UGA needs to wage war in SEC’s ‘facilities arms race’

Georgia-UGA-Fan Day-Georgia Bulldogs
Improvements to Sanford Stadium represent just the tip of the iceberg of what UGA needs to do stay up with the Jones in the SEC.

ATHENS, Ga. — I’m sure you’ve seen and read a lot from us regarding the Georgia football facilities situation lately. The truth is, I don’t think any of us likes writing that much about it. But the reality is it’s a very big part of what’s happening right now, not just with the Bulldogs but throughout the SEC.

There has always been a bit of an ongoing facilities arms race going in the conference — and in college football in general — but it’s as though they’re waging World War III on that front these days. And while it could be argued it wasn’t engaged for a long time, UGA is fully engrossed at the moment.

We all know about the $31 million indoor facility Georgia built and all the resident improvements that came with that project (new practice fields, lights, equipment sheds, etc.). And now everybody — especially UGA’s regular and most generous donors — knows about the impending $64 million improvements at Sanford Stadium, which includes a new team locker room and recruiting lounge on the west end and a $1 million in restroom additions/improvements (hallelujah for regular man!).

Facilities at Sanford Stadium have not kept up with the size of the crowds. (University of Georgia)

But as Kirby Smart intimated at the Touchdown Club meeting in Athens earlier this week, he doesn’t want it to stop there and doesn’t expect it to. He’s already talking about the Bulldogs’ weight room being smaller than most of the others in the SEC and the other major powers in the South. He intends to continue to spend lavishly when it comes to football matters and especially where it applies to recruiting.

Georgia is hosting its annual football coaches clinic, which starts today, and the Bulldogs are expecting their biggest turnout of all time. More than 1,000 high school coaches will spend the next few days in Athens and around the UGA football facilities. Smart plans to wine and dine them like we’ve never seen before in these parts.

“My goal is to have the best coaching clinic in the country, bar none,” Smart told the TD Club Monday night. “Over a thousand (coaches) are going to come here. If your coaches in the state are going to come here and have a good time, how does that help? Well, their kids, their players; they encourage them to come (to UGA). We also have a chance to give back to these coaches. And now we have a great venue to do it in. We’ve got an indoor practice facility to host that event in, to entertain these coaches and give them a great opportunity to network with each other, which is important in coaching.”

Not coincidentally, Smart made sure to thank the TD Club members for all their financial contributions and encouraged them to continue to donate. Because, he said, Georgia needs to “keep the momentum going.”

And, you know, I used to scoff at such talk. But I don’t anymore. I’m starting to see the reality of the facility arms race that’s going on in college athletics. I don’t like it, but I know it to be the real deal these days.

You may have heard recently that Steve Spurrier just donated $100,000 to Florida athletics. It’s part of the school’s “Gator Game Changer” initiative. The Gators just finished more than $106 million worth of facilities upgrades over the past 17 months — including an indoor practice facility of their own — and they have plans in the works for another $100 million of improvements in the coming months and years.

Meanwhile, they’ve also brought back Spurrier, after his extended hiatus at South Carolina, in what they’re calling the role of an “ambassador.” His job is going to be to help them solicit more donations toward all these projects. Like Georgia tends to do with their constituency, the Gators are hoping to raise half — or $50 million — through “private support.”

Kirby Smart would be thrilled if UGA could add to its football facilities. (CURTIS COMPTON / AJC)

I wonder what Georgia could do with one of its legends — say, Herschel Walker — in such a capacity?

Now for brevity’s sake, I’m not going to get into the argument about UGA currently having $77 million — at least — in unallocated funds sitting in its athletic reserves. I’ll just say based on the landscape I’m seeing, the Bulldogs need to break it out and start spending that cash like it’s going out of style! Georgia is, after all, a non-profit, or at least that’s what it says on the tax forms I’ve seen.

I realize that’s not practical in a literal sense. There are restrictions on such monies at Georgia, as it is everywhere. The point is the Bulldogs could easily blow through that type of money to address all its current facility shortcomings.

And there are some plans to that end. The Bulldogs are in the midst of pouring several million more into Stegeman Coliseum for the long-awaited — and once existing — center-hung scoreboard. That’s just one phase in a two-year initiative that will add seats and video boards and lights, and already has included graphics and the like. The soccer and golf complexes are also about to get multimillion-dollar improvements.

Meanwhile, the nationally renowned tennis complex is in dire need of improvements. The indoor facility is a leaking embarrassment for such a powerhouse program, and that place is going to have to do for this year’s NCAA tennis championships, which are making an all-too-infrequent stop in May.

But I still don’t think Georgia is thinking big enough, especially with the financial climate such as it is. Athletic director Greg McGarity keeps talking about needing to hold fast to that hefty reserve fund in the case of a “rainy day.” But if 2007-10 weren’t rainy I don’t know what it is. And right now it is quite bright and sunny in the SEC.

Every time you turn around the SEC is backing up a dump truck of money and pouring it out on its “member institutions.” That’s to the tune of about $40 million a team this year, and $32 million last year. With that kind of income and the obvious unwavering support of its donors, Georgia could have easily built a basketball/gymnastics facility downtown or over on East Campus and plopped down a whole new baseball stadium somewhere.

Now please understand, this is a change of tune for me. This position does not come natural to me. You’re talking about a man who came through athletics in the age where we shared locker rooms — and caged metal lockers — with other sports, where we took “community showers” in tan-tiled bathrooms that you were afraid to walk through barefooted. I don’t think athletes necessarily need pool tables and Jacuzzi tubs and in-house barber shops in order to perform well.

But I’ve seen the writing on the wall. I see what South Carolina has done and Clemson has done and Florida is now doing. It’s not just the Alabamas of the world that are living large and spending lavishly anymore. Everybody is.

The Bulldogs better get on board — fully — or get left behind. It’s either that or you’re really going to be in for a rainy day. And based on the dearth of championships I’m seeing at the moment, it’s looking pretty cloudy in Athens.

NextPodcast: UGA’s recruiting success has irritated a rival fan base