Gators top off Heavener Football Training Center with final steel beam

Zach Abolverdi
Gator Sports
Florida football coach Dan Mullen autographs Tuesday the last steel beam to top off the James W. "Bill"Heavener Football Training Center on campus.

A year after construction began and 70 days since the first piece of steel went up, Florida held a topping-out ceremony Tuesday for its new state-of-the-art, $85 million stand-alone facility. 

Gators coach Dan Mullen, UF ambassador Steve Spurrier and several UAA dignitaries signed the final beam before it was placed above the expansive atrium entrance of the James W. “Bill” Heavener Football Training Center.

The 142,000-square-foot facility is scheduled to be completed in the spring of 2022. 

“There will be a lot of wow factors here,” Mullen said. “But I think if anybody walked through the building that’s a football person, my goal is to say this is the most efficient building in the country that you can go to. There is no better set plan to develop players than what we have.”

That plan has been years in the making and was already in the works when Mullen was hired in late 2017. At the time, a new football facility had been designed for the north side of Percy Beard Track. 

As UF struggled mapping out the small construction site, a suggestion from executive associate athletic director Chip Howard changed the location of Florida’s stand-alone complex — and its baseball stadium. 

“We were struggling with trying to use a really tight footprint over there,” Stricklin said of the track area. “I’ll never forget the day that Chip walked in and said, ‘You know, if we would build a new ballpark on another part of campus, the baseball location would be a great place for the football building.’

“I looked at him like he had three heads because we were pretty far down the road on this other idea. But great idea, Chip. It has led to the finest baseball stadium in all of college baseball. He really did a great job of helping us from the very beginning envision this project.”

Stricklin thanked the donors, HOK architects and Parrish-McCall construction workers, who put in 50,000 man-hours leading up to the topping out. Stricklin also credited Mullen as the brainchild behind the new building. 

“As a football coach, Dan Mullen is a tremendous facility planner,” Stricklin said. “He got involved and in the details, he and his staff, to make sure not only we had the right spacing, the right sizes, the right programming, but how it all connected and how it’s going to be used.”

During their time at Mississippi State, Mullen and Stricklin spearheaded the planning and construction of the Leo Seal Jr. Football Complex in 2013. Mullen leaned on that experience, as well as touring other athletic facilities and corporate headquarters, when offering his input on the Heavener Football Training Center.

“When we met with a lot of the architects for the design of the building, they were viewing things in an aesthetic way,” Mullen said. “And they’re like, ‘But it looks so much prettier this way.’ Nah, I need functionality. They’re like, ‘What if we have one door in the middle and it opens like this?’ Absolutely not.

“How do we get people from the meeting, to the locker room, to the field in as an efficient manner as possible? When you’re lifting weights, all Coach [Nick] Savage has to do is hit a button and he has the best running, agility surface to go train on in America. You don’t have to go to another building. You don’t have to walk to another area of the building. It’s connected.” 

The project includes a 13,000-square-foot weight room — or two and a half end zones worth of training space. It will also feature a dining hall, lounge area, barber shop, recording studio, gaming and golf center, as well as a resort-style pool area with basketball courts and a multipurpose lawn. 

One of the “wow” factors of the Heavener Football Training Center, according to Mullen, is that it will be open to all UF student-athletes. Most facilities around the country are exclusive to football players, but the Gators have a different approach. 

"One of the big wow factors for us was to design that for all sports to create great student-athlete interaction, so that our players can be around Olympians and record-holders and national champions. They can all interact and learn from each other,” Mullen said. “I've always believed a massive contributor to the 2006 football national championship team was the 2006 men's basketball team and the interaction they had. 

“When you look at those things, and think about those things, if you're going to create this interactive place, I want our players around all these other successful people. We have that at the Hawkins Center academically. I just think the way we interact with other student-athletes at the University of Florida is what separates us from other schools.”

UF is now entering the third phase of its facilities masters plan, which will be complete with the Heavener Football Training Center and facility upgrades for soccer and lacrosse. 

The first phase began in 2015 with the $15 million indoor practice facility, followed in 2016 by the Otis Hawkins Center ($25M) and Exactech Arena renovation ($64.5M). The second phase entailed the 2019 renovation to softball's Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium ($15M) and the new Florida Ballpark ($65M) last year. 

Spurrier, who returned to his alma mater in 2016 as UF ambassador, has seen the campus undergo several changes over the last five years. 

“It’s part of progress,” Spurrier said, “and it’s what’s expected. You gotta have what everybody else has got, really for recruiting. With the indoor facility and now this new building, it puts us on an even scale with all those other schools.”

Three decades ago, Florida upgraded Ben Hill Griffin Stadium prior to Spurrier’s second season as head football coach. An upper deck and a middle deck of club seating dubbed the “Touchdown Terrace” were constructed above the existing north end zone seats.

Spurrier remembers having his photo taken with a shovel after the expansion, which completed the double-decked bowling-in of the stadium and raised capacity to over 85,000. 

The Gators debuted their new digs in the 1991 opener. 

“Here’s what was amazing: We played San Jose State and we had the largest crowd in the history of the state of Florida for a football game. It was sort of the opening of a new stadium,” Spurrier said. “That was a fun game. We beat them 59-21, I think. They were a blitzing team. We loved to play those teams.” 

Construction continues Tuesday at the site of the James W. "Bill" Heavener Football Training Center on the Florida campus.