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Uncommon upgrades: Major facility changes in full swing for UK football

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Construction crews have been at work on Commonwealth Stadium renovations since December. (Photo via Bell Engineering) Construction crews have been at work on Commonwealth Stadium renovations since December. (Photo via Bell Engineering and taken in July 2014)
Russ Pear doesn't have the problem of the 9-to-5 grind, of waking up and realizing he's facing another boring day at the office.

It's quite the opposite, in fact.

When Pear -- UK's senior associate athletics director for facilities and operations -- arrives at work in the morning, he never knows what to expect. There's no such thing as a routine when you're managing the $100 million-plus renovation of Commonwealth Stadium.

"Some days, I think is this going to be different or a typical day, and there haven't been typical days," Pear said.

Pear -- who has moved his office from the Joe Craft Center to the bowels of Commonwealth during construction -- might not know what he'll be doing on any given day, but he knows exactly what his responsibilities are.

"My role in this whole project is making sure that our athletics department interest in what the project is about and how it moves along are kept always at the forefront of what is happening," Pear said.

In essence, Pear's job is to ensure that the vision for The New CWS, unveiled in November 2013, becomes reality. All those pretty pictures fans saw, Pear works closely with contractors to make sure they come to life.

That means there's a lot of information rattling around Pear's head and even more papers stacked in, around and on top of his desk.

"The documents -- there are 1,000 or so pages of the actual plans on all the different parts of this project," Pear said. "Just making sure I know where things are (is important). I obviously don't know every single page and every single in and out, but I know where to look. I am listening in on meetings and listening to contractor meetings and they are talking about this or that and I am like, 'OK, why are we doing that?' and making sure that our interests are being met."

Of course, there's still a long way to go in that process.

Photo by Britney Howard, UK Athletics Photo by Britney Howard, UK Athletics and taken in May 2014
The transformation of the longtime home of Kentucky football won't be complete until UK's 2015 home opener. That's when fans will enjoy the more intimate and intimidating game day atmosphere of the new CWS and its new concourses, concessions, restrooms and premium seating areas. That's when players will begin to benefit from new home-team facilities. That's when future Wildcats will be hosted in a new state-of-the-art recruiting room.

To get to that point, construction crews broke ground immediately after the end of the 2013 season. Wasting no time getting to work, they began the first of three phases of the project.

From December 2013 to August 29, 2014 -- the day before UK's 2014 season opener against UT Martin -- it's all about laying foundations, both literally and figuratively, for the rest of the renovation.

Through the winter and spring, crews excavated large portions of concourses throughout the stadium to begin utility work and demolished the President's Room on the South side of the stadium to make way for the Field Level Club that will be located in its place when the new stadium opens in 2015. In its place, crews have drilled through 11 feet of dirt and 13 feet of rock to create the foundation for new premium seating areas. Also gone are the concession stands under the East end zone and light poles on both the North and South sides of the stadium.

In the summer months, steel work was the priority. In mid-June, the steel that will eventually support the new suites, press box and two elevator towers was set on the South side of the stadium. On the North side, steel supporting the new upper-level concourse also was set.

All this work, however, had to be undertaken with an awareness that UK still has to play seven home games in an under-construction facility in 2014. Fortunately, Pear has some experience on that front.

During the last two years, UK has put the finishing touches on adjoining new softball and soccer stadiums. In both cases, the teams had to play regular-season games before the projects were completed, including when women's soccer hosted an NCAA Tournament game in November.

"The first thing is all about safety and getting people in and out," Pear said. "I've told our contractors all along, if there is a ceiling or some siding that you need to take out or you need to do something up temporary to make this process continue along, do it."

What that means is Commonwealth won't always look its best in 2014. Customer service, however, won't suffer.

"When we get to the press box, we may not have ceiling tiles in there," Pear said. "It may not look like we would normally want the presentation in those kinds of spaces. Now the concourses need to be clean. Amenities and seating and all the things that we normally do -- everything needs to be just like they always are."

Fans will need to be aware of a few changes that will affect them though.

Rows 22-39 in sections 219-232 will be unavailable for the 2014 season, but fans with season tickets in those areas have already chosen news seats. Beyond that, Gates 10 and 11 will be closed throughout the season. All fans coming into the South side will have to enter through Gates 9 and 12. Gates 2, 3, 4, 6, 7 and 9 are all accessible, but guests are encouraged to follow the direction of traffic control/safety staff to ensure safe entry and exit through construction fencing.

Once inside, fans will be able to access all concourses, though some will be narrower.

"The east side -- most of those gates (14 & 15) will all be still in place, but we will be building underneath the East end zone with the recruiting room and team space that is located under the lower East seating sections," Pear said. "You will be able to walk all the way around the stadium inside, using the lower concourse. There won't be any closed off portions of the lower concourse like we experienced during the spring game. However, in some areas concourses will be narrower."

During the 2014 season, the second phase of construction will begin. Working mostly in the upper level, crews will be preparing for the cold winter months.

"Then the reality is when the second phase of things are happening ... we will be continuing to work and continuing to do things especially up in that upper tower," Pear said. "At that point we are starting to get a lot of drywall up and a lot of things that have to happen to get enclosed so when we get to the winter months we are working inside."

If it isn't clear from Pear's words, there isn't a moment to spare. That's why Pear was so happy when he saw UK's 2014 schedule. The Cats will play their final home game on Nov. 8, a full three weeks earlier than if they were hosting a home game on the regular season's last week.

"That was a big help and that gives us another whole month of what we consider to be some good weather that should help the schedule," Pear said. "Now, I tried to convince Mitch (Barnhart) to see if we could get next season to start sometime in October, but I knew that wasn't going to happen."

Once the season ends and weather permitting, it's full steam ahead on the final phase of the project.

In case that wasn't enough for Pear to think about, $45 million in funding for a new football practice facility was approved in January by the UK Board of Trustees. Barnhart, when funding was secured, talked about the importance of creating a "one-stop shop" for the football program with the entire operation moving adjacent to Commonwealth at the existing Nutter Field House. Pear reinforced that point.

"You are lifting in the weight room and instead of having to go across the road to get over here you are going right in there," Pear said. "To have this whole football operation in one place will be a huge advantage for our overall program in time-saving and perception."

Pear has spent a good chunk of time meeting to make sure he has a handle on the needs that must be satisfied through the project. Now comes the time when decisions are made about how that gets done.

"We have had the input of the coaches and staff into the spaces we need," Pear said. "We don't know exactly where the spaces are going to be."

Pear estimated that initial renderings for the practice facility will be complete in the "next few months." In the meantime, he has plenty to work on and plenty to be excited about at Commonwealth.

"As we have talked about it and what Mitch has as the goal of this whole project is that we are touching our whole clientele, which for us is our fan base," Pear said. "All of our fans will have the amenities that will be better than what we had before.

"Then (we will address) what we are doing as far as the student-athlete. What is it that will make student-athletes and especially recruits, come in here and take a look at this and look at the recruiting room and look at the space we are creating underneath and look at the improvements we have made to this stadium? Hopefully they say this is a great place to be and a great place to play college football."

This story appears in the Official University of Kentucky Football Yearbook. The yearbook features stories on UK's recruiting success and High Performance program, as well as a season preview, game-by-game matchups and Q&As with players. You can buy it at Kroger locations throughout Kentucky, Fan Outfitters, Kennedy's Bookstore and online beginning this weekend at www.imgproducts.net.

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