UK Recruiting

Kentucky's 'unique' football recruiting room drawing rave reviews

In talking about Commonwealth Stadium's new state-of-the-art recruiting room, Mitch Barnhart continued to use the same adjective over and over again.

Realizing his repetitiveness, UK's athletics director smiled and doubled down on the descriptor.

"I keep using the word unique, and it is unique," Barnhart said. "We've had several people call us and say, 'Hey, can we come see it?' So, I'm sensing that there's others that may try to do what we're doing."

What they've done is build something altogether different in the world of college football. Other programs have grandiose areas to host their incoming recruits, but UK's new room is a rarity.

Instead of being positioned in the bowels of the stadium or in an adjacent building — like many other recruiting rooms — the Wildcats' new addition is carved directly into one end zone of Commonwealth with an attached patio that allows recruits and their families to step into the open air, look out onto the field and soak in the game-day atmosphere.

Barnhart said representatives from a few other programs have already contacted his office hoping to take a look at it, and UK is eager to show it off.

"We're proud of it," he said. "It's something we've wanted for years, and figuring out how to incorporate it into this facility was really, really important to us.

"To be able to come to this kind of a venue and bring in young people and let them see our program from a little bit of a unique environment — most recruiting areas are under the stadium — for us to build it into it with a view, with a patio, it's a little unique. We think it's helpful to us. When people go back home they might go, 'Oh, my word, that was different.'"

That's been the reaction so far.

Woodford County offensive lineman Drake Jackson — one of UK's top commitments for the class of 2016 — has attended both of the Wildcats' home games this season.

Jackson was also a regular visitor to Commonwealth Stadium last year, and he said the experience this fall has been completely different.

In the past, UK's recruits would check in outside the stadium and then make their way to the Nutter indoor facility next door to Commonwealth. There would be a couple of tables set up with a catered meal in one of the four corners of the field house, and the recruits would hang out there until it was time to go over to the field.

"It was either really hot or really cold," Jackson said. "You didn't get to see the coaches that much because it wasn't near the locker room. They weren't in there a lot, and they were always in a rush."

Now, players can head straight to the new room and relax with their families or chat up other visiting recruits.

"It's really cool," Jackson said. "They've got TVs and they've got video games and they've got food, which is the biggest thing."

(Rib tips and chicken wings were on the pre-game menu for the season opener against Louisiana-Lafayette, though it does cost $8 to eat if you're not on an official visit.)

The new setup is also much easier on the coaches.

Before, they were forced to maneuver their way through the game-day crowds to see recruits in Nutter while also leaving enough time to prepare the current Cats for the game back in Commonwealth.

The new recruiting room is actually connected to UK's locker room, giving the coaches easy access to recruits before games.

Offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson spent time before the Florida game visiting with players and their families on the open-air patio, and other coaches were seen going to and from the recruiting room with top prospects in tow.

"The room has been a big hit," said Coach Mark Stoops. "It's great, because of location, they get to feel the energy in the stadium and gather with other recruits and gather with coaches right prior to the game and right after the game.

"I think people are excited about it, and it can only help us as we move forward with recruiting and showing the commitment of this place."

UK's coaches preach a family feel as part of their recruiting pitch, and the new room is an extension of that.

Class of 2016 commitment Jordan Griffin, who brought several family members to the Florida game, said his group experienced "a welcoming feeling" when walking into the stadium that day.

Small children were seen running around and playing on the patio — decked out with tables, umbrellas and all-weather furniture — while parents and high school coaches mingled with each other.

Jackson said his little brother was checking out the video-game stations inside the room. "He had a heck of a time."

The room itself — which was opened to the media Thursday — is an expansive space with a couple dozen dining tables — complete with UK blue tablecloths — and several couches and lounge chairs.

Two 178-inch TV screens adorn facing walls, and several other TVs are sprinkled throughout the area. When recruits walk into the room, they're met by holographic images of former Wildcats in the NFL like Randall Cobb and Bud Dupree.

Jackson's only complaint is that recruits can't actually be in the room while the Cats are playing. NCAA rules define that as an extra benefit, so visiting high school players are herded to seats in the surrounding student section once the game begins. (Though they're permitted to run back in for snacks and bathroom breaks at halftime).

Barnhart told the Herald-Leader that the new space can comfortably hold 250-300 people, and it will be used for more than just game-day recruiting. The UK Athletics Hall of Fame induction ceremony and banquet will be held there Friday night, for instance.

UK's AD, coaches and recruits have been unanimous in their reviews for the recruiting room, which was one of the key pieces to the $126 million overhaul of Commonwealth Stadium.

It's something Stoops has wanted since he arrived in Lexington, and it's something that UK recruits will be able to enjoy long into the future.

"The piece for saying we're invested in Mark is really huge," Barnhart said. "We're invested in Kentucky football. It is about Coach Stoops and his staff, but it's also about Kentucky football and all of the players we're trying to bring in here and build this thing."

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