LEXINGTON, Ky. – The Nutter Training Facility is the hub of Kentucky football. It houses coaching offices, meeting rooms and the team's main locker room. Almost year-round, the building is somewhat of a second home to players and coaches, save for a short window of time right after the end of the spring semester.
During those two weeks, the Wildcats get a brief break from organized team activities and most head home for a little rest and relaxation. This May, Nutter was abuzz with activity during that fortnight as a major project to upgrade the building was undertaken, all without the players discovering a thing about it.
Keeping a secret from an entire football team is no small feat, particularly one this big, but the UK staff and administration managed to pull it off. When players reported to campus, they stepped into a building that had undergone a major facelift.
Center Matt Smith was among a small group to get a sneak preview. He was returning from a service trip to Ethiopia and the first thing he saw upon arriving back in Lexington - other than the airport and the inside of a car - was a new-look Nutter.
"Right when I got back from Africa, I got picked up at the airport and brought straight back (to Nutter)," Smith said. "Me, Mikie (Benton) and Larry (Warford) were probably the first three to see it of the players. It just blew us away. I was in here left and right taking pictures of everything and going home and showing my family."
The changes are mainly cosmetic, but that doesn't mean they're not meaningful. Walls that were once grey are now vibrant blue, white and silver, emblazoned with "Operation: Win" slogans, words from the UK fight song or images of current and past players.
For fans, the first thought that comes to mind upon learning of any such renovation is, "How will it help recruiting?" This project is the eighth major facility upgrade in as many years, and there's no question they have paid off on the trail.
"They're making those updates every year and it's really helping with recruiting," Smith said. "We've got a lot of good young guys that have come here that say that they love the way everything's laid out."
Smith and fellow senior La'Rod King, who together served as guides for a media tour of Nutter were sure to talk about what a difference this round of upgrades will make with future players, but they were just as adamant about what it means to current Wildcats.
"They really spruced it up," Smith said. "They spent a lot of money and a lot of time doing this. It's really awesome that the coaches are doing this for us...It shows a huge commitment."
Smith and King were visibly energized by the sharp new digs, especially King, who was almost bouncing off the walls. Whether they were pointing to a wall that shows all UK's players in the NFL or a graphic laying out the Kentucky's bowl history, the two seniors harped on the responsibility they feel to live up to the dedication their school demonstrated to them. That's an attitude that has permeated UK's group of veterans.
"We've really talked to the seniors about stepping things up," Smith said. "We don't want another season like last year. We felt we got too comfortable and we got to be on our toes and keep everybody going as hard as they can."
King has already come to the sobering realization that this year is his final chance to suit up as a Wildcat, but that realization is also driving him.
"It's exciting and it's depressing at the same time," King said. "This is my last go-round, but at the same time, I'm going to go out with a bang."
Fall camp doesn't begin for over a month, but the team is already working with strength and conditioning coach Rock Oliver intensively. Oliver's NFL background showed results over the past two years, but this summer, he is implementing a refined plan complete with more position-specific drills and workouts.
"You don't see linemen running 60 yards down the field, so it doesn't make sense for us to go and do 100-yard sprints, 60-yard sprints when we could be working on our footwork and explosion off the ball," Smith said. "We really switched things up this year and we're hoping it will help on the field."
The first chance the Cats will have to show off their improvement will come against Louisville in a season-opening game that is already surrounded by plenty of hype almost three months before kickoff. Smith, a Louisville native, knows all about the Governor's Cup and is already itching to play the Cardinals for the final time. He was relatively low-key throughout the tour, but he got excited in describing a wall dedicated to UK's in-state rival.
In answering questions after the tour, he was sure to clarify that the focus is on the season as a whole, but it's no coincidence he knows exactly how many days there are before Sept. 2.
"We have 78 days to prepare for them and to prepare for the rest of our season," Smith said. "We're taking things on ourselves. We're working on what we're going to do and when we get close to that game, we'll start working on them."
List of Football Facility Projects: As noted above, UK has completed eight football facility projects in the last eight years:
• New locker room complex, consolidating the team into one locker room
• New playing surface
• New video boards and audio system
Nutter Field House
• New playing surface
Nutter Training Facility
• New practice field complex, including two grass fields, one artificial field and stadium lights
• New locker room
• New team and position meeting rooms, featuring state-of-the art video
• Redecoration of facility