Southeast schools upgrading facilities


Published: Saturday, January 5, 2008 at 11:27 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 5, 2008 at 11:27 p.m.

Stroll through the lobby of the Florida basketball facility and one will find a celebration of its recent successful past.

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The lobby of the University of Florida Basketball Facility.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun

Plasma television screens replay the "One Shining Moment" highlight videos from Florida NCAA Tournament title runs in 2006 and 2007. National Championship and Southeastern Conference Tournament championship trophies are encased in glass.

On the walls of practice court are jigsaw-puzzle pieces of the floors of Florida's Final Four appearances from 1994, 2000, 2006 and 2007.

The Florida practice facility underwent a $1.8 million face-lift over the summer, adding some cosmetic changes to the $10 million building that was constructed in 2001.

It appears to have been a worthwhile investment. Florida's men's and women's basketball programs have combined to appear in nine NCAA Tournaments since the facility was built, providing national exposure that has a positive affect on enrollment, attendance and merchandising.

It's also started a trend in the Southeastern Conference. More and more schools are pouring money into practice facilities for basketball and other winter sports.

Consider:

* Last February, Kentucky opened the Joe Craft Center, a $30 million facility with a 3,000 square-foot weight room and 3,500 square-foot training room. Of the $30 million, a $6 million donation came from Hazard, Ky., native Joe Craft, a friend of former Kentucky coach Tubby Smith

* Last August, Georgia opened a $31 million facility connected to Stegeman Coliseum that provides practice and weight facilities for men's basketball, women's basketball and its national-title winning gymnastics program.

* LSU has plans to break ground this spring on a $13 million facility for men's and women's basketball. "I might not be around to see it," joked LSU coach John Brady.

* Tennessee spent $35 million to renovate Thompson-Boling Arena and adjoining practice facilities for men's and women's basketball. The renovation reduced Thompson-Boling's capacity from 24,000 to 21,600 by adding 32 luxury suites.

* Auburn will break ground this June on a combination $95 million arena, state-of-the-art practice facility that's scheduled to open in 2010-11. Architect renderings of the building adorn the cover of this year's media guide.

"What happens is when the first one is built, everyone is looking at it and saying, 'How can we do better than this one?'," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "The next one gets built, so it gets into a process of people trying to invest more money into a practice facility and say OK, we have one of the best in the country.

"And I think for us, we were one of the first programs to have one of these and now I think everybody has kind of dumped a lot of money into it."

Trend-setters

Donovan said Florida athletic administration, led by athletic director Jeremy Foley, came up with the idea of the separate practice facility for men's and women's basketball. Before then, Florida practiced on an auxiliary court on the second floor of the O'Connell Center.

"I think Jeremy has done a great job trying to stay ahead of the curve, in terms of facilities and providing resources for our kids," Donovan said. "I think it's really hard to build something unless the administration understands the commitment that's necessary to try to do that. I think Jeremy and the administration had a pretty clear view of that."

Donors for the project included prominent athletic booster Gale Lemarand and Jack Berry Sr., the father of former Florida walk-on Jack Berry. Donovan provided a basic layout of what he needed.

"I talked about having a weight room," Donovan said. "I talked about having a conference room with the way the office was set up, a video room, where the court would be set up. I had input on some things, but not every last detail."

The 47,505 square-foot facility was constructed gender-equity compliant, split down the middle with equal space for the men's and women's programs. It had an impact on recruiting. Joakim Noah said one of the main reasons why he committed to Florida was because of the quality of the practice facility, because he felt it would help him develop into a better player.

This summer, the $1.8 million renovation was done though a joint venture with Oregon design firm Downstream and Florida-based X0S technologies. The project was paid through private donations. Bob Adams, a developer from Lakeland, was a major contributor.

Though most of the changes were cosmetic, Florida added a video monitor to its practice court. That's given Donovan and the rest of the coaching staff the chance to break down tape with players during practices.

"We use it every day," Donovan said. "There's times when we run things in practice and I like to go back and get an overview of different plays and different schemes. I think it's helped us."

The Arms Race

With the expanding popularity of both the NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments, colleges are finding ways to sell private donors on the importance of better facilities.

The idea is that more plush facilities attract better players. Better weight and training facilities help develop athletes once they arrive on campus.

Tennessee solicited private donations for the entire cost of its $35 million project.

"Upgrading facilities on a college campus equates to upgrading a laboratory in a classroom," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. "Why shouldn't Kentucky have some of the finest teaching facilities to teach the game of basketball, where Adolph Rupp taught the game? Why shouldn't (Tennessee women's coach) Pat Summitt have the finest classroom in America? It fits. It makes sense."

For Auburn coach Jeff Lebo, it sent a message to the commitment the school had to basketball in football-crazed Alabama. Since 1969, Auburn has played at Beard-Eaves Coliseum, one of the most run-down arenas in the league.

"There's a perception that basketball is not important at Auburn and look at our facilities." Lebo said. "I think this arena puts an end to that thought. We put $95 million into a basketball arena and practice facility that certainly makes a statement that there's a commitment to be good in basketball at Auburn and that's something that's very important."

Georgia coach Dennis Felton said one of the benefits of UGa's new facility is the ability to communicate with his players.

"Before, we were separated from all of our players' activities by several flights of stairs," Felton said. "It was literally a minute or two to walk to the locker room from the office or walk to the weight room from the office all those things. And now, for instance, our players come right through the office to get to the locker room and the lounge and those things. The weight room is right underneath. So it's more conducive to building relationships."

Felton said the new facility at Georgia, "knocks you off your feet."

"Once it was online and a reality, we obviously talked about it to recruits and told them what was coming and showed them pictures and described it and told them how great it was going to be," Felton said. "Even with all of our best descriptions and obviously we're making it out to be the best thing ever, they're still stunned by it when they see it."

But how nice is too nice? Last November, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo locked his team out of its new facility for a few days following an exhibition loss to Grand Valley State. Middle Tennessee State coach Kermit Davis has followed the same route this week to punish his team for its lackluster performance.

Felton views the facilities upgrades as essential for recruiting.

"In order to compete you have to be able to offer those resources," Felton said. "You can't compete if you're recruiting players that are visiting all of these other places and yours doesn't match up. They don't enjoy it as much. They can't picture themselves there, as excited about it. And in their mind, it speaks to that statement of what's the commitment to basketball."

Donovan, however, doesn't view the Florida basketball facility as his primary recruiting tool.

"When we had Mike Miller, we had Udonis Haslem, Teddy Dupay and Donnell Harvey, we were up in that practice gym on the side of the O'Connell Center," Donovan said. "That was not a great facility and we still had guys that came. I think it helps but I think it's the relationship the kid builds with you that makes both them and you feel comfortable."

Florida freshman Alex Tyus said he could see how the facility could make an impact on a young player choosing between different colleges.

"You look at the bigger, nice signs, all the plasma TVs, all the awards the team has won in the past," Tyus said. "Kids say, 'I've got to come here so we can accomplish that.'"

But sophomore forward Dan Werner said the facility didn't play as big a role in recruiting.

"It's nice to show your parents but it's still a gym, a place to go and get your work done," Werner said. "It really came down more to style of play and what the program has accomplished the last few seasons."

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