Walk around the new, $45 million practice facility and it’s pretty easy to see why it has become Kentucky’s top recruiting tool.
Big screen televisions on every other wall, shrines to Nike everywhere, a Gatorade bar, a weight room with 15,000 square feet of pristine equipment, a locker room to rival professional teams.
“It’s a big difference between taking people through this building and seeing the way we used it as opposed to showing it to them on a screen,” Coach Mark Stoops said a couple of months ago.
But there’s another little-discussed benefit of Kentucky’s new practice facility and its impact on recruiting. It has become a game-day hub for prospective players, something UK never had before.
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Game days used to be a logistical nightmare spread over multiple facilities, with limited space and locations to take recruits because of how spread out things were.
UK’s old locker room space in the belly of Commonwealth Stadium was so cramped that they didn’t allow recruits to go in there on game days. So coaches would go through the Cat Walk, get dressed and then try to locate the prospects.
“They’d be trying to figure out where kids were,” explained Dan Berezowitz, UK’s director of football recruiting operations. “Maybe they were still at the old Nutter, then we’d have to get them over here fighting the traffic. Now we have kids showing up early just to watch the Cat Walk.”
And potential players who do show up early now have it made. They just arrive at the new practice facility and then they can spend the rest of the day getting to know the place, the players, the coaches and can soak up the environment.
“We have them come in this building and experience game day from a team standpoint, like the team warmup, the team dress, their flow on game day, up and down the hallway,” Berezowitz said.
There are dozens of comfortable, scenic places for coaches to meet with recruits and make them feel at home in what could become their new football home.
Prospects come to the facility and get a tour, see the uniforms laid out in the state-of-the-art locker room. They can stand around the weight room and watch the players go through warmups.
When they’re finished in the facility, Commonwealth Stadium and the recruiting room are just steps away, and those steps are usually lined with excited fans.
The flow of game day is night and day from when Stoops and staff arrived and prospects had a makeshift “recruiting room” set up with folding tables and chairs in the corner of the Nutter Indoor Field House.
Recruits weren’t able to experience the game day atmosphere or settle into a space like they are the new practice facility.
“When they actually come in here and see it, they realize this is a top of the line facility, that we didn’t cut any corners, that our stadium looks beautiful,” Berezowitz said. “It’s done right.”
And while a pretty place isn’t necessarily going to sell a recruit, an easy, positive experience goes a long way.
“It definitely helps us with kids that are comparing our facility to other facilities,” UK’s recruiting guru said. “They see there’s a commitment on campus to really make this a top level place to go to school and that it’s a really good place to live.”
Making an impression
Kentucky’s coach was outspoken about his distaste for the satellite camps that were all the rage last offseason.
“We’re not real big into working third party people to set things up and paying people to get people on their campus,” Stoops said last June after UK participated in a few off-campus events. “That’s not what we’re going to do.”
NCAA rulings that brought those events back to campuses was a win for Kentucky, Berezowitz said, especially this summer when UK will be using its new practice fields for the first time as part of summer camps.
“To us, that’s huge because we want kids to come to campus,” Berezowitz said. “We want kids to see our stadium, work out in our stadium, work out in this complex, go out on our practice fields. … We’ll have everything right here.”
Forgive Kentucky’s coach if he wakes up in a bed on Sunday morning and has no idea what city, state or time zone he’s in. By Berezowitz’s estimation, Stoops has been to more than a dozen places since Jan. 12.
“It gets kind of crazy,” Berezowitz said of this time of the year when Kentucky’s coaches all are on the road putting the finishing touches on the 2017 class, which currently is ranked No. 18 in the nation by Rivals. National signing day is on Feb. 1, a little more than a week away.
“There’s a lot of moving parts,” said Berezowitz, who is charge of coordinating where each coach is when. He specifically helps Stoops figure out where he’s going and how he’s getting around while there among other things.
“I’ve got a detailed grid of every coach, where they’re at, who’s with Coach Stoops is a certain color.”
In the course of one 55-minute sitdown interview with Berezowitz, he received 10-plus texts from various coaches on the road as well as a phone call from Stoops and another from co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw, who was scheduled to pick up Stoops for a visit later that day.
Wrapping up the bowl
Much like the Kentucky fans who poured into Jacksonville in the days leading up to the TaxSlayer Bowl, Mitch Barnhart said he felt the sting of the loss to Georgia Tech.
But it was dulled a bit because of something the athletics director overheard in the corner of the locker room after the defeat.
From the side of the locker room, Kentucky’s AD said he heard several returning starters discussing getting to a better bowl a year from then.
“It was really good for me to hear,” he said. “They weren’t saying it for my ears. You could hear guys talking about being better next year.”
Barnhart said he and the fans were moved by the amount of fan support in Jacksonville that week.
“The bowl people were very, very appreciative of our fans and our fan base,” he said. “Frankly that’s what you get when you get Kentucky. You get the Commonwealth of Kentucky and a fan base that loves this place. It showed me how much they want us to be successful, and I’m very appreciative of that.”
After the game, Barnhart said he hoped that the outcome wouldn’t affect that support next season.
“We wanted to give them a better game than we did, but I hope they’ll appreciate how this program has grown and things we’re going to try to do going forward,” he said.
Clearly he was excited about what’s to come for a team that returns 15-plus starters and most of the team’s key playmakers.
“The way recruiting is going, we have a chance to be a really, really good football team next year, and I’m excited about that,” he said. “I think you can look out there and see all the young guys playing at all the different positions. If you can’t get excited about the future of the program — especially down the stretch and the way they competed — then something’s wrong.”
▪ I wanted to do some basic housekeeping stuff after the TaxSlayer Bowl trip, including running some numbers. Per the bowl contract, obtained through an open records request, the TaxSlayer Bowl will pay the Southeastern Conference $3.1 million by April 1 for UK’s participation. The bowl also agreed to supply 125 “award packages” for players.
Per the deal, UK agreed to purchase a minimum of 8,000 tickets (2,500 club seats at $125 a pop and 5,500 lower level stadium seats at $85 apiece. If the school didn’t reach those sales numbers, the bowl deducts that out of the share of the proceeds it distributes to the SEC.
The bowl provides a practice location at no cost; in this case, UK practiced at North Florida.
The university was responsible for 700 room nights and the hotel agrees to a rate of $170 per night. For the band hotel, UK had to guarantee a minimum of 150 room nights at $159 a night.
▪ Per Stoops’ contract, he was paid $125,000 for reaching a bowl game with a payout of more than $2 million, but he missed out on an additional $250,000 bonus because UK didn’t win the game.
All combined, Kentucky’s assistant coaches and the head strength and conditioning coach were due a little more than $260,000 in bonus bucks for advancing to the TaxSlayer Bowl.