The way Jeremy Foley describes it, the planned $50 million facelift for the Stephen C. O'Connell Center that will begin relatively soon will be more than simply putting lipstick on the pig. Foley says the O'Dome is going to be gutted on the inside and by the time the renovation is complete, Florida will have a basketball facility worthy of the teams Billy Donovan has been putting on the floor for years. The upgraded facility might have fewer seats overall, but it should be far more comfortable and there will probably be some plan for luxury boxes as a source of increased revenue. Instead of looking like a very big and very old high school gym on the inside, the O-Dome will have the look of a true basketball arena.
Florida under Donovan has become one of the nation's elite programs as witnessed by three straight runs to the Elite Eight Game capped by last season's trip to the Final Four. The Gators have won three of the last four Southeastern Conference championships and the Gators have been to more Final Fours (4) and won more national championships (2) than any team in the SEC including Kentucky since 2000. It's amazing that the Gators have accomplished all this playing in what can only be described as a substandard facility.
That will change during the 2015-16 season, but change will come with a price. Florida's volleyball and basketball teams will be traveling bands of gypsies in the fall of 2015. Volleyball might have the option of playing in old Florida Gym, but still, there will be more road matches than ever before for what is perennially a top five program. As for basketball, Foley says the Gators will spread home games prior to January throughout the state in Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville, Sunrise and perhaps Miami. Donovan and Foley are trying to put their best foot forward by saying it will be a good time for the Gators to connect with fans throughout the state.
But will it have an affect on Florida's season? Those pre-SEC games allow youngsters and veterans alike to grow accustomed to playing on their home floor and getting wins at this time plays into RPI and NCAA seeding in March. Will playing away from home for two months have an adverse affect on Florida's chances to earn a decent seed in March?
Under current NCAA guidelines, a team plays 30-32 games in the regular season. Florida plays an 18-game Southeastern Conference schedule so there will be 12-14 games played prior to the start of the conference portion of the season in January of 2016. Last season, the Gators played 13 non-conference games prior to the SEC schedule kicking in – eight at home, three on the road and two at neutral sites. Among the eight home games were contests with Kansas in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge and Florida State. The Gators will play at Kansas this fall and at FSU. FSU will be a home game for 2015-16 but the game will have to be played at a neutral site, which will definitely negate Florida's home court advantage.
This might be a time for the Gators to play at a tournament like the Maui Invitational or the San Juan Shootout or even the Milk Challenge in Orlando at the Disney complex. These are three-game events, typically against decent competition that can only help the RPI.
So, while O-Dome renovations are welcome and certainly necessary, they will come with another price that can't be determined just yet.
At a time when Texas A&M is spending $405 million to completely overhaul and expand Kyle Field to 102,500 and Arkansas is committing $300 million to continue to upgrade what are already the best facilities in the Southeastern Conference, you do have to wonder if Foley and the Gators need to take a more aggressive approach toward facilities. At best, Florida's facilities rank no better than middle of the SEC pack. Florida's facilities are good, but compared to the rest of the league, they aren't great. As long as Florida teams are winning at their current pace, perhaps the facilities aren't that big a deal, but as nearly every other school in the league engages in wholesale upgrades, how long will it be before Florida's facilities become an issue?
Foley has a well-deserved reputation as the best bottom line athletic director in the country and the coaches in all the sports at the University of Florida say if they don't lack for anything that helps them win. The athletic department operates at a surplus (in 2013 revenues were $120 million while expenses were $105 million per USAToday) that should increase with the additional revenues from the SEC Network (expected to be no less than $15 million per SEC school next year) and the college football playoff. Since debt service has been kept at a very manageable level, the additional revenues could be used to create a debt free University Athletic Association or they could be used to keep Florida at least even with the rest of the league through systematic upgrades at each athletic venue. For example, the baseball and softball stadiums could definitely use some covering, there are renovations to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium that could make it more fan friendly, and with the renovation of the O-Dome, there is now no indoor track facility for one of the top programs in the nation.
By August of 2015, Florida will be the only school in the SEC without an indoor practice facility for football. Foley's argument against such a facility is (a) where would we put it and (b) how many times would it be necessary to go indoors to practice? Argument A is legitimate since space is so limited and Foley wants to keep as many of the athletic facilities in as close proximity to BHG as possible. But, all you have to do is look at Kentucky and some other SEC facilities to see that the indoor football practice facility can double as an indoor track training facility and it can be used by soccer and lacrosse in cases of extreme weather. That would seem to negate argument B because the facility could help at least three other programs.
Another argument for such a facility is that Florida State has one and the Seminoles are already kicking butts on the recruiting trail. Will their indoor facility cause one or more recruits to pick FSU over Florida? If you don't think one or two recruits can make all the difference think back to 2006. Do the names Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin ring a bell? Suppose two recruits of that caliber were to choose FSU over Florida for lack of an indoor facility. Don't think it can happen? Think again. It does.
1. Arkansas: Top to bottom, the best facilities in the SEC and maybe even the nation. There is a $300 million master plan in place to keep the athletic plant the best. Currently, the football stadium is being expanded from 72,000 to 80,000. The basketball arena is the best in the SEC, track and field facilities are the best in the country and the baseball stadium is outstanding. As long as the Wal-Mart Waltons, the Reynolds Aluminum Reynolds and the Tyson Foods Tysons are competing for getting their name on facilities, Arkansas will remain at or close to the top.
2. Texas A&M: When the Kyle Field expansion/renovation is complete, the Aggies might surpass Arkansas for the best facilities in the league. The Kyle Field expansion – price tag $405 million – to 102,500 was paid for in cash by boosters who are trying to figure out what to do with all the profits from oil, gas and cows. Aggie boosters might have the deepest pockets in the country.
3. Auburn: Auburn's modern, efficient athletic plant got a nice jewel when eyesore Beard-Eaves Coliseum was ditched for a downsized (9,100), fan friendly facility four years ago. Jordan-Hare Stadium has the best sightlines of any stadium in the league. There isn't a second rate facility on campus.
4. Tennessee: A few years back, Neyland Stadium's capacity contracted from 107,000 to the current 102,000 but in doing so, the stadium was upgraded. Thompson-Boling Arena is the second best basketball facility in the league behind Arkansas. Since 2008, UT has opened up new tennis, basketball, swimming, golf and softball facilities while upgrading Neyland, Thompson-Boling and the baseball stadium.
5. (Tie) Alabama: As athletic department revenue has increased (it's now $143 million), Alabama has pumped approximately $300 million into facilities including the expansion to 101,000 of Bryant-Denny Stadium, renovation of Coleman Coliseum and the overhaul of Sewell-Thomas Baseball Stadium, which has just begun.
5. (Tie) LSU: A $75 million upper deck is being completed that will raise the capacity of Tiger Stadium to more than 100,000. Alex Box Stadium (opened 2009) is the nation's best college baseball stadium. The Maravich Center was renovated and capacity decreased from 15,000 to 13,127. A new softball stadium was also added in 2009.
7. Florida: Florida has done cosmetic improvements to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, expanded the baseball stadium and added a new lacrosse facility. The UF golf course is getting some much needed renovation and the O-Dome will get a facelift. BHG has plenty of character and history but it lags far behind Auburn and other stadiums as the best place to watch a football game. O-Dome renovations could get Florida into the upper half of the SEC for basketball (Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Texas A&M, South Carolina and Auburn are #1-7 in the SEC). McKethan Stadium is at best seventh or eighth best in the SEC.
8. South Carolina: Rather than expand Williams-Brice Stadium by 10,000 seats with a new upper deck in the north end zone, the new plan is to add 2,500 to 4,000 luxury seats. A $14.5 million indoor practice facility is under contract with work set to begin this summer. The baseball and softball stadiums are outstanding and a new tennis facility was opened in 2013. The soccer facilities are also outstanding.
9. Georgia: A $10 million renovation of the baseball stadium is already under way and the money is being raised to build an indoor practice facility for football. It is expected that a plan to expand Sanford Stadium to 102,000 will be approved. Georgia has the best tennis facilities in the country and the golf course (renovated in 2006) is as good as any university owned facility in the country.
10. Missouri: Missouri has nearly all of its facilities in an athletic park that has room for expansion. Currently, $102 million is being spent on Faurot Field that will increase capacity to 77,000. There are further plans to expand the stadium to 90,000 in the near future. Missouri's 15,000-seat basketball arena replaced the old Hearnes Center, which was converted into a volleyball, track and wrestling facility.
11. Kentucky: Commonwealth Stadium is being upgraded while at the same time downsized to 61,000. A new basketball arena was suggested but instead $400 million – some of it paid for by a tax for residents of Lexington and Lafayette County – will be spent to renovate Rupp Arena. Another $32 million is being sought to build a new baseball stadium to replace outdated Cliff Hagan Stadium. Kentucky opened a new outdoor track and field facility in 2012 and a new softball stadium in 2013.
12. Ole Miss: A brand new basketball arena is being built and Vaught-Hemingway Stadium is expanding to more than 70,000 (current capacity 60,000). The football stadium will be a complete bowl. The baseball stadium was upgraded to include club seating in 2009.
13. Mississippi State: Davis-Wade Stadium is being renovated and expanded to seat 61,337 by the time the season begins in August at a cost of more than $75 million.
14. Vanderbilt: Even with the recent football success, Vanderbilt hasn't poured a lot of money into upgrading facilities, which overall rank last in the SEC. The weight room has been upgraded and new football offices were considered a significant step forward, but Vanderbilt Stadium is still the smallest in the league and Memorial Gym is as funky as ever.
Should Florida designate a portion of the increased revenues from the SEC Network to substantially upgrade all the athletic facilities on campus?
The California Honeydrops are a recent musical discovery of mine. They have a very New Orleans sound to their unique style of 1960s-70s style soul. They are a part of a growing musical movement that is called Americana. The band is currently embarked on an extensive US tour tour that will bring them to Memphis (June 22) and Asheville (June 24). The band has put out four albums, the most recent "Like You Mean It" which was released in April of 2013. This is the Honeydrops' tribute to the late, great Bobby "Blue" Bland.