Kentucky's Barnhart does not rule out idea of on-campus arena

jsmith3@herald-leader.comJune 27, 2014 

Exterior photo of Rupp Arena and The Lexington Center as seen from the West High St. side in Lexington, Ky., Monday, October 22, 2007. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff. 4313

CHARLES BERTRAM | STAFF

From his windshield, he can see the future.

"It will be a beautiful complex over there," Kentucky's Mitch Barnhart starts to describe.

The athletics director points into the air as he's talking about the future sports complex he sees growing next to Alumni Drive.

"You come across the top of the hill and you have softball, soccer, soccer practice fields, baseball," he continues, "come across the top of the hill and see football training center and practice fields and then the stadium."

But in his blue and white mind's eye, does he ever picture a new on-campus basketball arena somewhere in that ever-expanding landscape?

"You can never say never to anything," Barnhart told the Herald-Leader in a wide-ranging interview this week.

"It's one of the more interesting conversations in all of conversations in terms of our basketball (program)."

The Kentucky official gets emails and letters from fans asking him to move the men's basketball arena back on campus. He gets nearly as many telling him to leave it at the heart of downtown where it's been since 1976.

He vacillates in his thoughts on it, too.

"There are days when you say, 'Boy, it'd be nice to walk into your own facility and not have to worry about practice times, game scheduling, boom, boom, boom, all of this kind of stuff.'

"Then there's times when you think, 'Do I want the headache of owning my own facility and all the stuff that goes with it and goes into it?' There's pluses and minuses to both conversations."

It's been an interesting few months for the university and the city of Lexington.

A project with a grand scale and a grander $351 million price tag was put forth by the city with the university agreeing in principle to pitch in $10.7 million over the next 30 years as part of a new lease. The project was tabled.

"You get going in a race and the last lap or two is the hardest," Barnhart said when asked about the Rupp Arena project stalling. "And sometimes you're able to finish and sometimes not. So we'll restart the race and try again at some point in time."

Less than a week after the "race" was suspended, UK announced a massive multimedia deal with JMI Sports that included a $29.4 million signing bonus that the athletics department plans to use for the baseball stadium and other projects.

Barnhart was asked on Monday if fans should read into the timing of the media deal and if it's in any way connected to the school's Rupp Arena lease, which expires in 2018.

He said they weren't linked and reiterated that again in another interview two days later, noting that his desire is to play in Rupp Arena still.

"We've won a lot of games in that arena, enjoyed a lot of great memories, and the preference is to play there," he said, noting that there are some facilities upgrades that are needed like scoreboards, video boards and other bells and whistles.

UK will enter the discussions again when the time is right.

"When you start saying there's only one way to get something done, then that's not going to be healthy for anybody," Barnhart told the Herald-Leader. "So we'll work our way through all the options and we'll figure out what's best. ...

"The university knows how important the city is and I think the city knows how important the university is. So we've got to find a way to work our way through all that. We want to be the front porch for both."

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

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