When discussion arose around the possible exodus of University of Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops for less blue pastures in December, one wish-list item continued to come up: a dedicated indoor training facility for the football team.
Currently, UK’s football team is one of three in the Southeastern Conference, along with Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, whose indoor turf is limited due to the presence of a surrounding track surface. Stoops’ latest extension was signed with a handshake agreement in place that, by sometime in the foreseeable future, that will no longer be the case.
While the school isn’t prepared to make a formal announcement — there are university protocols through which to go and logistics to determine — UK Director of Athletics Mitch Barnhart hopes that “within short order” there will be news to share on that matter.
“We’ve got some some folks that have come forward and said they want to help,” Barnhart told the Herald-Leader during an interview this week. “They’ve seen the success of football, and they’ve seen what Mark has done, and that has been the catalyst for them coming forward saying, ‘We’re ready to chip in and make this thing work.’ So we’re working really hard at that.”
Nutter Field House, Kentucky’s current indoor facility, probably will remain as the football team’s facility but will have turf applied to the entire floor surface in addition to upgraded amenities. A new facility would be built to accommodate the needs of other UK athletes who currently share Nutter with the football team, whose roster alone is about the same size, combined, of the other teams that frequently use the facility.
At the time of its construction in 1992, Nutter Field House was a state-of-the-art venue. College athletics in the 30 years since has seen an infusion of money and a heightened interest level that, for better or worse, has led to a very public instance of keeping up with the Joneses (or, Alabamas and Georgias).
“(Nutter) has served a lot of teams well. Track, softball, baseball, soccer (men’s), soccer (women’s) and football,” Barnhart said. “There’s a lot of folks in that building. So if we can find a way to create an indoor track and go wall to wall with turf, that would alleviate a lot of issues for us in terms of wear-and-tear on the building, number one. Number two, safety concerns. We want to make sure it’s safer. Number three, scheduling, just allowing our kids to be in other places and not have to all train in one spot all at the same times. That would be awesome.”
It’s not shocking that the latest retention of Stoops would prompt the reopening of wallets; he’s the driving force behind the most successful stretch in Kentucky football history since Paul “Bear” Bryant roamed the sidelines. Kentucky is coming off a 10-3 finish and a win over Iowa in the Citrus Bowl, its second time finishing with 10 wins and a marquee victory over a Big Ten foe in the last four years. Those moments bookend a stretch of four straight bowl wins (a school best) and 33 wins, good for a 66.6 percent win percentage in that time.
If Kentucky wins its first scheduled game against Miami (Ohio) this fall, Stoops will match Bryant for the school record for wins (60). If the Cats then win at Florida in week two, he’ll stand alone as Kentucky’s winningest coach. Barring a disaster of unforeseeable proportions, that honor will be his at some point in 2022.
Barnhart bet on Stoops, then a defensive coordinator at Florida State, in December 2012, in part because he sold a vision of what Kentucky football could be long-term instead of what it could be right away. Other coaches maybe could have won more quickly than Stoops did — his teams failed to qualify for a bowl in his first three seasons — but few probably would have stuck around for the long haul and put an SEC also-ran into the College Football Playoff discussion.
“He walked into a program that needed some help,” Barnhart said. “To rebuild our roster, to rebuild the culture of our program. To define who we are as a football program. There’s defining moments in every deal. We’ve been able to create a personality for our team, and it’s Mark’s personality. It’s tough. It’s defensive. We’re going to be strong in the lines. We’re going to have a ‘never quit’ mentality. Whatever players we have available, we’re going to come and play you. Whether it’s a wide receiver that’s playing quarterback or whatever it happens to be, we’re going to come.”