CRAWFORD | Low profile, high importance: Louisville's new athlet - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Low profile, high importance: Louisville's new athletic academic facility is a game-changer

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WDRB photo by Eric Crawford. WDRB photo by Eric Crawford.
Louisville senior associate athletic director for student services Marvin Mitchell talks to reporters in the dining area of the new Thorntons Academic Center of Excellence at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford). Louisville senior associate athletic director for student services Marvin Mitchell talks to reporters in the dining area of the new Thorntons Academic Center of Excellence at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford).

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- If you do many of these athletic facility walk-throughs, you know that there are big reveal points, the “oooh” and “aaaah” moments. Maybe it’s a Jumbotron. Maybe it’s a skybox. Maybe it’s a lounge.

On Wednesday, at the University of Louisville’s unveiling of its new $18.5 million Thorntons Academic Center of Excellence, those moments were smaller in scale. But they were not smaller in significance.

Most fans will never see the inside of this building. And from the outside, it doesn’t look like much, a wall of glass encasing the south end of Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. But inside, the facility includes more than 43,000 square feet of space -- that’s more square footage than you’ll find in Grawemeyer Hall, the school’s administration building.

The Thinker would be at home in here. As Marvin Mitchell, U of L’s senior associate athletic director for student services and diversity, led a tour through the building, he did not fail to hit the high points.

The movable (and dockable) flat-screen monitors. The desks that adjusted to smaller frames or Matz Stockman-sized standing work areas. The mobile whiteboards that could be linked to create a privacy wall.

Mitchell got excited talking about the facility having more square footage than first planned, making room for extra tutoring rooms or offices for graduate assistants.

The academic affairs offices for U of L athletics have been a far-flung array of outposts around campus. Some have been in the Student Activities Center, some in the Schennelberger Complex, others in various athletic facilities.

What this building accomplishes is bringing them all together -- and collecting U of L’s athletes in one place, every day.

The centerpiece of the facility is an athletics-only dining hall, staffed with chefs and complete with an ice cream bar. There’s an adidas lounge for relaxing. And there are all manner of study areas, from secluded carrels to open desks overlooking Churchill Downs. There are conference rooms and offices for academic advisers, tutors and specialists of all kinds.

“It really creates a village for our athletes,” U of L athletic director Tom Jurich said. “It may be the finest facility that we’ve build, and certainly one of the most important projects we’ve undertaken in our time here. We wanted something for all our athletes. We’re spread all over the place, with the KFC Yum! Center Downtown and the Yum! Center on campus and other facilities, we wanted one place where they could all go, starting in the morning at six and going to whenever they close here.”

Probably more than any stadium or practice facility, this structure changes the daily lives of athletes at the university. There’s a 204-seat auditorium, large enough to hold athletes for the various special speakers or presentations U of L brings in periodically. Included in that is an 18.5 foot-by-10.5-foot screen and projection system.

There’s not a lot of glamor to be had in building something like this. I would imagine it’s a boon for recruiting, once the parents of athletes begin to see it.

“I believe it’s one of the best facilities of its kind in the country,” Mitchell said. “We did everything we could to think of every little detail we could.”

Alyssa Murphy, director of student athlete leadership and development, has a large office just off of the dining hall. Her job is to help athletes plan for their lives after college sports.

This is not the kind of facility that usually brings donors running. It’s not a facility that’s going to get a lot of national TV time. It’s not going to get your name out there. But Matt Thornton and his family took the lead on giving for the facility. One way they raised funds was to match donations people made at the gas pumps at their Thorntons locations throughout the region.

People laughed when they heard it. This building, however, is no joke. Jurich raised money by teaming with Maker’s Mark on some commemorative bottles. Stites and Harbison donated $2 million. Republic Bank was a major donor, as was Enterprise Rent-A-Car.

You have to get creative sometimes. Jurich, his son Mark, and the rest of U of L’s development team, did that.

“We always want to be proactive,” Jurich said. “We always want to be out front and cutting edge. That’s why we took so long on this. We wanted all the bells and whistles. But we wanted to be efficient. Every space has its purpose. It was expensive to build, but we wanted to go that extra mile.”

I believe the word I’m looking for here is infrastructure. You won’t see this building or even hear about it very often. But as a foundation for what U of L athletics is trying to do as it acclimates to its new Atlantic Coast Conference home, this is the kind of facility that gives the effort credibility beyond wins and losses. This once was a school that was chastised on "60 Minutes" in the late 1980s for not doing right by its basketball players academically. It is, both in athletics and in the university as a whole, a new world.

Stadium expansions are nice. They will always happen, as long as the money is around to support them. But this expansion, which builds in, and adds substance, is every bit as important.


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