- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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DESTIN, Fla. -- There's no question that Florida is a national brand. The name alone gives the Gators national recognition throughout the college sporting world, and for just about every sport the university has to offer, Florida is a top-5 destination.
But that doesn't mean the foundation is free of cracks. It's more than evident on the football field, with the Gators having to hire new coach Jim McElwain in December. But dig further and you'll see that Florida is behind when it comes to the facilities this proud football program has to offer.
With so many programs in college football pushing full force into what will be a never-ending arms race, Florida is behind, especially in the SEC. While its stadium, better known as the Swamp, is one of the nation's most unique and treacherous venues that can house more than 90,000-plus on Saturdays, the other basic football facilities are not on par with most of the league.
The coaches' offices, the locker room, the training facility and the weight room are all locked away under the stadium. Office views consist mostly of the underbelly of the Swamp. Florida is just now constructing an indoor practice facility ($15 million project) that will be ready before the season starts, and Florida is one of the few SEC programs without a separate football building outside of its stadium.
“We’ve got a ways to go," McElwain said of Florida's football facilities. "We’ve got some great things going on with our housing situation, our office of student life, obviously our indoor [practice facility]. We have a lot of great things to offer at the University of Florida. Now, are we at the top with the Taj Mahals with what’s going out there? No, but at the same time we’re making movements.”
Florida's approach toward facilities is slowly changing. More importantly, athletic director Jeremy Foley is making the football facilities more of a priority now.
It became obvious with the plans to finally construct that much-needed, 120-yard indoor practice facility and the $25 million pumped into the construction of a state-of-the-art academic center for all student-athletes. These projects were a long while coming when you consider that the last major upgrade for the football program came in 2009 when the school spent $28 million on the Heavener Football Complex, which stands as the face of Florida football at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
Foley has taken considerable criticism for Florida's lack of significant football upgrades over the years, but when asked about that at the SEC spring meetings this week, Foley made the point that even with Florida's strong brand, it can't just throw money around whenever it wants to.
“Facilities are always important to us," Foley said. "I think there’s an impression out there that the University of Florida doesn’t pay attention to its facilities. Right now, we’ve got about $100 million worth of projects on the drawing board, significantly on the drawing board.
“We’re not Fort Knox. You've got to try to utilize your resources the best you can, and we’re blessed to have the resources. I just think that sometimes there’s an impression that it’s unlimited. There are some things that we want to get done with our football program, as it relates to some things for our student-athletes -- team lounge, expanding the hydrotherapy area, looking at their locker room, things like that. We have architects looking at that now."
Florida doesn't have unlimited cash flow and there are plenty of other successful sports that need finances as well, but Florida's late addition to the football arms race (the real money maker) can and has affected recruiting. Has it been a major deterrent? Doubtful, but as every program around Florida expands and gets prettier, UF has to evolve as well or risk getting left behind.
Florida got by on name alone in the past. When Steve Spurrier was winning in the 1990s, he made the point that you don't need pretty facilities to be successful. And he was right ... back then.
“They’ve never been considered the top because we did not have an indoor facility," Spurrier said of Florida's facilities. "The practice fields, we had about a 100-yard and an 80-yarder and that was it. We had a lot of good players, though, and that offsets facilities, that’s for sure. Florida obviously had a lot of success the last 20 years or so without the best facilities in the country, that’s for sure. Now, they’re having to keep up with everybody else sort of like we all do.”
Things have considerably changed, and recruits -- like it or not -- are attracted to nice, shiny, new things. They want to feel treated like royalty, even if they've just left senior prom.
McElwain made it a point to put facilities near the top of his immediate priorities list when he arrived, and progress is being made. Other projects are being considered, and it sounds like Florida is moving in the right direction. Staying on that path is key.
"At the end of the day it’s all part of the formula, it’s not just bells and whistles," Foley said. "Trust me, you can look around the country, a lot of programs have a lot of bells and whistles and they’re not achieving what the University of Florida is. It’s all part of the formula. Facilities will always be part of the conversation."