Rich Brooks was right.
Back before he retired in 2009, the Kentucky football coach warned the program was falling behind in regards to facilities. SEC schools were speeding ahead in the grid arms race. Kentucky was standing pat. Frustrated by his inability to get the deep-pocket donors or his administration to act, Brooks stepped aside, saying maybe his successor, Joker Phillips, would have a better shot at success.
It didn’t happen. Phillips couldn’t move the needle and Brooks’ prediction came true. Recruiting suffered. Bowl berths disappeared. Crowds stopped coming to Commonwealth Stadium. And Phillips was fired after going 13-24 overall, 4-20 in the SEC.
I thought of that Friday while touring the new UK Football Training Facility, an impressive building that came with a $45 million price tag. There was a time when I might have railed against such excess at a time when other university departments face budget cuts. As Jason Isbell says, those were different days.
These days, this is the price you must pay to compete. And if you’re going to be a member of the SEC, and collect that $30 million paycheck from the conference office each year, then you owe it to your student-athletes and your fans to do everything in your power to compete.
Last year’s $110 million Commonwealth Stadium renovation was the first step. Sure, it’s not perfect — the biggest complaint I hear is over the re-ticketing process; longtime season-ticket holders liked their old seats better — but few could argue the renovation wasn’t needed. Aside from an expansion that added luxury boxes in the end zone in 1999, not much had been done to the stadium besides a touch-up here and there. As the rest of the league expanded or improved their stadiums, UK stuck with the status quo.
You could say the same about the Nutter Training Facility, which opened in 1987. It was a terrific building with plenty of amenities in the 1990s, but this isn’t the 1990s. When the indoor facility, the Nutter Field House, was added in 1993, Athletics Director C.M. Newton called it “the final piece of the puzzle.” We know better now. There are no final pieces.
Not when your competitors are busy adding pieces. In 2013, Alabama opened a $9 million 37,000-square foot weight room, that includes a juice bar. It may be sunny year-round in Florida, but the Gators just built a $15 million indoor practice facility. Last August, Georgia broke ground on its “indoor athletic facility.” Texas A&M spent $20.8 million renovating its 36,000 square-football Bright Football Complex, which includes a water wall and a barber shop. Tennessee spent $45 million on its new football facility, the Anderson Training Center. It includes a 22,000-square-foot football strength and conditioning facility.
Now Kentucky has its own juice bar (Gatorade Fuel Zone) and a barbershop. It has every technological feature you could think of — “We’re at the top of technology,” Dan Berezowitz, UK’s director of recruiting, said Friday — and brand-new practice fields. The best thing about the new facility is its functionality. Players won’t have to walk across Cooper Drive to the stadium. Now, they will train right there by the stadium and the field house.
Does this guarantee victories? No, but it has to help toward that goal. Does it put Kentucky ahead in the conference? No. Truth be told, this is more of a catch-up effort, of bringing UK football up to the rest of the league in which it plays. There’s no facilities cap in college football. Schools are free to build what they want or what they can afford. And they are building.
Truth be told, Rich Brooks was right, Kentucky football was falling behind. The record (8-40 in the SEC since Brooks retired) bears out the consequences. Steps have been taken to correct that. Expensive steps. You get what you pay for, however. These days, you either pay to compete or you get left behind.
Southern Mississippi at Kentucky
7:30 p.m. Sept. 3 (ESPNU)
SEC record over last six years (2010-15)
Note: Missouri and Texas A&M joined SEC in 2012