Now that Kentucky has locked up baseball coach Gary Henderson with a five-year contract extension the school is taking aim at building a new stadium that would further invigorate the program.
Although the school is not yet ready to announce finalized plans for a new facility that would replace the Wildcats' current home, UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart acknowledged the department is working toward that goal. Barnhart has been earmarking money for the construction of a new facility, likely to be located off Alumni Drive near the existing soccer and softball complexes.
“Do we want a new stadium? Yes, we do,” Barnhart said.
While there is still ongoing discussion about whether the Cats could potentially upgrade and expand Cliff Hagan Stadium, sources told The Cats' Pause the clear preference is to start from scratch and build a new, state-of-the-art stadium and baseball complex. Cliff Hagan Stadium was originally built in 1969 and has undergone three renovations, the most recent coming in 2007.
“I'm very optimistic we are going to improve our facilities,” Henderson said. “I've had several talks with Mitch and he's absolutely behind it. I understand the climate we're dealing with financially right now but I also understand Mitch's commitment and I feel very good we're going to move in a positive direction.”
Bonding issues at the state government level have also hindered the UK athletics department's ability to press forward with large scale renovations to Commonwealth Stadium, which was also a part of a plan several years ago where IMG and UK had hoped to partner in an effort to upgrade the Cats' football home and replace Cliff Hagan Stadium all at once. That plan never came to fruition, which led Kentucky to seek more traditional ways to expand baseball's reach on campus and in the community.
“I've had some really good conversations with president (Eli Capilouto) about it, whether we upgrade or build something new, what the land use for that facility is for the university,” Barnhart said. “I want what's best for Gary and our program. How we fund that is really important. We've been setting money aside for it because of the bonding issues.”
Kentucky has long battled the issue of access and parking at its current stadium, which sits nestled between the football practice facility, outdoor track, several student housing complexes and a student housing parking lot. The Cats have a small practice infield behind the left field wall and a large garage down the right field line that features several indoor batting cages and pitching mounds. The locker room is located in a modest building beyond the outfield wall, but the coaches' offices are off-site at nearby Commonwealth Stadium.
A new stadium would solve all of those issues. The Alumni Dr. location would create more visibility, as well as allow the program to have all of its facilities, offices and locker rooms in a single place. It would also help the Cats keep pace with its Southeastern Conference counterparts.
“Your facility is a very important piece to recruiting,” Henderson said. “Every coach in our league, a BCS league, in all sports understands how important the facility piece is in the recruitment of players and their families. You have to make the adjustments to remain competitive in the recruiting battles because it's so important.”
The issues with Cliff Hagan Stadium became public once again when the NCAA Selection Committee opted not to award UK a regional host site in this year's NCAA Tournament, a decision that shocked Henderson and Barnhart, as well as officials from the SEC. While Barnhart said he was not told specifically that UK's facilities may have been an issue he did not want to provide more ammunition in the future.
“It certainly helps to be able to say we don't want to give (the NCAA) a reason to say we're not deserving of hosting a regional,” Barnhart said. “We were very deserving. You say, 'Well, it doesn't make a difference.' I don't know about that. We want to get the stadium fixed. (Baseball) deserves that.”
While there is no definitive timetable to announcing potential plans, sources have indicated there is optimism a facility project could move forward by the summer of 2013.