John Clay

Football training centers are gaudy, outrageous and necessary

Multi-million dollar football training centers are outrageously expensive, ridiculously lavish and, if you want to compete, absolutely essential.

The latest controversy concerning these gaudy buildings involves LSU, which just spent $28 million to renovate its Football Operations Building that originally opened in 2005. The money was raised through private funds. And included in the update is a nutritional center and a player locker room that includes sleep pods.

That’s right, sleep pods. Twitter nearly exploded — as Twitter is wont to do — last week with pictures of what looked like the personal pods you might find on an international airline flight that included a fold-out bed for sleep and a stand for an iPad to watch videos, movies, etc.

“We try to be as up to date as we can and we also try to be a step ahead,” Jack Marucci, LSU’s head athletic trainer, told The Advocate in Baton Rouge. “That’s what we did on those pods. We didn’t need to make a fancy locker space. We made a functional locker that made a big impact.”

Not everyone agreed, however. Former LSU defensive back Eric Reid, now with the Carolina Panthers, tweeted, “The locker room when I was at LSU 7 years ago was better than the current one in Carolina. But there’s no money to compensate these young men for the revenue they bring to the school.”

LSU Athletics

ESPN’s Jay Bilas joined in with his usual Twitter mantra of “If only there was enough money . . . “

Then there was LSU professor Robert Mann, who tweeted, “Meanwhile, across campus, I vacuum my faculty office with a Dust Devil I bought from Walmart.”

That didn’t sit well with LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, who fired back, “Why, professor, do you feel entitled to the fruits of our labor?”

Since then, a GoFundMe campaign has begun to raise $20 million in hopes of building a library at LSU that will replace the outdated and crumbling library now on the Baton Rouge campus. The school has repeatedly failed to raise the funds necessary to make a new library happen.

Does all this show our priorities are out of whack? Of course. LSU football is a traditional source of pride in the state of Louisiana, but it doesn’t mean as much to the state’s population as the benefits provided by higher education. That’s true in every other state with a high-achieving athletic program.

On the other hand, if you’re going to be in a major college conference (the SEC, for example) and wish to forge some level of success in a highly competitive sport (football, for example), you must invest money in your infrastructure, i.e. stadiums, practice facilities and training centers. That’s just a fact.

For proof, you need to look no farther than our own backyard. After years of bringing up the rear of the conference in football facilities, Kentucky spent $45 million on the Joe Craft Football Training Facility, which opened in 2016. It doesn’t have sleep pods. But it does have a nutrition center, a state of the art weight room, an expanded locker room and technical advances beyond anything the football program had enjoyed before.

A friend recently told me that he was entertaining some friends from Florida, when they wanted to take a look at UK’s football facilities. The Floridians were surprised to see the quantity and the quality the school offered by way of amenities to players and recruits. Hopefully, they passed the word to Tim Tebow.

The Cats are coming off a 10-3 season, their best since 1977. By all reports, the talent level of the recruits who recently competed in Mark Stoops’ summer camps exceeded that of previous years. You can’t tell me that the school’s renovation of Commonwealth Stadium, now Kroger Field, and addition of the training facility hasn’t played a role in attracting that type of talent.

That doesn’t mean Kentucky or LSU boast the best football facilities in the SEC. (Alabama leads there, too.) It just means those schools are trying to keep up in an athletic arms race that shows no sign of slowing. As long as there are donors out there willing to put their money toward sleep pods instead of libraries, it won’t slow down. That may not be fair or beneficial, but right now it’s the way it is.

Important upcoming UK dates

Aug. 2: Media Day and first practice

Aug. 3: Fan Day and open practice

Aug. 31: Season opener vs. Toledo at Kroger Field

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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