Walk with Kentucky’s athletics director through the concourses of Memorial Coliseum and you will see the past.
Not in the dated trophy cases or the yellowing, cracking ceiling tiles.
No, the past would be present on brand-new, state-of-the-art video screens side by side with trophies dating back decades to great moments in University of Kentucky history.
“A walking tour of the building,” Mitch Barnhart offers. “How cool would that be? Really cool.”
In his mind, Barnhart sees history come to life.
“Something that’s got some storytelling to it,” he continues of his vision. “You let the walls talk a little bit.”
That’s the future Barnhart sees for the building that has sat so prominently on UK’s campus since 1950 when it opened as a war memorial to the more than 10,000 Kentuckians who lost their lives in World War II and the Korean War.
But getting the building from its place of prominence as the home of men’s basketball for 25 years during which the Cats won two national championships and 16 Southeastern Conference titles to this future is where Barnhart is presently stuck.
There have been many upgrades in the last 15 years, a new floor installed in 2007, a new sound system added in 2008.
Through the years, Barnhart had discussed replacing the aging ceiling tiles, maybe new seating, new scoreboards, adding air conditioning for the summer or heat in the winter.
He’s starting to realize that there are no more quick fixes for Memorial Coliseum.
A feasibility study done by the athletics department for renovations of the relic that presently is the home court for women’s basketball, volleyball and gymnastics has come back and there are no good answers.
“It’s a little bit of an ‘Oh, wow,’” he said of reading the study, which was not made public because it’s still in draft form. Barnhart didn’t indicate what the dollar figure was, just that it was well over $10 million.
“My hopes were going to be that it was something that I could get my hands around. Now I think I’m going to get my arms around it a little differently.”
The study looked at the facility from all options, Barnhart said: “Everything from bathrooms to seating bowl, the seats, the scoreboards, the concession stands. All of it is antiquated.”
He stopped short of saying UK would need to start from scratch, and complete demolition isn’t an option. The biggest challenge is once you touch one part to fix it, that affects all other parts of the venue.
“You just sit there and go, ‘OK, what first?’” he said. “Once you start, you’re in.”
Barnhart’s biggest concern is “getting the facility right,” adding that the only problem with so many venue upgrades around campus and athletics in the last few years is “that it shines a really bright light on the one that’s a struggle.”
That one is Memorial Coliseum.
So Barnhart has begun to mull his options.
None is perfect, especially considering the venue’s place in the middle of campus, the scheduling problems that will arise for teams that use it regularly, and the wide variety of entities that are housed in the building that takes up a full city block and has as much space as a seven-story office building.
The state legislature has granted the university approval to spend up to $8 million on renovations of Memorial Coliseum if and when athletics raises that money, UK spokesman Jay Blanton said. It’s protocol for projects like this on campus.
The athletics director met with a member of his staff this week to discuss taking the next step of potential philanthropic gifts to renovate the coliseum. Or perhaps it’s a project that a business or corporation would want to take on in partnership with the university.
UK’s current multimedia rights contract with JMI Sports — the deal that helped create the newly christened “Kroger Field” and likely will put a corporate name on the rising baseball stadium — does not include any talk of Memorial Coliseum.
If that were to fall under the umbrella and a corporate entity would become involved, a new contract or a contract addendum would have to be created.
“If someone came along and said, ‘We want to do the whole thing for you,’ would that be something our fans would accept?” Barnhart asked aloud. “Would they say, ‘Hey, that’s an important deal to fix it up right.’”
He sees an opportunity for Memorial Coliseum to become a living, breathing museum similar to The Palestra in Philadelphia.
The historic arena sometimes referred to as the Cathedral of College Basketball has an exhibit for each decade of its existence (since 1927) represented on its concourses.
Barnhart ponders that and other things like maybe adding a club area that overlooks the floor where the scoreboard is now. That board, which is slowly becoming obsolete, sits among a swath of old bleacher seating that can’t be used because of fire code issues.
There are many options — none easy, none cheap, none determined quite yet.
But the time to update Memorial Coliseum is not in the distant future anymore to Barnhart.
“It’s got great history, and there are so many people with fond memories of that place,” he said. “How do we bring it back to life a little bit and restore it? It will be expensive, and we know that. So how do we do that? We’ve got to work our way through that and quickly.”