By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
LEXINGTON, Ky. – If you didn’t know it was there, you might miss it.
But make no mistake, in the bottom floor of one of the oldest buildings on the University of Kentucky campus sits one of the nation’s finest collegiate rifle ranges and houses some of the most accomplished student-athletes on the school’s Lexington campus.
Buell Armory is home to the 2011 NCAA Champion University of Kentucky rifle team, which has posted an additional seven top-three finishes in its program history, and it has long been the training ground of some of the most skilled collegiate athletes in the country.
It’s not a Southeastern Conference sponsored sport, as the Wildcats compete in the Great American Rifle Conference, but the athletics department takes just as much pride in its rifle program as any of its other 21 sports. Ole Miss is the only other SEC program to field a rifle team, though the Rebels feature just a women’s team, while the Wildcats are co-ed.
I was in Lexington last Friday to report on Big Blue Madness for our Life In The SEC series. It’s one of the best annual events in the SEC and, for the basketball-crazed state of Kentucky, it’s largely what they look forward to from the time the previous season ends.
As always, even though Kentucky is my alma mater, I was trying to look through an SEC fans’ eyes and try to find a way to explain to each of you what makes UK an incredibly special environment. With that in mind, I headed over to Buell Armory where there might be no finer representative to answer that question than rifle head coach Harry Mullins.
You know when you’re watching a game on TV and you come to really, really admire a certain coach? You know, on one hand, you think that he’d be a cool guy to sit back and talk about the sport with. On the other, you think, if you ever had a son or daughter play that sport, you’re pretty sure you would feel completely comfortable having that coach teach your own kid lessons about the sport and life because he demonstrates such high character and class?
Yep, Mullins is that guy.
I started working in the athletics department my very first day as an undergraduate at Kentucky and I remember Mullins as being the one of the first coaches I interacted with there. At the time, his office was just down the hall from where I worked and he often stopped in to say hello to everyone and see how they were doing.
He wanted to know your name, where you were from, how classes were going and what you were working on in the office that day. I remember being impressed at how he took a genuine interest in everyone whether they were an 18-year-old freshman or a senior staff member who had been there for years. All that, and he might just be the winningest coach on that campus.
Sure, his team is a perennial contender and is coming off the 2011 NCAA Championship, the first in program history, but you might not immediately realize that upon entering the team’s locker room.
That’s where Mullins was sitting last Friday when I walked in with this idea of learning how to shoot rifle. He was sitting at his desk, talking with some athletes who had just concluded practice. He was mixing in laughs and stories while he talked with his athletes about their performance this afternoon, making them feel at ease, while helping them improve.
He greeted me with excitement and was open to any and all ideas that I had. We first did an interview (full transcript below), where it was fascinating to hear how his plan had come together to win his first national championship this past year.
Mullins has been the rifle coach at Kentucky for more than a quarter century. When he first started, he was part time and worked several odd jobs to supplement his income. He coached the Wildcats because he loved what he was doing, not for any type of financial gain or status. Mullins was a three-time smallbore conference champion for Kentucky in the mid-1980s and has been working with his alma mater ever since.
After we finished the interview, we headed inside to the range, where I fully expected just to practice holding the gun and get a general sense of what shooting air rifle was like. But Mullins had other ideas; he wanted me to get the complete experience.
It sounded simple enough.
From what I was told, I had to essentially line up three circles, focus on the target, pull the trigger and I should be good to go.
So I tried it.
“You missed the whole thing,” Mullins said.
I tried again; same result. I wasn’t lining up the circles correctly.
You know how people watch golf on television and foolishly think that they can golf just like the professionals? If you think shooting college rifle is easy, just because you may have shot a gun at a target before, think again. It takes a skilled athlete to do what these athletes do.
I have to admit, I wasn’t tremendously surprised that I didn’t succeed right away. Athleticism and coordination have never been strong points for me. I was ready to say that I had experienced the sport of rifle and gave it a shot, and I was content with that.
“Cartell, come back over here,” Mullins said. “We’ll let you try it again.”
Mullins asked his assistant coach Stacy Underwood to work with me. Underwood, the first full-time assistant coach in Kentucky history, had been an All-America performer at Nebraska and has tremendous knowledge of the technical aspects of the sport.
She also explained to me about lining up the various circles. This time, I finally explained my problem.
“That’s the thing,” I said. “I can’t see into that.”
I contorted my head until I could finally see correctly. What I didn’t realize was that I had positioned my head in such a way that I was now actually looking through the circle with my left eye. Little did I know that made all the difference.
“You’re left-eye dominant,” Underwood said. “That’s why you can’t see. This is made for a right-handed person. Let me get you one made for a left-handed person.”
I explained that I was right-handed; surely that would be a problem if I tried to use a left-handed air rifle. Not so, said Underwood.
“You can train your finger to do something, but it’s really hard to train your eye to refocus,” Underwood said.
I tried again. This time, it felt different. I looked down at the monitor for the electronic target and knew I had succeeded.
“That’s a six,” Underwood said.
To hit the bulls-eye would be 10 points and it increments back based on how far you shoot away from that target.
“You want another one?” she asked.
Of course. Now I was hooked.
It’s back to business for Mullins as his team begins pursuit of its second consecutive national title. His teams have always been in relentless pursuit of improvement and, just because the Wildcats now have an NCAA Title to their credit, this year will be no different.
“I have tasked this team right out of the gates,” Mullins said. “If they want to be the NCAA Champions, then they have to win in 2011-12.”
Knowing what I know about Mullins, he will have his team ready. They will spend their afternoons perfecting their performances, but more than that, they will spend their college experiences learning how to be successful in life.
Having spent just an hour on the range last Friday, it will nonetheless go down as one of the most memorable experiences I have had during my time in college athletics. The fact that the coaching staff of the national champion Wildcats spent their time helping me understand their sport and letting me try it myself, speaks to the experience that Mullins has created for countless student athletes over the years.
Though Kentucky has just recently claimed the NCAA Championship, Mullins has been creating champions in life for more than 25 years. Sometimes people are lucky enough to find their true calling and where they can do the most good for others.
Mullins has found that place: Home on the Range.
Q&A with Kentucky Head Coach Harry Mullins
SEC Digital Network: Back at work for another season after last year’s NCAA Championship, has that brought added motivation to your program or are things pretty much the same?
“For the last 15 or 16 years when we started placing in the top four, for that first three or four weeks after we came back from NCAAs, I just kind of came back and tried to figure out what should we change and that was kind of the strange part about this year. This year, it was kind of like ‘Man, the plan worked.’ Now, we’re trying to figure if we continue down that path, do we need to tweak some things or try to reproduce what we did last year. Stacy and I sat down and we talked a lot about it. That was last year’s team and that’s my big thing – even though a majority of the people that were on that team are back this year, the NCAA Champions were in 2010-2011. I have tasked this team right out of the gates that if they want to be the NCAA Champions, then they have to win in 2011-2012.
With that being said, it pumps you up. Coaching at Kentucky is a perk in itself. With the support that we get from [athletics director] Mitch [Barnhart] and the support that we get from the administration, in comparison to some of my peers around the country, I feel very blessed in that sense. It’s definitely challenging. It has its own merits of coming out preseason ranked No. 1 obviously from what we’ve done the year before and having the horses in the stable to be able to accomplish that again. It’s kind of like, okay, we got them to peak one time, so do we go down that same path?
We’ve been doing a lot of work and have been fighting some injuries to some of our top people right now, so that’s been a little rough, but maybe that’s a blessing in disguise because we might be able to put the true top four or five together until maybe the spring time. In our sport, the way we treat it, we kind of use the fall as a feeler to see who is stepping up. One of the girls, Heather Greathouse, if you had told me at the beginning of last season that she was going to be a main producer, I would have said that she had potential to be one, but we were looking to some of the others, so you never know who is going to step up as the season goes on.
We’ve got a great freshman class this year; they work very, very hard and they’re very enthusiastic. On other teams, the freshmen have to feed off the upperclassmen generally, but we’re actually doing it in reverse. The upperclassmen are actually feeding off of the freshmen. Not to say the upperclassmen don’t have it, because when it comes to competition time, that’s when you need to have those focused guys that have been through it and know how to handle the pressure.”
SEC Digital Network: For those who aren’t that familiar with the sport of college rifle, can you just give a quick crash course on the sport?
“There’s a dot that’s slightly smaller than the size of a period at the end of a sentence and if you hit that dot, then you get 10 points and it increments out from there. Smallbore, they shoot that from 50 feet in three positions (prone, standing and kneeling) with 20 shots in each position for a grand total of 600 possible points. All-American numbers are typically averages 579-581. Anything up in the 580s or above is pretty good and that puts you in the upper five percent. They do that first and then they get a 20-30 minute break and they shoot 60 shots air rifle. They shoot that from 33 feet and there’s also a total of 600 points. All-American scores in that event are usually anything 589-590, so you have to be pretty precise. They get two hours for smallbore and you get an hour and 45 minutes for air rifle. What we do before the match starts is that we have to pick five in each event and at the NCAA Championships, it has to be the same five, but during the regular season we can pick five in each event and then the top four scores in each of those events count towards the team score out of those five.”
SEC Digital Network: How have things progressed in the sport and your job since you first came to the University of Kentucky as an athlete and then as a coach?
“It’s a night and day difference. Some of it’s still the same from the sport standpoint, but we have electronic targets that are neat in themselves and then you can watch the matches online. This year, we’re going to implement some cameras down range so you can see the shooters actually shooting at you. We also have our targets up to where you can actually see the scores and see everything progress. So if you’re from Oregon and your son or daughter goes to school at Kentucky, you can watch the match at home in Oregon, and the cool thing is we now have electronic targets.
Technology has changed so much that it has really made it more of a spectator sport. The first year, we were doing them live, I think we averaged over 500 people on there. At the NCAA Championships, I want to say there was over 50,000 IP addresses checking it out over a two-day period, so the interest is definitely there. The biggest hurdle that is probably still the same is that we are constantly fighting the stigma that we use a gun. That’s the biggest thing that we have to fight non-stop. We’re not a bunch of hillbillies, they’re athletes. We have athletes who have injuries. When you stand up there and try to hold that 15-18 pound guns for two hours and try to keep it perfectly still, that takes some strength and some endurance. Sometimes that’s a hard thing to overcome, but we look at a gun just like a basketball player looks at a ball. It’s just a tool to get the job done. We’ve grown leaps and bounds as far as the support.
We have academic support with tutors, and the financial support that Mitch gives us is tremendous. There is really just a sense of the department and people really care that we win. That part is very special. Mitch makes a really big effort to get to know our kids names, meeting them and coming to our matches, and making sure that the travel is a little bit easier. For me to have a full-time assistant coach, that’s something that I would have dreamed about 10-15 years ago. I wasn’t even full-time 15 years ago and now I have a full-time assistant coach and she’s doing a phenomenal job.
I don’t think we would be where we’re at right now if it wasn’t for her. She relates well with the kids, she is very knowledgeable about the sport, she’s an athlete and she competed in college at a high level. She has an all-around athletic mindset and I think that’s a tremendous advantage for us. Just having that support is the biggest thing for us.”