Athletics’ Director Jeremy Foley and Executive Associate Athletics Director for Internal Affairs Chip Howard presented the UAA board with a tentative plan Friday estimated to cost around $100 million to the facilities for three of Florida’s biggest sports on campus. This compliments the $107 million that is in the process of being spent on renovations to Florida’s Stephen C. O’Connell Center and other various sporting areas on campus.
According to Foley, this is a plan that is about to get some traction that has been a work in progress for over 12 months.
On tap for the various sports are tremendous upgrades that should settle a lot of the arguments against the lack of nice facilities for some of the Gators sports. The football program will finally get its own standalone facility, putting it on par with other prominent programs in the SEC and nationally.
The baseball stadium will get a total remake which will include club seats and a roof over a lot of the seating in the park. Both dugouts and locker rooms (home and away) will be expanded, and the media area will also get an upgrade.
The softball stadium will add a tremendous amount of seating, better media area, new locker rooms for both teams, and just an overall fix to fit the growth of the program at Florida.
Finally, an athletes’ only dining hall will be added adjacent to the new football facility to help the nutrition efforts of all the athletic programs on campus.
Foley made it clear to say that the announcement on Friday is about concepts. They still have to raise the funds and select the different designs and builders for the various projects.
“You have to raise the money, you have to find the money, you have to design these things, there’s a huge process on campus - so these things are not getting built tomorrow,” Foley said. “To get these things moving (the board meeting) has to happen and we want fans to get excited about it. This stuff’s legit and we have a history here of when we make a move we go get it done, so I’m confident we’ll get these things done.
One complication that seems minor in light of everyone’s expected excitement is the impending retirement of Foley, who is scheduled to have a successor by the end of this month.
Certainly as it relates to my situation, a new athletic director is going to bring these things home, obviously with Chip and the rest of the staff around here. But I think there’s a lot of momentum building in our program on different levels and I think these things are going to keep us moving forward, so we’re excited about them, we’re excited about them.”
It is just an estimate, but Foley put a nice round number on the totality of the different facilities.
“On individual facilities, obviously a little early but we’re going to tell people. I’m guesstimating, $100 million,” Foley said. “How that divides up is probably a little early to tell. But it’s kind of like the O’Connell Center was going to be 50 and it turned out to be 65, so I think $100 million is probably a good number. That’s what we’re thinking.”
The University Athletic Association, under Foley’s leadership, has done a good job of staying out of the red when it comes to the budget. Currently at approximately $96 million in debt, there is a quick plan to pay that off. Other prominent programs are in the 200 and 300 million dollar area and climbing in terms of debt, Foley said Florida will stay far away from that, but likely still have to have a collaboration of funding from boosters and some long term debt to pull this off.
“It’s probably going to be a combination of borrowing some money there, but we’re going to have to raise some money too,” Foley said. “We’re not going to go into significant (debt). You know how we feel about that, I think it’s prudent. We’ve done a really good job managing our debt. Some people don’t understand that.
“The new guy could have a new philosophy, and obviously that is his call. But I do think there will be some debt funded here and obviously it is going to depend on some fund-raising efforts, as well, which we have a history of doing well. We have a great booster group here. Every facility we’ve built here since I’ve been around has probably been a combination of both.”
One of the main reasons in bringing Steve Spurrier back is to help in areas of fund raising. Foley believes he and Spurrier can help spearhead that area for this particular venture.
“That’s my goal,” Foley said of helping in the fund raising area. “I mean, again when a new person gets in the chair, if they want to do that themselves or don’t think I’m effective … we’ve had this conversation before. I’m going to do whatever I can to help the program move forward. I know a lot of people. I obviously have 40 years of history around here, but I’m going to take direction from somebody else. I just want to help. I think Coach (Steve) Spurrier can help with these things too. All of these things will come together in the next several months, but what has to happen first is our board needs to know what we’re doing and they have to say, we like these concepts. Obviously at some point it’s going to have to go back to the board, the Board of Trustees has to be involved, the university has to be involved. We just don’t build buildings around here. There’s a process that you have to go through.”
McElwain’s vision for his football program…
Head football coach Jim McElwain has never really come out and said what he would like with new facilities, but he has mentioned quite often that there needs to be a facelift in that area involving Florida football, Foley made it quite clear that the things they’re doing are in line with the vision that McElwain has for the football program but not just for his time as coach, but beyond that.
That now includes a stand-alone football facility that will house a football only weight room, an everyday use locker room, meeting rooms, coaches’ offices, and more. The building will also now have convenient access to the practice fields so the players and staff can roll right from meetings to the practice field.
“Where the building is going to be, it’s going to be a stand-alone, it’s going to be down where the throw area is now on the track,” Foley said about the rea just west of the current practice fields at Florida. I think it will be everything that we need, that Mac has envisioned. But that’s where that’s going to go. We’re gonna build a dining hall, for all of our athletes, I think that’s way the world is headed, and I think we can take a look at what we’ve done in the Hawkins Center and what we’ll do with the dining hall and these other facilities, but really, student athletes will come here and see how we’re committed to their total development as student athletes. We have a dining hall now, we have a separate facility that we use, it’s just not very big, and not really what we need so this will be part of this project as well. Obviously it helps all sports. We’re not having a separate dining facility for any sport, it’s a whole UAA dining facility, so and that will be adjacent to where the football is, which is center in the middle to what we’re doing, every program can walk to the dining hall, like I said that’s a win-win.”
One thing McElwain has desired is a place of convenience and closeness. In the winding halls of the offices at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, the staff and players are hallways and elevators away from being able to communicate. Most of the top programs out there have a common type area that is the break between teacher and pupil. This will be as close as you can get from a proposed 100,000 square foot facility.
“I think Mac's goal is to have a collaborative area so that you're not walking down a long hallway just to his office,” Chip Howard said. “We've worked with him and what his goals were and where his office would be and go off from there. Have the coordinators and have meeting rooms right up there close so that the coaches' offices are there, adjacent to the team meeting room. All of that is going to be on one floor."
The time has come where a standalone facility just makes sense. That has more to do with McElwain’s vision of things than anything, but just readjusting the existing facilities at the stadium wasn’t going to fulfill that vision. But don’t expect waterfalls and laser beams to permeate the new building.
“We’re gonna build something really nice,” Foley said. “We’re not big bells and whistle people. The fact of the matter, to fulfill Coach McElwain’s vision, we don’t have enough space (in the stadium). And you know something, we could have knocked down some walls here, and we probably could have spent $20 million dollars, $25 million dollars, done some different things. We got some room to expand offices and we could have, you know something, after spending 25, you would have had something that was just OK. Just nice. Who wants to spend that kind of money and say it’s nice. We have never done that around here. We’ll build something that the football team can really use and be really good. That’s kind of what we do.
Howard went into more of the specifics.
“It’ll have all of the elements that they’re going to need,” the man responsible for overseeing most of the UAA facilities said. “They’re going to have a team locker room, weight room, training room, wet area, team meeting rooms, offices, recruiting lounge, open foyer area for display of trophies. Team meeting room itself, so that you cannot outside of what they would normally have, the regular team meeting room, they would have a team meeting room just for the coaches and the players to individually meet. So I think it’s going to have all of the elements that you would want in a facility.
O’Sullivan will get a lot of his wishes too…
Of great importance was taking care of an old stadium and surrounding facilities for the baseball program, The concepts for that upgrade are dramatic and are justified by the program that head coach Kevin O’Sullivan has built at Florida.
O’Sullivan was approached by Texas in the offseason and was reportedly offered a seven figure salary to coach the Longhorns program. He turned that down and it isn’t too hard to assume a lot of that had to do with the direction Foley and company were already walking with in terms of facilities upgrades.
“We talked about it,” Foley said of O’Sullivan and possibility of leaving for a place with better duds. “I’m not going to say that he decided to stay because of a facility but part of the conversation was a commitment. He goes around this league and sees what he plays in on the road, there’s pretty good facilities around the country. He’s not banging on the tables saying I need new facilities to be successful because he’s already been pretty successful with what we have. More than anything else I would say it’s important because we looked him in the eye and said, you know, we hear you. We’ve got to bring your facility up to speed.”
Howard got more into the specifics of what to expect from the baseball build.
“Baseball, expansion of the team areas,” Howard mentioned with an air of importance. “Jeremy talked about for this really to work, maintenance needs to go to another facility, another area on campus so it would expand the team areas that are currently there now. We’ll have a team meeting room, which they don’t have now. A team lounge. Locker room. Little bit more office space for some additional staff member. A new entryway that would come in. We’d have some seating behind home plate, maybe about four rows closer to the field behind home plate, which then allows you to expand the dugouts out. Renovate the press box.”
The club seating they hope will be a big sell and help drive some of the initial donations they need to get the entirety of the project underway.
“That’s where the lead gift’s going to come from,” Howard said. “Renovate the press box and then create bout 400 or so club seats that would be maybe up underneath the overhang and have a roof structure. Then in leftfield, probably bring this area up to the same level as the Dizney Plaza, so you don’t have all the step-downs and step-ups and make it more fan-friendly. In leftfield, you kind of have a little area there for fans in leftfield. I really think the components of it were what the fans need but also what Coach needs. Both of those are drivers to it.
The seating won’t be much more, but the fan experience should be much more enhanced.
"Probably about 6,000,” Howard said of the seating for the new ballpark. “I think we have some addition here where the press box was and some addition down here and then obviously the 400 club seats. So it will go from about 5,500 to about 6,000."
Taking care of Tim Walton and the multi-national champion Gators’ Softball Program
It is a little bit different story for the softball program. The program itself is only 21 years old, and so the facility isn’t so much old and outdated as just really not big enough to handle the success that the two national championships and other accomplishments. They need more space in a lot of places.
Howard discussed the details of what they are trying to accomplish with one of the higher profile sports on campus.
“Softball, a lot of what we've been talking about lately with our original study was expansion of the seating area, which we really need,” he said which will almost double in size to about 2500 capacity. “And then because of that, you need additional restrooms and concession spaces. A shading structure for three of the sections there behind home plate and to the first- and third-base side. Offices that would be down there, team locker rooms, visitor team locker room and a meeting room that could function during regionals as a media room for interviews after postseason. All those different elements, same type that are going into baseball, will be going into softball."