University of Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart has singled out "facilities" as the No. 1 item on his to-do list for 2011.
Barnhart, in a one-on-one interview this week, said his primary focus will be renovations to Commonwealth Stadium.
The renovations would include the addition of club seating and more luxury suites; new scoreboards; the construction of a multi-purpose recruiting room; upgrades to the concession-stand areas; and the addition of electronic monitors in the concourse areas and around the perimeter of the stadium.
Barnhart said the renovations would cost an estimated $150-180 million.
"Those are things that we need to have updated in our stadium and are a priority with us," Barnhart said. "Whether it's staged in pieces or parts, or in total, we've got to do something with our football stadium that gives our fans some excitement. Foundationally, we've got everything in place at the University of Kentucky to compete in our league. The one thing we don't have that would allow us to move to the level everyone wants to get to is the facilities, and that's the piece that we need to move on."
Barnhart said funding has already been approved for a new track for the track and field programs, and that construction is set to begin in March. Barnhart also hopes to build a new baseball facility and improve conditions for the softball team.
In 1999, UK expanded Commonwealth Stadium and added 40 new suites, two Diamond Vision video boards and a new sound system. While acknowledging that it's time for another round of upgrades, Barnhart called recent rumors of serious structural damage to Commonwealth Stadium false.
"Structurally, Commonwealth Stadium is sound," Barnhart said. "It is a very solid facility. What our goal has been all along is to give it a personality, a little face-lift if you will, that allows us to have some of the dynamics for our fans and for recruiting."
Barnhart said the Commonwealth Stadium renovations could be funded three ways:
■ Bonding capacity within the structure of the university;
■ Support from the state, which Barnhart admitted could be difficult because of budget problems;
■ Fund-raising and capital campaigning.
In July, UK opened the first phase of the new Albert B. Chandler Hospital, a project that cost $535 million.
"We understand there have been priorities at the hospital and how it is of the utmost importance to the state of Kentucky, this university and this community," Barnhart said. "It is a regional hospital, and it brings people from all across the state. We get that. But we also think that athletics has a place in the fabric of the people of Kentucky.
"It's important to them and, because it's important to them, we want to put products out there and be able to recruit to the facilities that athletes today want to play in."
Barnhart said he realizes that asking supporters for more money in a climate that includes a bad economy, escalating ticket prices and a football team that has yet to crack the upper echelon of the Southeastern Conference could be a tough sell. But if the program is serious about taking the next step, Barnhart said, these are things that must be done.
"It's a balancing act," Barnhart said. "Other institutions where I previously worked, we fund-raised first and then delivered the wins later. Some places where I have been have been able to find some wins first and then say, 'Hey, we're going to capitalize on those wins and fund-raise.' We're trying to do it simultaneously. We've moved our program forward competitively in a lot of different places, and then we've moved our funding model a little bit. But we clearly have not moved it enough to get the facilities we need."
Barnhart said he's firmly behind UK football coach Joker Phillips, who finished 6-6 and guided the Wildcats to their fifth straight bowl appearance in his first year on the job.
"We continue to take steps in our program," Barnhart said. "We're one of 29 programs out of 120 that have gone to five straight bowl games.
"You can diminish that if you're on the negative side of it. When I came here, I heard, 'If you can just get Kentucky to a bowl game every year, we'll be happy.' Well, we're there now, and no one's happy. I get it.
"Folks have written that so-called 'mediocre' bowls are no good. But we're taking steps. We were inches away from some really good things. I thought a couple of teams we played had a little more desperation than we did. We were hoping, but we didn't play with the same desperation. We're learning how to win. And they're hard lessons because we're in a tough league."
Barnhart lauded Phillips' ability to manage and handle the position and relate to the fan base and said improved facilities will help Phillips and his staff take the program to the next level.
"We've just got to get that last piece fixed that everybody wants, and that's more SEC wins," Barnhart said. "We all want the same thing, and I think Joker will get there."