ATHENS — The red ribbon was cut and Georgia is ready to play ball out its new Dawg House at Sanford Stadium.
The UGA Athletic Association board of directors, several hundred members of the Magill Society donor group and a few straggling Georgia fans were on hand Friday for the official dedication ceremony for the West End expansion and improvement project at Sanford Stadium. President Jere Morehead, Athletic Director Greg McGarity, football coach Kirby Smart and sophomore tackle Andrew Thomas spoke at a gathering underneath at tent outside Gate 10 in the Tate Student Center parking lot.
Afterward, those individuals and the board members stood shoulder-to-shoulder and armed with scissors for the official ribbon-cutting. Then all the attendees were treated to an unfettered first look at the improvements. Those include 120,000-square-foot, two-story brick building that houses a field-level players’ locker room and a second-floor recruiting lounge.
The project includes the erection of a new video board 30 percent larger and 30 yards to the south of the old one. It also includes new fan plazas on and below a renovated Gillis Bridge and a new Gate 1 that provides an entrance to Sanford Stadium from off the bridge.
But the key element is the locker room and recruiting lounge. The Bulldogs will enter it after the Dawg Walk ends at Gate 10 underneath the bridge. The team will enter the field from underneath the West Grandstand for the first time in decades — maybe ever (more on that later).
At the very least, it’s new of the Smart’s third Georgia football team.
“It’s going to be different to turn right rather than turn left,” Smart quipped of running onto the field and to the home bench area. “We’ve practiced it. Hopefully the Redcoact Band will help guide us.”
Speaking to donors at the ceremony, Smart said the West End project was a priority for him as soon as he was hired at UGA.
“I said, ‘look guys, if we’re going to be competitive against the teams we’re going against in recruiting, we need the ability to host recruits on game day and have a first-class place to do it,” Smart said. “We need a locker room, we need to upgrade our stadium for the fans. The commitment that you guys had, that our fan base had and our boosters and foundation members had, the Board of Regents. So many people have supported this cause that it happened fast. The turnaround was really quick, and we were able to make one of the premier locker rooms and recruiting rooms in the country.”
The concept of moving the team locker rooms to the West End of the stadium was originally proposed by previous football coach Mark Richt several years ago. The Bulldogs have been dressing from the East End of the stadium at least since the 1950s. The 1940 teams used to get dressed in Memorial Hall and walk down to the stadium, but the UGA sports communication staff believes those teams also entered from the east.
“So it’s possible to say that it’s never happened,” UGA spokesman Claude Felton said. “But certainly it’s been the last 60 years-plus, if not more, it has been in the East End.”
The West End construction began at the end of the 2017 regular season, in which the Bulldogs went 13-2, won the SEC Championship and played for the national championship, and ended the second week of August. Money for the project was raised from donations of 970 Magill Society members, who had to pledge a minimum of $25,000 to be paid over a five-year period.
Those donations have accounted for pledges totaling 77.6 million toward $93 million in football projects — $63 million for the West End and $30.2 million for the Payne Indoor Athletic Facility, which was dedicated in January of 2017.
At the ceremony, Morehead said the future of Georgia football has “never been brighter” than it is right now under Smart. Afterward, he was asked to expound on that.
“Well, I have to put it in perspective,” UGA’s president said. “I’ve known him since he was an undergraduate student and I’ve watched him over the years. He has a level of maturity and intensity that I think is absolutely essential if you’re going to win at this level. He’s always thinking about what do we need to do next in order to remain highly competitive. I don’t think he’s ever going to sit back and say, ‘oh, we won the SEC championship last year so everything is good.’ He’s always going to be asking what do we need to do nest to make ourselves more competitive.”
And that’s already taking place. Morehead confirmed a DawgNation news report Thursday that “behind-the-scenes” research is already being done on providing Smart and the Bulldogs with a brand new football operations building or possibly expanding the current facilities. The football team currently is housed in the Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall complex, where it has been since 1985. A search is under way for a place to construct a new free-standing building just for football somewhere within the Vince Dooley Athletic Complex footprint on South Campus.