With four days left until the season opener against Louisiana-Lafayette, it’s not an exaggeration to say work is happening around the clock at Commonwealth Stadium. Construction crews are putting the finishing touches on the $120 million renovation to the stadium, a project two years in the making; however, there’s another crew working after hours this week, not for a paycheck, but for pride.
Last night, 75 volunteers from the athletic department, the women’s basketball team, and the softball team took time out of their day to help out, cleaning the new suites, the press box, the stairwells, and the new seats all around the stadium to make sure it’s ready by Saturday. After seeing pictures of the women’s basketball team cleaning the stadium on social media, I spoke to Guy Ramsey, Director of Strategic Communication for UK, to get the scoop. He said that last night’s cleaning session, the first of many scheduled for this week, was the brainchild of Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart, who sent an email out to the entire department last week.
“Early last week, Mitch sent an email out to all staff saying basically, ‘If you can help, we’d love you to. We know everyone is busy right now, but if you’re available, please do it,'” Ramsey said, noting that the athletics department put out a similar call to arms to finish John Cropp Stadium, the softball complex, back in 2013. The response then was so impressive that Ramsey wasn’t surprised to see 75 people show up at 6 p.m. last night ready to clean.
After eating some pizza, the volunteers split into different teams for different tasks, ranging from wiping down new seats in the premium areas to cleaning counters and cabinets in the suites and press box to vacuuming stairwells. Essentially, if there’s an area in which the major construction work is finished, volunteers can now move in to start cleaning.
UK Hoops senior point guard Janee Thompson was up in the suites with some of her teammates and told me she was blown away by how nice everything looked.
“We were up in the suites cleaning the cabinets and refrigerators, and it looks so nice in there. I kind of wish I could get my own suite, but I know that’s way out of my price range,” she laughed. “It looks really nice and I can’t wait for the first football game.”
When she walks into the stadium on Saturday, Thompson said she’ll definitely have a sense of pride knowing she played a small part in getting the stadium ready.
“When I go out to the games, I’ll definitely think about that and I’ll think about how my teammates were playing in the bleachers down below where our fans will be sitting. It’s something that will cross my mind as I’m sitting and watching the first game.”
A collective effort
Both Ramsey and Thompson said putting in the extra elbow grease to get Commonwealth Stadium ready was a rewarding reminder that even though they’re all on different teams, ultimately, they’re working towards the same goal. After all, football is the primary money maker for the department.
“It’s all for one,” Ramsey said. “We’re all working on different things. We have our common purposes in mind, but sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees, so when you’re doing something like this, you realize it’s a collective effort. We’re all working towards the same thing, all trying to put a good product out on the field for our fans to enjoy and give our student-athletes and coaches the opportunity to exceed at the highest level. It’s a pretty cool thing to be on the same page with that.”
“It’s always nice to be able to help out another program because at the end of the day, we’re all on the same team. We’re all Wildcats,” Thompson said, noting that she had some girls from the softball team in her group. “It was nice to spend time with them and talk to them while cleaning and being able to help out the football team at the same time.”
When I mentioned that the football team should repay the favor in November by cleaning Memorial Coliseum, she laughed.
“That would be funny. I don’t think we need as much cleaning though.”
Over the weekend, the baseball team came out to lend a hand, scraping off old seat numbers so new ones could be put down. As part of the renovation, the entire stadium was re-numbered, meaning 61,000 stickers had to be scraped off with razors and replaced with new labels. It’s been a long and exhausting process headed primarily by the UK Ticket office and K-Fund staff, who are in the stands three nights a week to get it done.
Overseeing a legacy
No one is more involved than Barnhart. Ramsey said he’s a constant presence at the stadium, spending over fifteen hours there yesterday. Thirteen years into his tenure at UK, the Commonwealth Stadium renovation is Barnhart’s legacy, a fact that’s become especially clear in recent months.
“He was over here the entire day, walking around talking to construction workers, doing work himself,” Ramsey said. “His wife, Connie, was out here last night, cleaning off seats. As I was leaving last night around 11 p.m., I saw him walking out. He’s pretty much here all day. He’s leading the effort.”
In fact, Ramsey said that while the volunteers were getting their cleaning assignments last night, Barnhart kept chiming in with suggestions and prioritizing areas that needed to be worked on first.
“Mitch could not be more all over it. This is the thing on his mind right now,” Ramsey said. “He’s been wanting to get this done for a really long time and he wants to get it done the right way because it’s been a lot of work for a lot of people to get to this point. Everyone had a role in getting it done and he wants to make sure it’s a special day and a special season and we can enjoy this stadium for a really long time to come.”
How much work is left to do?
That’s the $120 million dollar question, and although Ramsey said the stadium won’t be 100% by Saturday, it will be close.
“We’re going to be ready to play a game in there. There’s no doubt about that,” Ramsey said, admitting that the two-year timeline for the renovation was a bit ambitious. “Bottom line, this is a project that’s for generations, it’s not for one game. There are things we’re going to be putting finishing touches on probably for a while and we’ve always known that. It’s just a matter of figuring out what those are going to be.”
Ramsey said the parking lots are almost done, with asphalt going down yesterday; the sidewalks are good to go; and the asphalt in the concourses went down today. Although it may seem in pictures like there’s a lot of work to do in the concourses, Ramsey insisted it’s not as bad as it looks. “The big obstacle is stuff that’s in there, but that’s just the concessionaire using it as a staging area. It looks just the same as it does before any game. Really, it’s just a matter of cleaning stuff out.”
Ramsey said that the department had originally asked volunteers to come out from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday this week, but the response has been so good they’ll probably work Thursday and Friday nights as well. The tasks may seem menial, but they’re finding ways to have fun. The UK student-athlete orientation took place on the field at Commonwealth last night, so volunteers were able to enjoy the music from the loudspeakers while they cleaned.
There’s also the added bonus of seeing your coworkers in a new environment. Ramsey said the group got a kick out of watching Matthew Mitchell and Rachel Lawson clean, especially since Lawson was operating one of the high-powered vacuums that straps to your back, making the softball coach look like a Ghostbuster. “We’re hoping to get more music tonight, but that was entertainment enough,” Ramsey laughed.
“It was fun enough just to be around each other,” Thompson said. “We were talking about a million different things and it almost didn’t seem like work. We were having fun with each other and before we knew it, our time was up.”
Last night, the volunteers were able to wrap up three hours of work in just over two hours, meaning everyone got to go home early. Except for one group who refused to stop.
“There was a group of eight people that included some people from the business office, media relations and Coach Lawson that were carrying around vacuums,” Ramsey said. “They saw a stairwell and wanted to start cleaning it. We saw them getting ready to do it and told them to save it for tomorrow. They said, ‘No, we’re already here, we’re going to do it,’ so they went ahead and cleaned it out on their own even though they had been dismissed.”
All in, indeed.