Stadium plan sends message, Kentucky's Barnhart says

jsmith3@herald-leader.comJanuary 10, 2013 

The last major renovation at Commonwealth Stadium was in 1999. Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said the stadium needs upgrades but is structurally sound.

RON GARRISON

FRANKFORT — For many years, renovations at Commonwealth Stadium were merely hypothetical discussions over intimate booster dinners or sketches on the backs of notebooks.

But if the General Assembly approves $110 million in bonding for renovations of football facilities at the University of Kentucky, those sketches could turn into architectural renderings in a matter of months.

And by the start of the 2015 football season, fans and UK players could be walking into a newly revamped Commonwealth Stadium.

Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart hopes they will walk into the venue with this thought: "I'd hope that everybody would say, 'That sends a clear message that they're serious about their commitment to college football.'"

Improvements at Commonwealth Stadium would include 16-20 private suites, more than 2,000 new club seats, a team store, improved concessions, restrooms and security, a full-service kitchen and press facilities. Also planned is a spacious, multi-purpose recruiting room in the east end zone.

For several years, UK has been in the discussion and feasibility phases of Commonwealth Stadium upgrades, but there is not a detailed design in place, Barnhart said after a news conference at the State Capitol on Thursday.

"We've done a lot of that homework, but now we've got to get into the gritty part of it where you get into the details and all that," he said. "We think we're pretty close."

One phrase that came up over and over again Thursday was "fan experience."

"A lot of the renovations are going to take place to make the fan amenities better," Barnhart said.

"We're competing with the 70-inch televisions at home, so we've got to make sure what we put together, not only a good product on the field, but the experience when they come to the game is something people want to feel good about, and that's what this stadium will reflect."

But don't confuse renovation with expansion, Barnhart added.

"I don't want people to go out and say we're going to 80,000 seats. We're not," he said. "Maybe less is better. We don't need to be at a number that we can't support. If you make the seats really, really quality seats and it's an unbelievably good experience when you come in, we need to think more in terms of that."

Part of that experience will include more private suites and club-level seating. In an open email to Kentucky alumni and fans, UK President Eli Capilouto noted that there is a waiting list for the new suites, which will help fund the renovations.

But, Capilouto noted, football is about more than just first downs and touchdowns.

"It makes possible (the) other athletic programs. ... It funds over 400 scholarships, allows incredible growth experiences both in and outside of the classroom for our student athletes and it's been responsible for generous (academic) financial contributions on campus."

Barnhart took it a step further, noting that football is a way of life.

"The college football experience at an SEC school is a part of that college campus life and we've got to have that stadium full and alive for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is recruiting and our football program," he said.

New coach Mark Stoops will play a role in the changes both at the stadium and at the Nutter Training Center, which houses the day-to-day operations of the football program.

"We clearly want to do some things for our players and make sure they know this is about them, too," Barnhart said.

Among the changes Barnhart discussed at the training facility were updates in the weight room, added cardio equipment, medical and training room upgrades as well as a dining facility.

The bottom-line question came quickly after Barnhart's comments.

Will all of these improvements lead to wins on the field?

"It helps you in recruiting," he said. "It clearly sends the message that we're going to be committed to football.

"A lot of schools have had success in college football that weren't traditional powers. We can get there and we can do that."

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241 Twitter: @jenheraldleader Blog: ukwomen.bloginky.com

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