BOZICH | New Commonwealth Stadium: Taller, Smaller, Better
LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) – Missouri is primed to do in two seasons what Kentucky has failed to do in two decades – win the East Division of the Southeastern Conference.
Take another look at those wacky SEC football standings. That is officially Vanderbilt parked ahead of Florida and Tennessee.
This isn't simply a strange year in the SEC. Duke is positioned to have a 10-win season. Minnesota has already won eight. Baylor has nine. Don't be shocked if Arizona State win the Pac-12.
It's been a great season for the Have Nots of college football to more fun than they've had in years. Kentucky wants in on the celebration – and UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart keeps moving as if he is determined to get there.
Fancy stadium upgrades are not a chapter in all of these success stories. But Minnesota built a new place. Baylor renovated its stadium in 2005 and will move into a new stadium next season. Kentucky wants the football world to understand the program is all-in on moving beyond mediocrity.
It started by recruiting Mark Stoops and his new coaching staff a year ago. Now the Wildcats are making a $110 million investment to pursue Missouri, Vandy and the confirmed heavyweights of the SEC.
That's how much money Kentucky will spend to make Commonwealth Stadium sparkle and sizzle. It's less than a total rebuild but more than several fresh coats of paint, new restrooms and a better sound system. In fact, the athletic department will also contribute $65 million toward the construction of a new science building.
Barnhart told the architects he wanted something "cool and classy." A decorative cover will be wrapped around the steel structure, featuring Kentucky limestone. Reclaimed barn wood will be molded into lobbies and suites. Concourses will be widened. Concession menus will be enhanced.
"Hopefully (we're) making it more intimate and hopefully making a better atmosphere for what we're trying to do," Barnhart said. "We didn't walk into this thing thinking we were going to get the Dallas Cowboys Stadium … I want it to be something when people walk into it, they say it's got a taste of Kentucky.'
Strangely, the place is getting taller, yet smaller – at least in terms of capacity, downsizing to 61,000 seats. There will be approximately 6,000 fewer seats but considerably more suites on the South side of Commonwealth, which opened in 1973.
I think that's a wise move. It's an old philosophy, one that Howard Schnellenberger preached at the University of Louisville: Create demand for your tickets by making them more difficult to secure.
"I think most people think is bigger is better," Barnhart said. "I'm not sold on that. Maybe when you guys kick me out of here and I'm gone, people will say, ‘Boy, that knucklehead downsized our stadium.'
"There is a reason most of these (new NFL) stadiums are smaller … about 65000. I think smaller, making it more intimate and getting people closer to the action is where we're going to end up.
"We want to make sure that it's a tight ticket. I've been a part of places and programs where the seats were plentiful and you're struggling to fill them. All of a sudden that ticket is not as valuable to the public. You can walk up and pick it up on game day. It's not really helpful to your program."
The press box moves to where has moved in nearly every other stadium – to the top of the structure, above the latest addition of suites.
Groan if you insist. Some fans who pack their lunches for games will groan because their stadium experience may not be enhanced – other than quicker trips to the restrooms. But more amenities for folks who can afford them is the American way. Resistance is futile.
If you're a football player, this is the paragraph you'll want to read. New designer locker rooms will be tucked under the stands in the East end zone. The dressing area will sit beneath the recruiting lounge that Kentucky head coaches have wanted since Jerry Claiborne was in charge. Student seating gets shifted to the end zone, too, wrapped around a tunnel where the players will enter the field.
It will all be ready for the 2015 season, when the Wildcats play eight home games and coach Mark Stoops will be working his third recruiting class into the lineup.
"I hope that in two years when we open this thing people are going to walk up and say that's pretty cool, it's pretty neat," Barnhart said. "A lot different than what we had."
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