By Les Johns
Editor’s note: This is the second in a four-part series about the state of the UK football program.
Much to nobody’s surprise, UK men’s basketball recruiting target Julius Randle loved his visit to Lexington last weekend, according to his USA Today blog.
He enjoyed filet mignon, bathrooms designed for 7-footers, a convenient location to the Joe Craft Center practice floor and even a Tempur-Pedic mattress, which he describes as the most comfortable mattress he ever slept in.
Head coach John Calipari strives to make UK basketball the “gold standard” in college basketball, and many would argue he has succeeded.
The same “gold standard” level is not evident in regard to the football program, the highest revenue-generating sport at UK.
“Money has to be invested in the football program for the program to reach the next level; I just believe that,” former UK football head coach Rich Brooks told the Lexington Herald-Leader in July 2010. “Kentucky facilities are not bad, but the stadium needs to be brought into the level of the other stadiums you compete in.”
Since 2005, UK Athletics has invested more than $14 million in football-related facilities, such as new meeting rooms, decor, locker rooms, and a new playing surface and lighting at Nutter Field House, UK spokesman Tony Neely said. Last year,
Commonwealth Stadium was upgraded with ribbon boards, scoreboards and a sound system.
Many believe those upgrades are not enough. In addition to a recruiting room, and upgrades in players’ living facilities and workout areas, Oscar Combs, founder of The Cats’ Pause and member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, believes
Commonwealth Stadium upgrades need to include luxury boxes.
Combs said even with an under-performing team the luxury boxes will stay utilized, and will produce additional revenue that the program will be able to reinvest.
“Luxury suites are bought by corporate America. They will use those to wine-and-dine people no matter what your won-loss record is,” Combs said. “Six or seven times these people will be in your stadium to where you as a president or (athletic direction) can walk in and socialize with them. Then you will have a much better chance when you need to raise money. That is a foot in the door with those people that they don’t have now.”
Getting projects done may be tough in the current economic and political environment. Combs said UK President Eli Capilouto has primarily focused on more academic-related facility issues and may face hurdles if he agrees to help the athletics program borrow the money needed to finance these projects.
“Many in the academic community at UK look at athletics as a blood sucker — sucking money away from academics to athletics.
The problem with that philosophy at Kentucky is that they are one of the few programs that pays their own way and actually gives money back to academics,” Combs said. “They don’t realize that they have the perfect partner with the athletics program. The last thing a new president wants to do is get the academic community on his back.”
Combs explained that the way the rules are designed, UK Athletics essentially competes with the rest of the university for bonding funds, despite the department’s independent revenue streams.
“They are generating the revenue to pay for the bonds, but in Kentucky you have to go through the university to get bonds for all projects — not just academic. It is a complicated process to a typical reader or fan that is not involved with the day-to-day operation of the school,” he said. “I’m hopeful that the new president will finally free the hands and allow the athletic department to do some things that they can pay for.”
UK football’s facilities remain behind those at other SEC schools.
“Alabama, Florida, Auburn and some of those other schools just make so much money that you can go to each of those campuses and get behind the scenes tours and look at the locker rooms, weight rooms and academic support centers,” said Mark Nagel, associate professor in the sport and entertainment management department at the University of South Carolina. “There is a stark contrast — even within the SEC, between the haves and the have-nots.
“It is amazing what football drives and what football yields as far as expenses and grandiose facilities.”