UK cheerleaders celebrate after a touchdown. (Photo by Jon Hale)
In the almost two months since UK named Mark Stoops its new football coach, there seems to have been an almost unending string of positive headlines for the program.
The latest came this week with the news that leaders of the state legislature and Gov. Steve Beshear were placing their support behind a $275 million “transformation of the UK campus,” which includes a $110 million renovation of Commonwealth Stadium.
“I’m really excited that we can begin to put things in place and begin to get into the nitty gritty of the deal, have some fun designing some things that hopefully will be the face of Kentucky football, in terms of facilities, for the next 25, 30 years,” said UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart after the announcement.
The Commonwealth Stadium renovations include upgrades to the Nutter Training Center; improved concessions, restrooms and security; a multi-purpose recruiting room; 16-20 private suites; new home team facilities; approximately 2,000 new club seats; new press facilities; a team store; and a new full service kitchen.
According to a website detailing the plans of the entire campus project, BBNUnited.com, the school hopes to improve the UK brand at Commonwealth Stadium while maintaining or slightly reducing seating capacity.
“It’s exciting,” Stoops said. “It’s going to have a great impact on our program. It’s an exciting time for all the Big Blue Nation. It’s exciting for the fans, the students, for our players. It shows the commitment we have here to the football program and to the fans, so it’s going to be an exciting time.”
If UK gains final approval from the legislature and Board of Trustees as expected, the current timeline for the project has renovations beginning this year and being completed by July of 2015.
The stadium project would be done in phases, with construction halting for the 2013 and 2014 football seasons.
Barnhart said he and his staff have ideas of what they would like to accomplish at the stadium before next season, but the project is still in the early stages.
“We’ve got ideas, but all of it’s conceptual right now,” he said. “With the timelines, we’ve got to see what’s doable. We’ve been talking to architects for a long time. We’ve known a lot of them. It’s the same folks that work across the country, so we know them all. Most of us have done projects with them at other places. We’ve got a pretty good idea of what they think is possible and what’s not possible.”
Stoops knows what basic philosophy he will take with the earliest improvements.
“I just think anything you do, it’s for the players,” he said. “Much is placed on the emphasis on recruiting. That’s what helps you, is the players being comfortable and the players having a great facility.”
Stoops has hit the ground running in the recruiting game by signing two junior college prospects, including four-star defensive end Za’Darius Smith, and securing the early enrollment of quarterback Reese Phillips, who original committed to Joker Phillips‘ staff. He also has reportedly received verbal commitments from three more high school athletes.
The news of a significant contribution to facilities can only help on the recruiting trail.
While Stoops cannot yet show recruits the football facility upgrades, he was able to give a group of visitors an idea of what they might look like by using the lounge section of the new Rupp Arena locker room suite before Saturday’s men’s basketball game.
“It shows that the university does things first class,” he said. “It shows the commitment, and it’s a great thing and exposure for our team, our players and our recruits to get a great feel for the basketball program and what we’re doing.”
Both Stoops and Barnhart said there were no specific promises made about facility improvements or how they would take shape before Stoops took the UK job, but they did have discussions about upgrades during the interview process.
“He wanted this job because he wanted to come to Kentucky,” Barnhart said of Stoops. “They say, ‘Was their any quid pro quos in this thing or was there any, do this?’ No. There wasn’t anything like that. He was great. He said, ‘I’m going to come and we’re going to get this thing done, and if we have some other things to work with, that’s terrific.’”
“I felt very comfortable with Mitch, and I felt his commitment to the program,” Stoops said. “We did talk about that. It wasn’t the primary reason why I came here. I told you all that in the initial press conference, about my belief in this program, getting things done. This certainly helps.”
The football stadium upgrades were not the only contribution the athletic department will make to the total campus renovation project.
The department will also fund $65 million of the estimated $100 million cost for a new academic science building.
“I want our athletes to understand they are contributing to the greater good of this university,” Barnhart said. “When they walk into those classrooms to go to class, I want them to understand they’ve been a big part of that in a lot of different ways, not just wins and losses and not just representing this university well. It’s part of a big picture for them.”
While Barnhart is looking for a bigger picture outside of wins and losses for his athletes, he also knows the success of the Commonwealth Stadium renovations will be at least partially judged by success on the field.
“You can build buildings and do all that stuff, but it still comes down to players and coaches,” he said. “So, you’ve got to get the right folks in your program to lead it, and at the end of the day, you’ve got to get the right folks in it to play it. I don’t know if there’s a ‘if then, then that,’ but you certainly sometimes give yourself a better chance. That’s what we want to try to do.”
You can read more from the interviews with Mitch Barnhart and Mark Stoops on the KyForward UK Sports Notebook Tumblr.