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Artists' renditions of O'Connell Center renovations include chairbacks in the entire lower bowl area.

Tuesday June 10, 2014UAA Board Approves O'Connell Center Design Phase

Artists' renditions of O'Connell Center renovations include chairbacks in the entire lower bowl area.

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When Amanda Butler talks about the O’Connell Center, her words come from the heart.
 
Butler was a standout basketball player for the Florida women’s team and made some very big shots during the 1990s on the O’Dome floor. She later walked the stage for graduation there, served as a Gators assistant there and for the last seven seasons has won a huge chunk of her 120 games as UF’s head coach there.
 
“I’ve seen my share of concerts in that building, also,” Butler said. “How ‘bout MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice? That’s pretty hard core.”
 
The memories Butler has of the O’Connell Center are hers alone, yet thousands who have walked the UF campus -- be it as students, parents, sports/music/lecture fans or visitors -- have vivid and fond recollections of the arena that changed the university’s landscape when its doors first opened more than three decades ago.
 
Now, the building -- and future memories -- are ready for an upgrade.
 
On Tuesday, UF and the University Athletic Association announced plans to proceed with a $45 million renovation to the 33-year-old O’Connell Center, beginning in March 2015. The UAA Board of Directors voted to approve the process of choosing a firm to design the project with construction expected to take approximately 10 months to complete.

The go-ahead for the O'Dome renovations were at the forefront of the passing of the board's annual budget, which came in at $103.3 million for the 2014-15 academic year. Among other items rolled into the budget: $12.3 million for scholarships; a $3.5 million donation to the university (the UAA has now given $79.5 million to UF since 1990); approval to proceed on $1.75 million worth of architectural plans to expand the Office of Student Life; and $450,000 allocated to repair the turf and irrigation system on the football practice fields.
 
The next step for the O'Dome project, a joint effort between UF and the UAA, will be to hire a firm that can make current mock-ups and artist renditions a reality. 
 
Athletic Director Jeremy Foley actually was an assistant AD -- and just six months removed from his post as ticket manager -- when the O’Dome officially opened Dec. 30, 1980. That night, the Gators men’s basketball team defeated East Tennessee State 72-54 and thus moved UF athletics, in his words, “out of the dark ages.”
 
The facility, with its capacity of 11,548, has undergone multiple improvements since, including the transition from Teflon to hard-top roof in 1997.
 
The pending project, however, will be a game changer.
 
“Look at the programs that compete in that building,” Foley said. “Men’s basketball is recognized as one of the country’s best. Gymnastics has won back-to-back national championships. We’ve got a volleyball team that has dominated the Southeastern Conference for years and a women’s basketball team that’s on the rise. It’s just time to bring it up to the 21st century.”
 
Highlighting the project:
 
* A splashy main entrance that will serve as an open circulation area and house ticketing and retail sales areas.
 
* New concession stands, club seating and a club lounge, plus an open concourse where guests can navigate the facility more easily.
 
* Installation of chair-back seats throughout the arena, replacing the bleachers in the lower bowl.
 
* Renovation of all offices and locker rooms.
 
* A center-hung, high-definition video board and new sound system, along with updating to the arena’s infrastructure (mechanical, electrical and plumbing).
 
The news was welcomed by the coaches who call the O’Dome their home.
 
“I’ve seen some of the potential designs and they look beautiful,” said gymnastic coach Rhonda Faehn, whose back-to-back national titles have come on the heels of a $4.5 million upgrade to her O’Dome practice studio. “We saw the ones before they renovated our facility and it turned out a million times better than we all thought. I’m excited.”
 
The construction timeline will force the 2015 volleyball team to relocate all its home matches and the basketball teams to do the same for the non-conference portion of the 2015-16 season. Details of those changes in venue will come down the line, but Coach Billy Donovan’s teams, for example, are expected to bounce home games around the state.
 
“In the short-term, there will probably be some pain, some frustrations,” Foley said. “But in the long term you’re going to have a brand-new facility that’s going to be very, very special.”
 
Both Donovan and volleyball coach Mary Wise are looking forward to the improvements and how they’ll make one of the nation’s most lively home-court advantages in the country even better.
 
“In its present state -- with the nets in place and ball in play -- it’s one of the best venues in the country,” Wise said. “But the added locker-room space and training space, and some of the auxiliary areas we will really benefit from.”
 
Added Donovan: “It hasn’t been an overly fan-friendly place as far as comfort goes, with the bleachers and all, yet it’s still been an incredible home-court advantage for us -- absolutely awesome -- and that’s a testament to our students and fans. They will maintain that environment in the renovated building.”
 
Eventually, UF and UAA officials expect it to be a spectacular place, whether for sports, commencement, concerts, circus or Sesame Street.
 
Maybe even an MC Hammer-Vanilla Ice reunion.
 
“It’s going to be amazing to see a new and modern O’Dome for the next generation of students, athletes, coaches and all the people that utilize it,” Butler said. “It’ll be another big boost of energy for everyone and add another competitive edge to our great campus.”

 

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