Laney. So I did the Dougie that night, and the rest is history.

If you were to quit your job and jump to a new career, what would it be?

I would like to be a PGA tour professional and get to go play golf four times a week for money. Some say it would be a grind, but I would love to try.