Special Report: Georgia still playing ‘catch up’ in facilities race
There are two pool tables. There’s an air hockey table. Pop-a-shot basketball. Ping pong and foosball tables. A video arcade. There’s also a mini-theatre, with a massive television and couches surrounding it.
That’s the scene inside the player’s lounge at Alabama’s football facility, which also has a waterfall, just because. The lounge is what greets a player, coach — and most importantly, a recruit — when they enter the facility, which also features spacious offices, easy-access parking, and one of the largest weight rooms in college football.
This is what Kirby Smart came from, and the spoils he was used to seeing every day. That’s why last month — standing inside Georgia’s new $30.2 million indoor facility, on the same day a massive $63 million stadium project was approved — Smart still hesitated when asked where this put Georgia among all its competitors.
“I think that would be the eye of the beholder,” Smart said. “I certainly think we’re always playing a little of a catch-up when it comes to the people in our conference.”
Georgia has the money — just over $77 million in reserves even after committing to other facility projects. That includes more than $32 million that is set aside for athletics “general support” in the university’s foundation.
But while other programs are doing comprehensive facility updates — Clemson, Florida and South Carolina have all announced such projects — UGA prefers a focused approach. It does one project, then moves on to the next one. There are benefits to that, notably fiscal prudence, but there are risks.
Because when it comes to the facilities race, Georgia is only now starting to get in it. And there is still a long way to go.
Georgia was famously the last SEC school to get a full-length indoor facility. It had a budget of $30.2 million, with donors eagerly ponying up most of it — so much so that some of it will be applied to the newest project: Building a new locker room and a recruiting area on the west end of Sanford Stadium, a project that is budgeted at $63 million.
The football team is currently using the same Sanford Stadium locker room that Smart used as a player in the 1990s. That will change in a couple seasons.
The indoor facility had been something that was pushed for years by football coaches. (Alabama built its current full-length indoor facility in 1985.) The stadium locker room and recruiting area was more quietly pushed by former coach Mark Richt, and then Smart picked up the baton last year.
Prior to all this, Georgia’s biggest football-related facilities project was completed in Feb. 2011, a $33 million addition to the Butts-Mehre facility. That included an all-purpose room (since gutted to make room for the indoor facility), the coaches’ offices, and a 13,000-square foot weight room.
So, as athletics director Greg McGarity points out, that’s well over $120 million spent on mainly-football facilities this decade. McGarity said that should be a “show of strength.”
“We have spent $63 million over the past seven years between the Butts-Mehre improvements in 2010 and the indoor facility,” McGarity said. “We are planning to spend $63 million more over the next two years for a total spent of $126 million for football. We provide funding for 21 sports, and 530 student-athletes, and all sports must be facilitated fairly.”
Still, in the facilities race, there’s always the next thing.
COMPARING WEIGHT ROOMS
The first thing that strikes a visitor, upon walking into Alabama’s weight room, is how massive it is. Proclaimed to be one of the biggest in college football, it measures at 37,000 square feet, nearly three times the size of Georgia’s. It’s so big it needs another floor: The first floor is for weights, the second for cardio. There’s also a nutrition center.
Yes, Alabama is in a world its own with most things. But when it comes to weight rooms, it’s not alone in having a bigger one than Georgia.
Mississippi State’s weight room, which opened in 2013, is 16,000 square feet. South Carolina’s current weight room is 14,250 square feet, and as part of a bigger project (more on that later) will have a new weight room that is 22,000 square feet. Kentucky’s weight room is 14,000.
Among the only SEC programs with a smaller weight room than Georgia is Ole Miss, which reported its to be 10,000.
Outside the conference, Clemson’s new facility will include a 23,000-square foot workout area, including a second level and a nutrition bar.
There was some talk of building new weight rooms along with Georgia’s new indoor facility. But that doesn’t appear to be in the pipeline. McGarity, asked about the chances for football improvements, specifically the weight room, said that must be balanced with the desires for facility improvements from all coaches at UGA.
“In our mind, there are a number of projects that entail all of our 15 sports,” McGarity said. “There’s not one sport that we have here that does not have things they would like to do at some point in time. There’s not one. Every sport has that list.”
THE CONVENIENCE FACTOR
There’s another thing that strikes you when you’re at Alabama: The easy access that players have to their facility and academic center. It’s all a short walk — or drive.
The main dorm, where underclassmen usually reside, is a block-and-a-half away. So players can easily walk over and back. For those that want to drive — such as upperclassmen who live off campus — there is a spacious parking lot adjacent to the facility.
Georgia players, on the other hand, usually have to park their cars at a parking deck, a couple minutes’ walk from their facility. Media members and others who work at Butts-Mehre use the same parking deck. There is very limited parking right at Butts-Mehre, which is land-locked, with baseball’s Foley Field and the outdoor track on each side, and Stegeman Coliseum behind it, and an elementary school in front.
That’s a big reason players often use scooters to get around campus: Many live on east campus, and it’s just easier to use those rather than find somewhere to park when they’re going from their residence to class and then to the football facility. (The academic center is at least right next to the football facility.)
Solving the parking issue isn’t easy, because of the other facilities close by. It’s also why the team’s training table — where players get their NCAA-approved free meals — is at the school’s conference center, which is across the street from Stegeman Coliseum and a short walk from the football facility. (That location was only nailed down after Richt and Mark Fox personally walked over to the conference center one day and scouted out the area, and walked into the office of the conference center’s executive director.)
So in an ideal world, there also would be an area at the football facility for players to eat, and for the facility itself to be a one-stop shop for their needs.
But again, that’s not in the cards yet, and the logistics at UGA make that difficult. McGarity said the full focus right now is raising the funds for the $63 million west end stadium project.
“Facilities are important. But I don’t think anybody is every going to say: ‘We’re finished,’” McGarity said. “You always have a constant list of projects for every facility. And then you chip away at those as the funding is accessible.”
BELLS AND WHISTLES
On a recent Thursday afternoon, Alabama freshman linebacker Mack Wilson was playing pool at one of the two billiards tables in the players’ lounge. A couple staff members were playing ping pong. It can be filled at other times.
Alabama’s main locker room, at the facility, houses about 150-160 lockers. There are usually about 120 players on a team, so that means extra space — but also lockers for various NFL players who come back to campus to train and use the facilities. C.J. Mosley and Eddie Jackson were around last week. Derrick Henry, who still has an apartment in Tuscaloosa, was expected to return and train.
Much of Alabama’s construction, or at least the plan for it, began before Nick Saban’s arrival. Then it took off after the national championships started to roll in.
The comparisons to Alabama aren’t necessarily fair, according to McGarity.
“Compare it to someone else,” McGarity said. “Everyone compares it to Alabama. Compare it to Tennessee, compare it to LSU. So I think what happens is so many people refer to one place. There are 12 other schools in the league. Let’s compare to others. Some better. Some don’t have what we have.”
That is true, especially when it comes to non-revenue sports. But when it comes to football, Alabama has often set the standard, and many others are following, complete with snazzy extras.
Clemson has opened a $55 million facility that includes a mini golf course, a bowling alley and laser tag.
Oregon spent $138 million on its complex, with the help of Nike, and the kind of perks you’d expect.
It’s not just at the power-conference level: UCF is planning a $25 million facility that will include a lazy river. Athletics director Danny White said they’re going to fundraise for it too.
A Washington Post study in 2014 found that Power-5 schools spent $772 million on facilities. If the study was done again this year, you’d have to imagine the figure would be much higher.
VISION FOR THE FUTURE?
Last September, Florida announced a $100 million facilities upgrade, creating the first standalone football facility in the program’s history. The Gators, who also lacked an indoor facility until a few years ago, finally got in the arms race and are pushing hard.
Florida’s plan is for the facility to be three stories and basically have everything: Weight room, locker rooms, coaches’ offices, team and position meeting rooms, a player’s lounge, and plenty more.
South Carolina began construction on a $50 million football operations facility in January. Head coach Will Muschamp said last year that before the project South Carolina was in the “bottom half of the SEC” in facilities. This will change that. It will include a new weight room, coaches’ offices, a recruiting center, locker room, meeting rooms, dining room and more.
“I think it’s going to be a game changer for us as far as the student-athletes on our campus presently, but also in the recruiting process,” Muschamp said at SEC media days last year. “We all like shiny and new. It will be, and we’ve been able to put our hands on it with the architects and get exactly what we want. We’re really excited about that process.”
South Carolina also fundraised for the facility: It set a goal for $30 million out of the $50 million to be fundraised. As of January, the school had raised $16 million, with the help of a $5 million gift from alumnus Bob McNair, the owner of the Houston Texans.
As McGarity sat in his office last week, overlooking the finished indoor facility, he was asked if ever thought of sitting down with the football coach, asking what they would want in the ideal world, and then let’s do it all at once?
“We do that will all of our coaches,” McGarity said, pivoting to say he asks the track coach what they’d like, and pointing to the tennis facility that was built. “Every sport we have would love to have something. … I have a good idea of what every coach wants to do, because we meet monthly, and during those meetings we’ll talk about certain needs and desires they have. And we would be able to address those at the proper time.”
Georgia is certainly proud of the indoor facility. McGarity said someone from another SEC school came to it recently and saw things they’d like at their place.
“It’s almost a rat race as far as facilities go,” McGarity said.
UGA president Jere Morehead foresaw that last month as he presented the west end zone project to the athletic board. He pointed out that between the facility and the stadium project, the school had earmarked nearly $100 million towards two projects that were aimed mostly at football, and that he hoped and expected they would “lead to even greater success for our football program in the future.”
Morehead also vowed to the board that Georgia would stay among the most financially secure athletics departments in the nation.
“I have news for you: In a few years there’ll be something else. Either with respect to football or respect to many of our other outstanding programs,” Morehead said. “So the sooner and faster we can raise these funds, it puts us in a position to know that we are again in a situation where we can do something else moving forward. But I am absolutely committed to supporting our athletic director and our football coach as they go out and make the case for this project.”
There’s something else that goes unsaid: Morehead and McGarity do not operate in a vacuum. UGA is part of a larger university system, and they report to the regents.
Still, with that $32 million sitting in the UGA Foundation, part of what is now $77 million total in reserves, McGarity was asked about pulling some of that out to pay for more facilities.
“Then your rainy day fund’s gone,” McGarity said. “It’s a really complex issue. If you took that money out then you’ve erased your ability to weather a storm. And I think that’s what keeps us solvent, that’s the strength of our program.”