By: Dan Apple, UF Communications
Head coach Urban Meyer wanted to "wow" recruits and fans when they came through the front door of the football facility. After an overwhelming response from the Gator Boosters, that’s exactly what the new James W. "Bill" Heavener Football Complex will do.
"This is the first athletic facility project in our history that, from the planning stage, was to be funded 100% privately," said Phil Pharr, Senior Director of Development for Gator Boosters, Inc. "In about a year and a half, we had 16 donors step up and commit the entire $28 million. Not many schools in the country have the fan base that could pull that off. This is just one more (and an incredibly large) example of what sets the University of Florida apart from most of our peers."
James W. "Bill" Heavener made the lead gift for the project, and the following people made contributions of $1 million or more: Bryan Kornblau, Don & Irene Dizney, Tom Johnson, Ben Hill Griffin III, Tommy Oakley, Joel Adams, Joe & Jeanette Chapman, Gary & Nancy Condron, Duke Crittenden, John Frost II, Stumpy Harris, David H. "Bumpy" Hughes, Gale Lemerand and Greg Masters. A 16th person made an anonymous donation.
"Think about it...16 people feel strongly enough about this program to give (a minimum) $1 million to make sure we're providing our student-athletes and coaches with all they need to succeed on and off the field," Pharr said.
After 18 months of construction, the facility finally opened in mid-July, in time to showcase it during the upcoming 2008 season. The new “Gateway of Champions” is a state-of-the-art, environmentally-friendly building that will help the Gators on and off the field.
"What we had wasn't representative of a football program of this stature, not just front-door wise, but office-wise," Athletics Director Jeremy Foley said. "Our offices were abysmal, the meeting space was horrible, the video space was even worse – we just couldn't do our jobs. The weight room was the same way – it was just too small."
The new facility has addressed all these issues – the coaches’ offices have expanded and undergone a complete renovation, the weight room has more than doubled in size, the new Gator Room will host recruits and their families on game day and the Atrium entryway will highlight the proud history and tradition of Florida Football.
The first thing fans will see is the new "front door" of the facility. Every consensus All-American has an 18" x 18" granite paver place into the walkway; with their name and year they achieved All-American honors. The seven Gators who have been elected into the College Football Hall of Fame are also recognized in the area. A spectacular 15-plus foot bronze Gator stands at the center of the entryway, paying tribute to Florida's 2006 National Championship Team.
"I saw the black granite bricks in the front with all the All-Americans…I got emotional about it," Coach Meyer said. "Guys gave their life and their soul to make this program great and now they're permanently part of the history in the greatest stadium in all of college football…out there where everybody can see them and embrace what they've done. We're where we are today because of all the things those guys did in the past and we wanted to honor them."
As fans enter the facility, they walk into a two-story atrium filled with trophy cases and hi-definition televisions, displaying highlights from the Gators’ national championships in 1996 and 2006. Front and center are two crystal national championship trophies, and along the right wall are three Heisman Trophies won by Steve Spurrier (1966), Danny Wuerffel (1996) and Tim Tebow (2007). There are also tributes to the seven SEC Championships that the Gators have earned since 1991.
"What this has allowed us to do, which every big-time program in America has, is a chance to honor our heritage," said Foley. "That's how you build tradition.”
To the left of the atrium is the new 4,000 square-foot Gator Room, a central location to house recruiting functions throughout the year. The space includes seating capacity for meals up to 200 people and a state-of-the-art audio and visual system, including a 20’ HD projection screen. This room is the most advanced audio and visual room of its kind on any collegiate campus.
“There is a reason for everything we do here,” Coach Meyer said. “We are making our front door a tribute to the great players and teams…embracing our past but building forward to the future. Anything we do, we do to motivate recruits. Any time when 18-year-old eyes' see Jack Youngblood’s name, Emmit Smith’s name, Tim Tebow’s name and the way we honor our great players, our great teams…their eyes are going to get wide because they know they can have a great career here and they will always be remembered.”
Moving through the atrium, stairs lead up to the second level, which houses the new coaches’ offices. The space has been completely renovated and expanded, allowing all of the coaches to be more efficient and effective in their work.
“It will totally change the way we do business,” Foley said. “Coaches were meeting on top of each other because we didn’t have enough room and the video people were spread out all over the place – it’s not conducive to a major college football program.”
Coaches now have plenty of space in their offices and meeting rooms as well as the latest in technology.
“We’re on the cutting edge on coaching stuff,” Coach Meyer said. “Everything is in place to be very functional with the staff and then going from the locker room to the weight room facility to the front door and then to the office space – this is a cutting-edge facility. This is about as good as it gets.”
While the coaches are working on their game plans, Director of Strength and Conditioning Mickey Marotti will be using his new weight room to get the players ready.
“I did a little study on facilities in the SEC, mostly the weight rooms and that sort of stuff, and obviously we needed an upgrade,” Marotti said.
Marotti spent four years designing and planning the new weight room at the University of Notre Dame, and was only there for about 30 days after it opened before he came to Florida. He was prepared when it came time to go through the process again.
“When we had our first meeting [at UF], I had a list [of things needed in the weight room] all ready to go, from the day I walked in here,” Marotti said.
The new weight room is the crowning jewel of the new facility. The first thing the strength and conditioning staff needed was more space. The old weight room had less than 10,000 square feet and after the renovation, it features close to 25,000 square feet at the staff’s disposal.
“We can get more quality work done in a more efficient time,” said Marotti. “Now, instead of being smashed into a little area and waiting on things, we have more equipment, more space, and can position our staff in different places so the flow is one after another and they’re not wasting time.”
The Gators’ new weight room includes an area of turf that is 50 yards long, which also allows for multiple teams to use the weight room at the same time.
“We’re doing that right now,” Marotti said. “We’ve got three football groups, a 6:30, 8:30 [in the morning] and a 1:30 [in the afternoon], and at 7:30 [in the morning], women’s soccer comes in, so we’re getting off the turf and they’re getting on the turf. When we’re done with the weights, they come in right behind us. That’s kind of how it was designed, to work like that. It’s as efficient as people can imagine. We get so much done, it’s amazing.”
There is also no shortage of technology in the weight room. There are two stations set up that can take 360-degree video, which allows players to go back and work on technique which Marotti can break down on a telestrator. Add in a state-of-the-art sound system and high-def TVs and this weight room has it all.
“The kids love it, they’re amazed by it all,” said Marotti. “The athletes have been shocked. Ex-athletes who have been in here the last couple of weeks are completely mesmerized. It’s kind of cool.”
The new facility is everything that Coach Meyer has hoped it would be. The offices, locker rooms and weight room are just the tip of the iceberg. When recruits come to visit Florida, they will no doubt walk away impressed.
“One thing about the University of Florida is when they do something, they do it right,” Coach Meyer acknowledged. “This is the way it should be. This should be the best and classiest facility in college football.”