Jerry Tipton: Some in UK faculty say focus on new arena shows skewed perspective

Some faculty say UK's arena fixation skews perspective

Herald-Leader Staff WriterApril 17, 2011 

Doug Flynn, who turns 60 on Monday, threw out the first pitch when Bryan Station High School retired his jersey in 2009.

MARK CORNELISON | STAFF

Instead of thinking about how to finance a new basketball arena and rewarding Mitch Barnhart with a six-figure raise, the University of Kentucky's athletics department should at least triple the amount of money it donates to the school's general fund and, if necessary, abolish some of the non-revenue sports teams it sponsors.

That was the argument political science professor Ernie Yanarella made to the University Senate last Monday.

He said UK's athletics department should follow the example of austerity established by faculty and staff, groups that have gone without raises for three years and experienced reductions in retirement and health care benefits.

"So my position is it's overdue for UK's athletic program to step up in this difficult budgetary situation," Yanarella said later in the week in summing up his speech.

A former faculty representative to the UK Board of Trustees, Yanarella noted that the athletics department's annual donation to the UK general fund has increased by only $500,000 since it began in the 1980s with a donation of $1,250,000. In that time, the athletics department's budget has grown from about $13.8 million to more than $74 million, he said.

"I'd like to see them contribute at least $8 or $9 million (each year) ...," Yanarella said. "That amount would make a difference."

When asked about athletic contributions to UK's overall financial health, administrators note that the dollar figure is much larger when scholarships, housing and other costs are considered.

"While that may be true," Yanarella said, "those are the sorts of things you'd expect the program to absorb."

Yanarella said he had made the argument more than once to UK President Lee T. Todd Jr. Todd heard him out, Yanarella said, "but seems quite disinclined to ask more of the (athletics) program."

Three days after Yanarella spoke to the University Senate, Barnhart spoke to a task force established by Lexington Mayor Jim Gray to explore whether Rupp Arena should be renovated or a new downtown arena built. In either case, UK players and fans must have a facility that is the "gold standard" in college basketball, Barnhart said.

"I said to myself, 'Oh my gosh,'" Yanarella said. "How much money is going to be funneled into such a whiz-bang arena? ... It's our academic program that should exemplify the gold standard in terms of quality and in terms of compensation for a fine faculty and a very, very good staff. And we've been taking hits over the last five years.

"And we've seen no aspects of sacrifice from the sports program."

Yanarella described Barnhart's remarks as an attempt to pave the way toward the new arena option.

"It seemed to be an effort to provide a catalyst to a campaign, a kind of mobilization campaign to prepare the community and the university for a top-dollar, maybe even platinum-standard arena.

"That's going to be met with a really jaundiced eye by faculty. They would be really outraged."

Rupp 'a happening'

Former UK Athletics Director C.M. Newton acknowledges the importance of maximizing revenue. That's a big reason behind the open secret of UK's desire to have a new arena. With luxury boxes in a new arena, UK athletics can start making some real money.

"Revenue is driving the train," Newton said.

But, he added, leaving Rupp Arena would come at a price.

"I really like Rupp Arena, what it is and where it's located," Newton said. "Because it's a happening for basketball that nobody else has. Even the Carrier Dome or the Dean Dome.

"None of the others has what Kentucky has. Where people come at 4 o'clock and start their eating and drinking. It's a happening."

Presumably, if a recently appointed task force recommends a new arena in downtown Lexington rather than a renovation of Rupp Arena, the new building would not be attached to a new hotel and shopping/dining complex.

In Newton's view, the Lexington Civic Center Shops make luxury boxes irrelevant. Except for the all-important money-making purposes.

"I never felt we needed luxury boxes," said Newton, a former UK player who returned as A.D. in 1989. "You've got all the amenities you'd need right there."

Newton sees luxury boxes as more practical in football because of the length of the game and, of course, weather. "Basketball is a two-, two-and-a-half-hour deal," he said. "You don't need luxury boxes."

During his time as UK athletics director, Newton followed then-president Charles Wethington's request to study the feasibility of a new on-campus arena. The study, which Newton acknowledged was a ploy to negotiate a more favorable rental agreement for Rupp, found that it was feasible to build an arena near Commonwealth Stadium.

But UK would give up too much atmosphere and fan convenience by leaving Rupp Arena, Newton said.

Arena envy?

Does arena envy factor in UK's desire for a new arena? Is there a jealousy factor in UK's desire for a new arena because U of L and the city of Louisville collaborated on the KFC Yum Center?

"I think there is," former UK Athletics Director C.M. Newton said. "What the city of Louisville and the University of Louisville were able to do (was) they created a state of the art facility.

"Still, Rupp Arena is Rupp Arena. For ambiance and in terms of a happening for basketball, there is no better place than Rupp Arena."

'Gold standard'

Webster defines "euphemism" as "the use of a word or phrase that is less expressive or direct but considered less distasteful, less offensive, etc. than another."

This comes to mind as we ponder how starting with Coach John Calipari, UK has tossed around the term "gold standard" as a euphemistic rationale for the building of a new downtown arena. As Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart last week told a task force charged with studying the future of Rupp Arena, "The facility our players compete in, and our fans go to, must be the gold standard. I think on that we all can agree."

A new arena will be an expensive proposition, especially compared to a renovation of Rupp Arena or the unspoken option of simply leaving well enough alone and continuing to play in Rupp Arena as it is.

It's more difficult to argue with UK simply wanting to keep the program "the gold standard" for college basketball.

As a UK finance professor and the faculty representative on the Board of Trustees, Joe Peek knows economics and the University of Kentucky. When asked for his opinion on the debate to renovate Rupp Arena or build a new downtown arena, he mentioned the gold-standard objective.

"My concern is that the state, city and university are in bad financial shape, so is it something that we can afford at this time?" Peek wrote in an email last week. "Of course, it would be nice if there was sentiment for UK academics to strive to be the 'gold standard.' Or if we had a feeling that we needed our classroom buildings to be the 'gold standard.'

"It is all about priorities, and I do not see the academic mission at UK being among the very top priorities."

Attendance leaders

Gary Johnson, the NCAA's chief statistician for men's basketball, expects to release the leaders in attendance for 2010-11 within the next few weeks.

When asked if the NCAA counts tickets sold or people in seats, Johnson sent an email that said: "We don't dictate to schools how to compile their attendance figures, we just ask them to be consistent in how they do it. It can be by tickets sold, turnstile, estimate, or whatever. For the most part, I go off of box score attendance."

Of course, Kentucky has been the perennial leader in attendance most seasons since Rupp Arena opened for the 1976-77 season.

In the previous 34 seasons in Rupp Arena, Kentucky led the nation in attendance 22 times. Syracuse, which plays its home games in the Carrier Dome, led the other 12 seasons.

UK has led the last five seasons and 14 of the last 15.

Forgive? Forget?

When UK Coach John Calipari traveled to Memphis for the funeral of Larry Finch earlier this month, he also attended a Grizzlies game against Sacramento. This allowed him to watch two of his former players, Tyreke Evans of Memphis and DeMarcus Cousins of Kentucky play for the Kings.

Apparently, Memphis fans have neither forgotten nor forgiven Calipari for leaving in 2009 for the UK job.

As Calipari sat in a skybox for the Grizzlies-Kings game, a FedExForum in-house camera showed a brief shot of him on video boards during a timeout. The crowd reaction?

BOOOOOO!

PIT stats

Casey Mitchell of West Virginia was the leading scorer (23.3 ppg) at the Portsmouth (Va.) Invitational Tournament earlier this month. That's the event that UK big man Josh Harrellson had to miss because of illness.

Vernon Macklin of Florida and Ravern Johnson of Mississippi State ranked third and fifth in scoring with averages of 19.0 and 16.7, respectively. Other statistics of note in the tryout for NBA prospects include:

Chris Warren of Ole Miss averaged 10 points, 4.3 assists and 2.3 steals while making 40 percent of his NBA-length three-point attempts (six of 15).

Sam Muldrow of South Carolina led all players with an average of 3.67 blocks. He also averaged 7.0 points and 3.3 rebounds.

Luke Sikma, the son of former NBA standout Jack Sikma, averaged 8.3 points and 9.0 rebounds. Of course, he played for Portland against UK on the stopover game in the Rose Garden on the way to Maui. He tied Alex Tyus of Florida for the lead in offensive rebounds (5.33 per game).

■ Macklin, not the greatest free-throw shooter, made only nine of 20 foul shots.

Selection Sunday

A favorite moment of the entire post-season came on Selection Sunday.

Because of Kentucky playing in the SEC Tournament finals, I was in Atlanta and unable to be part of the media gathered at John Calipari's home for question-and-answer reaction to the NCAA Tournament pairings.

Herald-Leader colleague Mike Fields worked the story, arriving to see Lexington police parking cars on the street and keeping reporters confined to designated areas.

When Assistant Coach Orlando Antigua pulled into Calipari's driveway, he was not recognized. A police officer ordered him to pull his car back into one of the temporary parking spots on the street. Antigua laughed as UK personnel clued in the police on his status.

When asked later about the incident, Antigua smiled and said, "He was just doing his job."

Self-effacement is a charming quality.

Happy birthday

To former UK and Cincinnati Reds baseball player Doug Flynn. He turns 60 on Monday. A 60th birthday commands Flynn's attention more than, say, the 40th or 50th. But a medical issue in 2010 put the birthday milestone in perspective.

On March 15 of last year, surgeons removed Flynn's cancerous thyroid gland. A follow-up biopsy earlier this month showed that he remained cancer free.

When asked last week about turning 60, Flynn said, "Hard to believe, isn't it?"

Actually, Flynn has been getting playful reminders almost daily from former UK center Jim Andrews, who also turns 60 this year (on Sept. 1). The pair are part of a group of friends turning 60 this year that includes former UK baseball coach Keith Madison.

Flynn works at Lexington's Central Bank. He also is a co-host of the Big League Fishing show each Saturday at 5 a.m. (yawn) on WLAP-630 AM.

Jerry Tipton covers UK basketball for the Herald-Leader. This article contains his opinions and observations. Reach him at jtipton@herald-leader.com. Herald-Leader reporter Cheryl Truman contributed to this article.

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