LEXINGTON, Ky. – Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart agrees with John Calipari’s declaration last week that “now it’s our turn” for facilities upgrades after major building projects to boost football, baseball, softball and soccer.
While the eight-time national champion men’s basketball program can win at a high level almost regardless of facilities, “I don’t think you ever want to take that for granted — and I don’t think we have,” Barnhart told SEC Country in an exclusive interview Wednesday. “Certainly, there is no doubt that we want to stay on the edge of what we need to do for basketball. Basketball is our legacy here, and we want to make sure we don’t lose sight of that.”
To that end, Barnhart said Kentucky is in the process of commissioning feasibility studies for a renovation of the Joe Craft Center, where the men’s and women’s basketball teams practice, and an addition to the Wildcat Coal Lodge where players live that would include a new dining area for all athletes on that side of campus.
Ideas for the Craft Center, a $32 million building that opened in January of 2007, include “some things we want to do in the locker room and the teaching space,” Barnhart said. “We’ve got some plans and some thoughts: If we knock down a wall or two, could we enlarge the space? Could we make it look a little more (modern)? A decade later, what does that look like?”
There is no official timetable on beginning and ending construction for those projects, but the Wildcats’ AD said it’s “something we want to attack pretty quickly.”
There is, of course, the question of funding.
Kentucky has completed a $126 million football stadium renovation and $45 million football training center in the last 15 months. It just announced plans for a $49 million baseball stadium that should be completed by 2018.
“We’re seeking some help. We’ve got to have money to do (basketball improvements),” Barnhart said. “We keep raising our hand. We’ve got to work our way through some of those finances. We just spent a lot of money on some facilities around here the last couple years, so we’ve got to make sure financially we’re intelligent with what we do now. But we’ll be fine.”
Although he’s on board with giving Calipari what he wants, Barnhart bristles a bit at the idea that men’s basketball has been somehow neglected on his watch. He remembers arriving at Kentucky in 2002 and saying the program needed a practice facility. People looking at him like he was crazy.
At the time, he said, many believed that Memorial Coliseum — built in 1950 — was an acceptable place to practice, so long as the men got priority time over the women’s program.
“I thought, ‘That’s not the way we want to be. We want to be the first ones to do what’s right,’ ” Barnhart said. “So don’t let anybody fool you: We were the first ones. We were the first ones out there with a practice facility. Texas was out there, I think Vanderbilt had sort of quasi-built one and Florida had sort of quasi-built one that was OK. We took all their ideas and it was the best of the best 8-10 years ago. Everyone was coming to Joe Craft to see what that thing looked like.
“So my point is simply: It’s not like we’ve forgotten basketball. We do things right. Our budget for basketball is one of the largest anywhere in the country, in the top two or three. We travel well, we stay at good places, our young people are treated very well.”
He also knows that with Calipari out on the recruiting trail trying to land the nation’s best players every year and promising that Kentucky is the “gold standard” of college basketball, the Wildcats cannot stand pat. Other top programs certainly aren’t.
“We don’t want to take it for granted,” Barnhart said. “You do that and then you begin to say someone else is in the neighborhood — and we want to make sure that we keep it to an exclusive group, right? In order to do that, we’ve got to make sure that we treat it right. Cal’s right.”
One question Kentucky fans have asked for years is whether it’s possible for the Wildcats to someday move out of the city-owned Rupp Arena downtown and into their own on-campus arena. That one is probably a pipe dream for the foreseeable future.
“Is it possible? All things are possible. Is it what we want to do? Nah, not necessarily,” Barnhart said. “We enjoy the relationship we have with the community. We know that the anchor of downtown is Rupp Arena and we know that the city wants us to be down there. They’ve got plans for all sorts of things downtown, and we acknowledge that. Our lease runs out in 2018 and we’re working our way through conversations, and hopefully we get to a spot where we can move on and get going.”
Rupp underwent about $65 million in upgrades early in Barnhart’s Kentucky tenure and more recently got a major locker-room upgrade, followed by $15 million in new video and sound equipment that have dramatically improved the game-day experience inside.
Thus, Barnhart said, the Wildcats’ preference is to stay there.
“It’s got a lot of storied tradition. It’s got some wonderful, wonderful memories for a lot of people,” he said. “And we’ve just got to find our way through in conversations with the city and the arena board. Hopefully we can get that resolved sooner rather than later.”
Calipari no doubt feels the same about his desired on-campus upgrades for the program.