Once seen by athletic director Jeremy Foley as a luxury, the indoor practice facility now being built by the Florida Gators quickly became a need for the program, so much so that it scrapped its original plans for a smaller structure in order to build one large enough to placate new head football coach Jim McElwain.
Now, a little more than four months after construction began, the facility remains on pace to open in September ahead of the 2015 season, a construction project manager and Florida spokesman both confirmed to OnlyGators.com this week.
McElwain and the Gators appear pleased with the yet-to-be-completed structure, though there are some questions to be raised and answered about the indoor practice facility.
First, some background. Florida scrapped its original plans to build a 70-yard facility at a cost of $9-12 million, opting instead for a 120-yard “synthetic turf football field” inside a building that will also allow for “three camera platforms, satellite training-room facilities, equipment storage and restrooms.” Total cost for building an infrastructure, the facility itself and rearranging the outdoor practice fields is approximately $15-17 million for the Gators.
In total, Florida’s facility will take up 87,300 square feet, OnlyGators.com learned from the school. It is 3,400 square feet larger than Virginia Tech’s widely-praised yet still-under-construction facility, which has been a request of veteran head coach Frank Beamer for nearly a decade and will cost the school more than $21 million.
“I’m very excited about it,” Beamer told the Virginia Tech website. “In my opinion, W.M Jordan has built us the best indoor practice facility in the country. … It answers all the needs in terms of usability, being able to kick and being able to scrimmage and just use it in any way we need.”
Being able to kick? Indeed, one of the biggest and most-overlooked problems with most indoor practice facilities is roof height, which Beamer ensured the Hokies took into account when building their structure. Virginia Tech’s facility’s is 86 feet high at the apex of its rounded roof. By comparison, the Miami Dolphins’ indoor practice bubble, which has famously been reachable by the team’s punters, is 72 feet tall in the center.
The maximum height of the Gators’ facility measured at the ridge of the angular roof is 60 feet, the school confirmed to OnlyGators.com. That may ultimately pose a problem for Florida’s kickers and punters, though how much of an issue it could become certainly remains to be seen.
Potential height issue aside, the Gators’ facility has been the subject of some other criticism, which focuses more on what it lacks than anything else.
The problem with many of these criticisms is that Florida’s indoor practice facility is being compared with other schools’ entire football complexes, which often have all of the team’s needs under one roof including the practice facility, coach’s offices, weight room, trainers tables, cafeteria, and in some cases even academic needs.
While the Gators need and plan to invest in upgrades to many of these other parts of the program, they are not – and are unlikely any time soon to be – all together as part of one facility.
The Gators spent $28 million to build the Heavener Football Complex ahead of the 2008 season, investing a hefty sum in new office and meeting space, a players’ lounge, a state-of-the-art (at the time) weight room and attached exterior trophy and historical space open to the public – all of this right on top of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
Foley and McElwain have both insinuated that additional investments will be made by Florida to improve its infrastructure. The student-athlete dorms will supposedly be refreshed as early as this offseason and UF has already begun a $1.75 million renovation to its Office of Student Life. A source told OnlyGators.com that the Gators are also discussing a significant but not complete renovation of their locker rooms as well as potentially changing the structure of the office space for the coaches to make them even more accessible to players.
But neither the football complex nor student life office are connected to the indoor practice facility, which by default means that – based purely on dollars and square footage – Florida’s most recent investment will not compare to that of some programs across the country.
For example, the $68 million football complex built by Oregon, the $45 million Tennessee spent in 2013-14 on its facilities and the (relatively) small $9 million investment made by Alabama to improve its already-outfitted facility with waterfalls, a video game room and a weight room with floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooks its practice field.
The Gators’ issue is not want-to, though plenty will argue that more could have been done by Florida sooner in order to not lag behind its SEC and nonconference foes.
Rather, it is space. The UF campus – and more specifically, the Gators’ stadium and practice fields – are landlocked. Across the street are private businesses and on either side are other fields, stadiums and arenas, including Florida Gym, which was build after World War II in 1949 and resides on the National Register of Historic Places. The only potentially open area, a large parking lot including a parking garage, is the only one of its kind for The Swamp and Stephen C. O’Connell Center.
So the new indoor practice facility paid for and constructed by Florida, which is going against its normal policy about not taking on debt in order to build or renovate a structure, is not just a step in the right direction for the Gators but likely the first in a long line of improvements coming to the football program.
When and to what degree those other changes will follow are questions for another day, but Florida is most certainly aware that it needs to get back to its position as a leader of the pack, not a follower playing catch-up.