For Bill Crowe, this was a new one. He was sitting in his executive director office at the Georgia Center, the hotel and conference building on UGA’s campus, when he was informed he had two visitors.
Mark Richt and Mark Fox.
“It’s a little unusual for those guys to just drop in,” Crowe said, chuckling.
Georgia’s head coaches in football and men’s basketball were on a scouting mission. Richt and Fox had been commiserating on the lack of a central location for Georgia athletes to eat, so that morning last year they walked over to the Center, found some space they liked, then stopped by Crowe’s office.
“By noon it was pretty much done,” Fox said.
That was a little more than a year ago. In the time since then the space has become a focal point for Georgia athletes, and when football practice begins Tuesday, it will be where players congregate before and afterwards.
And the fact Fox and Richt sought out the space themselves speaks to the increasing importance of an overlooked part of college athletics:
While strength and conditioning gets most of the attention, if you’ve got grease and fat running through your system, the work in the weight room is of limited value.
“It’s like driving a fast car without gas,” Fox said.
And better to have some control over the athletes’ nutrition, rather than leaving college kids on their own.
“It’s very important, because it’s specifically based for the athletes,” Georgia receiver Malcolm Mitchell said. “You know, you go to the dining hall, it’s food we’re probably not supposed to eat.”
The development of the training table – the term commonly used for the Georgia Center meals – is just the latest in a five-year journey Georgia has taken when it comes to nutrition.
It started early in the morning after Greg McGarity was introduced as Georgia’s athletics director.
McGarity had come from Florida, where he saw nutrition as a key component of Urban Meyer and Billy Donovan’s championship teams, as well as non-revenue sports. A nutrition plan and training table were put into effect during McGarity’s tenure as an associate athletics director, and he saw “an immediate impact,” on and off the field.
“Let’s give Greg credit for that,” Fox said. “He met with us at 6:30 in the morning the day after his press conference and one of the first things he asked about was the training table. We didn’t have one.”
So in July of 2011 McGarity hired Jen Ketterly, who had experience as a dietician at several other big schools, including North Carolina and Connecticut. Two other full-time staffers were hired, and Ketterly’s group went about remaking, or in many cases creating, a diet plan for each team.
Because convenience is so important to athletes, who have so much on their plate (no pun intended), Georgia added a “Grab-N-Go,” a sort of substitute breakfast which includes smoothies, fresh fruit and other items. It also added “Fueling Stations” in each team’s locker room, which are healthy snacks and drinks.
The training table – just lunch at the time – was also added, but it was inconvenient for many athletes at first. So Fox and Richt spearheaded the move to the conference center, where the larger space quickly became a popular destination for athletes in the middle of the day.
“Now we’ve been able to assume this space. It’s all ours,” Ketterly said, looking around the room, which has two TVs, drink stations, a made-to-order area, a beverage area, a smoothie bar, and more. This season dinner is added, as well as a late-night Grab-N-Go at the coliseum. The football team has had dinner during training camp for a year, but now it will continue into the season.
“There is going to be a continuous meal option for really all our student-athletes, not just football,” McGarity said.
The meals are designed by Rob Harrison, the executive chef at the Georgia center since Oct. 2013, who has a large staff of cooks at his disposal. The coaches don’t usually put in specific meals; that’s up to Ketterly and Harrison.
Their goal: Food and drink that is both healthy and enjoyable (enough) for young athletes.
“I guess my main focus is making Jen happy,” Harrison said, laughing, “But also keeping the student-athlete happy, and keeping them from feeling like the walls are closing in, and they’re forced to come in here or anything like that.”
Another reason for the emphasis on nutrition is the background of some athletes. Some didn’t grow up eating three meals a day, or even aware of how to eat right. That could slow their athletic development, but a good nutrition program can accelerate it.
“If you’re working out, (but) not paying as much attention on the nutrition side, you’re maybe going to get stale, you’re going to break down, you may lose lean muscle, not get stronger,” Ketterly said. “It really is a balance, and I think sport culture has come a long way in the last five-to-eight years, to where these two disciplines are starting to work a little more together. … It’s a huge culture shift, without a doubt, and our nutrition staff realized that right off the bat in 2011: We needed a culture change within our athletic department around food.”
And that’s precisely what happened, according to Theus, now entering his fourth year on campus.
“I know I’ve cut some fat, gained some muscle because of it,” he said.
Four years ago, it was big news when Georgia’s football team ordered players to take photos of their meals and send them to a staffer to be approved. Now, that seems quaint.
Georgia has been accused, from within and without, for being behind some other athletic programs in certain areas, such as an indoor practice facility. But in this area, Georgia feels like it may be ahead of the curve.
“It’s very important,” Richt said. “We’ve made really good strides in that area, and we’re gonna have more control over the venues for our guys than we’ve ever had. The food rules changing on that is really helping us. We’re really happy about that.”