Georgia Football

Dreaming Big: Rethinking UGA's Facilities

June 11, 2018
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ATHENS - Its time for UGA to dream big and take its program to the next level, and the way to do that is by taking a hard look at its facilities - including where they are and why location matters in recruiting and development of the program itself. 

While facilities, exclusively, won’t guarantee success on the court of field of play, they can indeed be an impediment to success at the collegiate level. More than anything, a commitment to facilities is a commitment to winning. One without the other is uncommon. 

And Georgia’s problem right now is that it has become very common. No building inhabited by UGA athletics is subpar. They are all quite nice, indeed, but there is still much to improve. Some things would be improved by radical new thinking. Georgia, like much of the rest of the world of college athletics, is going to have to keep up with the facilities arms race.

Example? Georgia was the last school in the SEC to open an indoor practice facility - and that facility is for all sports outside of tennis for the record. So the likes of football, baseball, softball, track and soccer - really any outdoor sport - didn’t have use of a legitimate indoor practice facility. Baseball and softball can have cages inside, but you get the general point. The indoor facility was very much needed, and with that missing piece up and useable its time to look - whole hog - at everything else. 

And there is much to look at. 

One of the biggest challenges the will pop up in the coming years is location. Like many other institutions, UGA started its athletics in one spot, but now it is landlocked and leaving the facilities where they currently sit makes for a very cramped situation. Perhaps if each practice situation was ideal (which it is not) staying in the cramped location would be less than ideal, but usable. But as football’s current situation stands, UGA is showing either a lack of vision or a lack of desire to get things moved around so that they practically fit in a way that’s best for efficiency for everyone involved. 

Staying put won’t work - for any of the programs. You don’t win championships that way. Each facility at UGA - particularly football - must have major upgrades done twice a decade. But before those upgrades continues on an every-five-years basis, UGA needs to think strategically about its future land use. Football’s practice facilities are no optimally positioned to win at a championship level. 

Here’s a quick guide on what could be done…

Step One - Move all of football’s operations to the intramural fields. 

In the summer of 2016, out of necessity, Kirby Smart held his first football camps at UGA’s intramural fields. As it turns out the move was a major success. The facility has 180,000 square feet available for the football program to spread out and do things the right way.

Couple of things first - over time UGA has now gone from what was five total grass football fields (four at the Woodruff Practice Fields and one at Sanford Stadium) to three grass fields and two turf fields (during the later years of the Richt era) to what is now two total grass fields (one modified grass practice field that runs along the new indoor practice facility at the Woodruff Practice Fields and one at Sanford Stadium) and three turf fields (two turf “below” at Woodruff Practice Fields, and the new indoor facility.)

Of note: The only practice grass field available currently is a 50-yard space that runs along the new indoor practice facility. I have never seen the team itself practice on that sod. I have only seen kickers, snappers and punters on that turf. The only 120-yard grass field UGA currently has is in Sanford Stadium, which happens not to be a practice field and is also involves getting into buses for a ride to the stadium. The field inside the stadium has open views to the public (the bridge), which is on an open road. The public can simply walk back and forth over and over if they want to watch practice. That is discouraged, but unless a pedestrian is filming practice they won’t be bothered. 

Think about that, UGA, a program that believes it should be one of the best in the country, doesn’t have a true 120-yard grass field to practice on (perhaps that’s common around the conference and country, but it isn’t ideal). Now do you have to have a 120-yard grass field to practice on? No, but Kirby Smart doesn’t have to make $7 million a year to coach the team, either. Some things are not about have to, but a desire to be the best in every thing.

Because of the land-locked nature of the football facility as it currently sits, expansion at the current spot is impossible. That would involve knocking down Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall or removing the Spec Towns Track (which made sense as a place to put down the IPF, but that’s another story for another day). Neither are going to happen for any number of reasons. 

But what can happen is moving the entire footprint of the football facility to the intramural fields. What would happen to the intramural program? Easy, it would go out where the Bulldogs practiced in 2016 - along Millage Ave where there is tons of University-owned space for students to exercise and compete.

Space for the University of Georgia, one of the largest landholders in the entire state, to place intramural fields shouldn’t be a problem. According to reporting from the Athens Banner-Herald, State Board of Regents owns more than 4,382 acres of land in Clarke County alone.

As it stands right now the intramural fields has several things the Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall and the Woodruff Practice Fields don’t - grass fields, and an easy-to-get-to parking deck. Even better - the intramural fields are much easier to get to for anyone than Butts-Mehre. Parking isn’t cramped; there is a stoplight; the road going into the intramural fields, River Road, is the road that runs directly to East Campus Village, where the vast majority of football players (and a slew of athletes) live.

Unlike the Woodruff Practice Fields, which are located along Lumpkin and Smith Streets, UGA could practice deep inside the intramural fields, away from any onlookers not cleared through the football office. The Bulldogs could also lock down the facility by allowing only the cars they want in or out with a gate at the College Station Road entrance to the facility. 

All football coaches are control freaks, and Kirby Smart is no different. If you told him today that he would never again have to worry about anyone watching his practices who isn’t supposed to he would sign up immediately. 

And when I say move “football’s operations” to the intramural fields, I mean the entire thing… every weight, sheet of paper, assistant coach and player would report to that location, and it would function as the place for the football program to function in - that includes a new indoor practice facility for the Bulldogs to function in out there. 

With the move, the Bulldogs would have their lay of the land - putting three all-grass fields along with two turf fields and the indoor space, would not be an issue. The offices of football could go on top of the the parking deck, which would serve as an ideal place for prospects to easily visit. 

Kirby and football could control every little detail - it would be their own space completely. 

Think about the recruiting ramifications of simplifying how much prospects have to drive into Athens to visit the football offices. Directions are simple: Take 316 to the loop; get off on Exit 7; turn left; you will see the banners; your name will be flashing on the lights welcoming you to UGA.   

As it stands today, prospects are required to find Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall. Not a huge burden, but not easy, either. It is very difficult to park after you’ve weaved through Five Points or Downtown Athens. The point being, that the easier it is for recruits to get into and out of Athens the better it is. The new football facility would be easy on, easy off for everyone involved - coaches, players, prospects… everyone.

It also clears out a lot of space for everything else that’s coming. With football out of the way, baseball, basketball and gymnastics can have practical and modern facilities the players deserve. 

Step Two - Move Baseball, Gymnastics and Basketball

UGA just put the finishing touches on another multimillion-dollar improvement ($13 million) on Stegeman Coliseum. The facility will now includes a drop-down center hang scoreboard. All seats have black cushion instead of red (years ago Stegeman had all wood seats). The updates look good. 

And they reflect a new reality - the fact is that programs and institutions must always update and upgrade their facilities. Staying the same is dying (that’s a major reason Mark Fox was fired). Still, the fact is that in the last decade UGA has spent around $50 million on the same building. And while the piecemeal approach seemed to make sense at the time, a fresh new start with some new thinking could have put that money to better use.

The fact is, too, that the longer Stegeman is around, the more upgrades that will be necessary in the future. Old buildings don’t become more efficient. Example: boilers die and must be replaced. UGA is retrofitting something that used to serve as a host for cattle conventions and NWA wresting matches, and is in the process of attempting to make it a facility for the present and future. 

This will inevitably not work - at least not efficiently. All of that said, nothing about Stegeman, right now, is preventing anyone from winning at UGA. I’ve seen the facility rocking in its heyday, and it can be a scary place to play.

But what engineers and athletic directors didn’t know at the time when the facility was built in 1962 was that the building would go on to host the 1996 Olympics and become the primary home for three sports, two of which didn’t even exist at the time. UGA has done its best and continues to do so with Stegeman, but its time for a change. And that change needs to start being considered now as you don’t slap basketball arena together in a few weeks.

Georgia needs a UGA-specific facility that completely meets the needs of men’s and women’s basketball as well as gymnastics. Stegeman, as it is currently structured, is a band aid that somewhat accomplishes those goals. That is to say its not customizable to those two sports. It has been stitched together over the last half century to meet a particular need at a particular time. But that time has passed.

Now we know what the future will be. The likelihood that UGA will add another sport that will use a new indoor facility is very low. The three programs which will be in the new facility will be both basketballs and gymnastics (perhaps volleyball could be added in the future, but that’s not a concern as it easily fits into the imprint of a basketball court). We know what we know now, in other words. And now is the time to act on what we know now. 

A new facility could include a multiple levels of parking underneath or over the top of the new facility. Cars could enter an underground parking garage area from Lumkpin Road as well as from Sanford Road, which terminates into the Woodruff Football Practice Facility right now. In theory, traffic could improve. Carlton Street and Lumkpin Road get the bulk of the traffic on game days, but East Campus Road also absorbs heavy traffic on game days. 

Another thought: UGA could move a new basketball facility to downtown Athens - buying where the Athens Banner-Herald’s sits or perhaps buying the downtown Holiday Inn at the corner of Lumpkin and Broad and creating a new basketball facility there. A move like that could fundamentally change the atmosphere heading into a game each winter. Incorporating the more high-energy vibe of downtown into UGA basketball would be an interesting change.  

Ole Miss has a brand new basketball facility, which I visited before the Liberty Bowl in 2016. It is ideal for what UGA should consider for its future. The Pavilion at Ole Miss, which cost just shy of $100 million, also includes a parking deck attached to it, was well thought out. Those who park at the site have the ability to walk from their parking deck location into the facility and have their tickets taken when they walk in. Fans don’t have to circle around outside to go into a gate on the outside. One just parks and walks right to a ticket taker, who is stationed just inside The Pavilion. 

Needless to say, the new facility could be whatever anyone dreamed it up to be. The price tag is certain to be more than $100 million. Auburn completed its new facility in 2010 for about $86 million; Ole Miss opened The Pavilion in 2016 for about $97 million; the Gators just put $65 million into a refurbish of the O'Connell Center; Fayette County just pumped another $15 million into the quarter-billion-dollar facility that is Kentucky’s home at Rupp Arena. 

Georgia and Alabama sit in similar situations with regard to basketball facilities. The Tide, too, have an outdated facility from the 1960s and must decide what the future will be for Coleman Coliseum. UGA is pulling up at the rear of the SEC in terms of basketball facilities. 

Either other places are significantly larger: Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee and Vanderbilt; or they are significantly nicer: Ole Miss, Auburn and Texas A&M. 

Some are both nicer and larger. 

Alabama, UGA, Mississippi State and LSU are all in the bottom quarter of the league in terms of having nondescript, not-huge and not nice facilities. And so much of athletics, now, is about facilities… not just about having the best, but at least keeping up. 

With all of that said, UGA should embark on a multi-million dollar strategic plan that will move not just Stegeman, but also Foley Field (or its replacement) into the future. As it stands currently, nothing surrounding Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall is laid out efficiently. This is not necessarily the fault of any one person, but a recognition that the layout as is currently stands is inefficient, and therefore impeding success. 

Because this plan also calls for the entire brainwork of football to be moved completely off of the Butts-Mehre area footprint, enough land is at hand to place either baseball or basketball in that spot.

Discussing reconfiguring facilities now, or at least planning for that, could help for when that day comes. There is no question that vision like this costs money - lots of it - but efficiencies matter. 

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