ATHENS — Tucked along the west side of Stegeman Coliseum there’s a dark stairwell. That leads to a narrow hallway that smells a bit of mildew, which leads to a small room stuffed to the walls with weights and workout equipment. It’s a gym that would be substandard for most successful high school football programs, but for the Georgia Bulldogs, it’s home. For now, at least.
Affectionately called “The Dungeon,” by Georgia’s players, the room features benches with torn padding, worn weights and dingy walls. During last week’s storms, the room flooded, and by Thursday, large dehumidifiers were taking up valuable real estate in the cramped quarters.
“There’s no windows, and it’s basically a dark broom closet,” wide receiver Kris Durham said. “But it’s what we have, so we’re taking it the best we can and we’re going to work hard there.”
A few hundred yards away, however, the ongoing construction at Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall offers an increasingly impressive reminder of what the sacrifice is for.
The building, which housed all of Georgia’s football offices, training rooms, weight room and locker room, has been under construction for more than a year, with 70,000-square feet of new space being added and another 40,000 square feet of the old building being renovated. When it’s done, the Bulldogs will not only be upgrading from “The Dungeon,” they’ll be moving into one of the most state-of-the-art, luxurious spaces in college football.
“(It’s) the MTV ‘Cribs’ for our student-athletes,” said Arthur Johnson, Georgia’s associate athletics director for football operations. “It’s the place where they will be spending the majority of their time outside of their dorm room. When they’re over here preparing during the offseason, preparing for practice, going to the training room for treatments, going to the meeting rooms — it will be a first-class place, and it will keep us relevant in the recruiting world.”
Recruiting is a big reason for the additions, and several top prospects have already gotten tours of the new facility, which isn’t scheduled to be completed until November. The interior of the construction is mostly still just steel beams and concrete, but the vision is coming into focus.
“Having recruits coming in now and seeing it coming out of the ground and taking shape, we’re allowed to throw hard hats on them now and walk them through, I think it’s going to be a source of pride and excitement for recruits,” head coach Mark Richt said.
The most noticeable addition is a huge multi-purpose room that can be used to hold banquets and camps but will also serve as a de facto indoor practice facility. The room is two stories high and will house a field that is 20 yards wide and 60 yards long. A curtain will be outfitted along the roof that can split the room in half, allowing both Georgia’s offense and defense to hold pregame walk-throughs in the facility.
The coaches will get all new offices — including Richt, whose office will have a balcony overlooking the outdoor practice fields and a large glass wall that affords him a view of the indoor field.
The locker rooms have been renovated. A new players’ lounge is being added and will be outfitted with flat-screen televisions, computers, video game consoles and all the luxuries a college football player could ask for when it’s time to relax after a hard day of practice.
The training rooms will get a huge facelift, too. Currently, Georiga’s training staff is working out of a double-wide trailer that sits on what used to be a practice field, but when the new building opens in January, they’ll have a huge workroom outfitted with the most modern technology available. The training rooms will even feature two large pools — one hot, one cold — and both will include treadmills at the bottom to allow players to train.
And then there’s the weight room, which upon completion should make those days in “The Dungeon” seem worthwhile. The room will be more than twice as big as the old Butts-Mehre weight room and will be outfitted with completely new equipment.
“The things that we use every single day, when those things are as good as they can be, it adds value to your program,” Richt said.
Of course, value is also offset by cost — and the project is definitely costing Georgia a few dollars.
The entire project is estimated to cost about $40 million, with roughly half of that supplied by donors and half paid for with 20-year bond sales.
Taking on debt for capital projects — Georgia is making upgrades at Stegeman, too — can be a risky proposition. Much of the revenue generated by the athletics department comes from season ticket sales and donations, and those numbers have been down for three of the past four years.
Georgia announced last week that the minimum donation to the school’s Hartman Fund necessary to purchase season tickets had dropped to just $1,550 — down drastically from the $10,651 required in 2008. Overall contributions were down, too. The school generated $22.8 million this past year, down from $23.3 million last year and well off the record high $26.1 million in 2008.
Part of the revenue decline stems from back-to-back disappointing seasons for the Bulldogs football team, part from the down economy which has effected spending nationwide. But while Georgia has not been immune from the economic problems around the country, Johnson said the current construction projects had more than accounted for such contingencies.
“All of these projects were planned and set up based on the good fortune we’ve had and the ability to save money and have reserves,” Johnson said. “We were not building based on things continuing to go great. Our construction is planned with the idea that we can pay for it even if we have a season like we don’t want or the country hits (a recession).”
Of course, for all the current construction, the biggest question most fans have surrounds when Georgia will be adding another asset to the football program — an indoor practice facility.
That might be a ways off, however, according to athletics director Damon Evans. Before the new construction at Butts-Mehre was put into the pipeline, Evans asked Richt what the team’s biggest priority should be. Richt fully endorsed the upgrades to the football building, tabling talks of an indoor facility for the future. So while the brilliant new additions to Butts-Mehre take shape, not much has changed on the potential of an indoor practice field since.
“Will we get to an indoor facility one day?” Evans said. “I’d never rule anything out, but you have to take a look at the financial landscape and what position you’re in. That’s what we’ll do.”
Even for Evans, it’s tough to predict what the future might hold. As college football continues to grow, and as Georgia continues to generate huge revenue, the promise of capital growth around campus seems inevitable.
That’s part of the new facilities, too. The film room, for example, is outfitted with specially designed floors that will allow the school to easily switch out wiring as technology evolves in the future.
And then there’s the trophy room. That’s currently housed in the lobby of the second floor of the old Butts-Mehre building, but as Georgia and its players have met with more and more success during the past decade, that space has become cluttered, too. So part of the new additions will be an atrium connecting the old and new construction that will serve as the new trophy room.
The space serves as sort of its own monument – a reminder of what the investment is all about. As competitive as life in the SEC has become, growing wasn’t about simply needing more space or better equipment. It’s the cost of winning in the best football conference in the country.
“We’re in a highly competitive conference with some of the best facilities in the country,” Evans said. “We’ve got to keep our eyes open, keep our finger on the pulse of what’s going on around us, and this facility allows us to do that.”