UT breaks ground on Pratt Pavilion

Tennessee's basketball players and coaches joined a host of donors, dignitaries and university officials Friday evening for the official groundbreaking ceremony for the long-awaited practice facility for the Vols and Lady Vols.

A trough of dirt was brought up from the site – the pavilion is on a fast-track construction plan – and the only thing bigger than the coaches' smiles was the ever-deepening pit for the Pratt Pavilion.

More than 200 people gathered under a ramp on the west side of Thompson-Boling Arena – where gold-colored shovels with orange handles were lined up near the trough – to hear from coaches Bruce Pearl and Pat Summitt, UT President John Petersen, Athletic Directors Joan Cronan and Mike Hamilton and Larry F. Pratt, a UT graduate and businessman whose $5 million donation jumpstarted the facility, which will bear his name.

The speeches were filled with praise, anecdotes and quips. Pearl said the sight of the facility site "touches my heart," and Summitt was delighted to be wrong for once, she said.

"I told Mike Hamilton I would never live to see a practice facility built here," Summitt said to much laughter.

Besides Pratt, the university received "leadership gifts" from Jim Haslam, Brenda Lawson and Robbie Nutt, among other donors, for the facility, which Summitt and Pearl both lauded as an edge in teaching current players and luring new ones to campus.

The 72,000-square-foot, $16 million pavilion – which was paid for completely with private money that has been banked, not just pledged – will have two gyms, one for both teams, and space allocated for sports medicine, strength training, film study and recruiting. It will be located on the west side of the arena with the facility's front door facing north to the intersection of Phillip Fulmer Drive and Lake Loudoun Boulevard. An underground parking garage can be accessed from the boulevard at the southern end. An enclosed ramp will connect the facility to the arena so the players and coaches can access it from the basketball offices. Its completion date is set for November 2007.

Pearl kicked off the series of speeches and relayed how he and Summitt personally went to Pratt for help.

"He saw something, and that was a need," Pearl said. "So I thank you so much Larry."

Pearl noted how he and Summitt have to move their teams from the arena to Stokely Athletics Center and work around each other's schedules and practice needs to get court time. Since the arena is a multipurpose facility, the teams can get bumped off "The Summitt" floor for other events such as circuses, rodeos, concerts and conventions. Stokely is used by the volleyball and indoor track teams so when basketball needs the center, too, everyone's schedule gets juggled.

Pearl likened the pavilion to a "new classroom" on campus because what he and Summitt essentially do is teach.

"What you see behind us is going to be a new classroom," Pearl said from the dais to those seated under the ramp. "I am so happy for Pat. She wanted this facility for a long time."

Cronan went next and also lauded Pratt, telling him, "Larry, what a difference you've made. This is a dream."

"Pat Summitt has wanted this for a long time and if you know Pat Summitt, you know I've heard about it for a long time," Cronan said as those gathered laughed, especially Summitt.

"This building couldn't happen without this lady on my left," Cronan said motioning to Summitt. "She is an icon … She will go down in history, men or women, as the best."

Summitt followed Cronan and after pointing out how she was wrong about a facility not being built in her lifetime, she next pointed to the men's and women's players who were among those seated in the crowd and said: "We're proud of how you represent us." She thanked the seniors, who won't get to use the facility, for their on-court contributions to make it possible.

Summitt then told a story about recruiting former Lady Vol Kara Lawson, who was in town and attended the groundbreaking ceremony, and how a school that had a practice facility used it to try to lure Lawson away from Tennessee.

"They did remind Kara that we didn't have a practice facility," Summitt said of Duke, which was heavily recruiting the guard. "When she told me that I had another selling point."

Donors Brenda Lawson (no relation to Kara) and Nutt were on the dais, and Summitt took the time to thank both women for their dedication to women's sports. Summitt announced that the Lady Vols locker room in the facility would be named for Nutt, and the women's practice floor would bear Brenda Lawson's name.

Summitt, who has coached her teams in three facilities since she started at Tennessee more than three decades ago – Alumni Gym, Stokely and Thompson-Boling – closed her remarks with a quip to Pearl that brought a roar of laughter: "We can practice at the same time. You just have to tone it down."

Petersen next addressed the group and – praising the donors – pointed out that "it's people that really make an institution. … I'm just proud to be associated with this institution."

Hamilton followed Petersen and started off with an enthusiastic endorsement of the game.

"I love basketball, and I am so excited about being here today," he said. "The credit really belongs to the donors. … It's fully funded, and it's a year away from being complete."

The last speaker was Pratt, who got a standing ovation from those assembled on the dais and in the seats. Pratt is a 1972 graduate of Tennessee who is president and CEO of First Savings Mortgage Corporation, the largest private mortgage bank in the Washington, D.C., area. His father, the late Floyd Pratt, began bringing his son to Tennessee sporting events when Larry Pratt was a child.

"We look at this as not really a donation; we look at this as an investment," Pratt said.

He cited Candace Parker and Chris Lofton - who were on the dais as the player representatives -and their teammates and "those that are going to come after you" as deserving of a top-notch practice facility. "This gives them an opportunity to improve and excel."

Those assembled on the dais then grabbed shovels and donned white hard hats with the UT logo and lined up behind the trough before scooping a load of dirt onto the ground. The players then came forward with their head coaches and assistant coaches, and both teams took a turn with the shovels.

The architects for the Pratt Pavilion project are from Blankenship Design, and the general contractor will be Johnson and Galyon.

A bouquet of orange-and-white balloons was tied to the construction fence around the property, which has been populated with construction crews even in a week of soggy weather. It was a festive accouterment to what is otherwise a busy work site. The shoring is in place along the outer walls of the excavated site – which has been marked by depth – and heavy dirt-moving equipment has descended into the pit.

"It's a dream come true," Summitt said.

CAIT UPDATE: One player was missing from the ceremony. Lady Vol freshman point guard Cait McMahan had arthroscopic surgery and like everything else Friday for Tennessee, the news was good.

Jenny Moshak, assistant athletics director for sports medicine, said the surgery by Dr. Greg Mathien at UT Medical Center was successful.

"Basically, it was a cleanup job," Moshak said. "Cait had a debridement of loose bodies in the joint and a smoothing out of the articular cartilage. Her rehab will begin immediately, and we'll evaluate her knee day-by-day."

The procedure was on McMahan's right knee, the same one she had repaired in high school for a torn ACL last December. She also suffered a bone bruise to the knee in September. The staff had been optimistic going into the surgery that it would show no more than the need for a cleanup and would not jeopardize her season.

The Lady Vols attended the ceremony after a two-hour practice at the arena. The men also practiced Friday afternoon. The women will practice Saturday at the arena at 8 a.m. with the men scheduled to hold a scrimmage at 10:30 a.m. The practices are open to the public.

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