STORRS, Conn. – The ceremony was officially referred to as a public groundbreaking for the University of Connecticut basketball development center.
Technically, that is what it was.
But somewhere in the process, it simply became a celebration of UConn basketball – men's, women's, past, present and future. Work officially began on the $35 million training center several weeks ago, but there was enormous symbolism Tuesday behind that first shovel of dirt tossed by university officials, coaches, players, dignitaries and donors.
"It's still about the people [at UConn]," said coach Geno Auriemma, who just led the UConn women to their eighth national championship. "I don't think anybody goes anywhere for a building. Nobody fights and dies for bricks and mortar.
|Moving some dirt|
"Now, having said that, and because we have the best of everything here, [the players] deserve the best facility. They shouldn't come here and be second to anybody in the country. If we're going to be the No. 1 school in America, we need to be number one in everything we do."
Auriemma joined men's coach Kevin Ollie, players Ryan Boatright and Kaleen Mosqueda-Lewis, athletic director Warde Manuel, and president Susan Herbst at the podium. Later they entered the construction zone, climbed upon a pile of soil, grabbed gold plated shovels, and posed for photographs of the historic moment.
Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun, who fought long and hard for the construction of such a facility, was in the crowd but did not take part in the ceremony.
"I think we recognize his great leadership and the success of his program and all of his efforts to make this day possible," Manuel said of Calhoun.
Manuel said the construction schedule remains on time for the facility to be finished in May 2014 – weather permitting. The project remains $9-10 million shy of the funds necessary to get "every dollar we need for computers and door knobs," Manuel said. But the fund-raising process continues and the families of Peter Werth ($4.5 million contribution) and the Mark Shenkman ($2 million) were honored during the ceremony.
|Warde Mauel at the podium|
"It's awesome [to see the construction]," Manuel said. "When they started, just bringing in the equipment to stage it, it made for such excitement around here. Finally, we knew, at some point when the weather broke, we were going to have a facility and the progress was going to be made. It's just a proud day."
Manuel, wearing a hard hat bearing the architect's rendering of the facility, said UConn officials toured several practice buildings at other Division I schools. He was especially impressed by the training facilities at Kentucky and Louisville but said UConn decided to draw on the best features of all the buildings visited.
"We're going to continue to try to ensure our facilities and things we're doing are at the top," Manuel said, pointing out that there are plans to improve Gampel Pavilion and the facilities for baseball and soccer. "We're constantly looking at how to make ourselves better and not get left behind."
The coaching staffs of both teams were in attendance and joined by several past players, including Kerry Bascom, Rudy Johnson, Oliver Macklin, Doug Melody, and Tim Pikiell. Donny Marshall acted as emcee of the ceremony.
Boatright and Mosqueda-Lewis spoke briefly as representatives of the current teams, although many of the players attending the ceremony will never actually use the facility.
"It means a lot to us players," Boatright said. "Walking past here every day, we realize we're going to have a place to call our own."
|Geno Auriemma, Dee Rowe, Kevin Ollie|
Boatright and Mosqueda-Lewis both mentioned the advantage a training facility will provide in the recruiting process.
"Gampel has been great and has a lot of tradition, and it's something to cherish," Mosqueda-Lewis said. "But it's nice to know we're going to get something new."
Ollie said he is excited about a facility that should "open up a lot of recruits' eyes." He likes the idea of a cafeteria and academic study hall in one central location that can help teammates bond. Ollie also said he likes the idea of a hall of fame in the foyer that will allow UConn to put its championship trophies and other history on display.
Asked if there was one thing he wanted to see included in the building, Ollie joked about his job status and then mentioned the alumni locker room that will bring past players back to campus for a place to work out.
"As long as my key works tomorrow, I was fine," Ollie joked. "Actually I really like the alumni locker room where our alumni can come back. I really believe in family and that's what Coach Calhoun impressed on me when I first came here. They can have a place to come home and they can have a locker room. They will have the facility there whenever they need it."
Gampel Pavilion opened in January 1990. While the arena still seems new, it is showing some wear and tear. And the trend of basketball facilities in the college game had left UConn behind the competition for many years now.
"Jim and Geno came here years ago without proper practice facilities or an arena," Herbst said. "The coaches and students here have earned this over a long time."