Utah Athletics checks projects off facilities wish list

Another podium, another speech, another shovel.

Spence Eccles, a former All-American skier-turned-Utah superbooster, has been to many of these groundbreakings now. His name rests on the Utes’ football stadium, on the football facility, the student life center, the tennis courts and soon a ski team building ccc the latest project that officially began construction Wednesday.

Along with a line of school administrators, coaches and other donors, he gently scooped out soil at the site where a $2.3 million building will rise in the coming year. But while the crowd wilted in the June heat, the 81-year-old’s enthusiasm was unyielding.

“All this behind us,” he said, gesturing to a mound of dirt beyond a fence, “has been to show that we’re not some Johnny-come-lately, we’re not some weak sister. Now, we’re really becoming a first-class program, with first-class facilities.”

Note: “becoming.” Because there are more shovels to set in.

Like a painting that’s never finished, a university’s facilities require constant appraisal and refurbishing. The Utes dialed up the stakes for their on-campus athletics facilities when they joined the Pac-12 in 2011, going against the likes of Stanford, Oregon and UCLA not only with on-court results, but whose supporting facilities is the most awe-striking.

The past five years has seen Utah cutting tape on football and basketball facilities; tennis courts; strength and conditioning centers; a softball stadium; and a track. And while the Utes feel they’re in many ways “now up to par” in the facilities arms race, there’s more ccc if less high-profile ccc projects ahead.

“There’s always something on the list,” athletic director Chris Hill said.

Ongoing projects include the ski team building and an additional football practice field. But Utes feel “solid” at the moment in their investment into football and basketball, and many of the items on the to-do list should give some other programs some love.

Baseball and golf are two of those that have continued to lag in the arms race. The baseball team that won the Pac-12 this spring often has to scoot out of Smith’s Ballpark right on the heels of games, all their gear in tow. And new golf coach Garrett Clegg says he’s planning weekly trips to St. George this winter to get his team the practice they need.

“In terms of some of these things you’d like to have, we probably need them yesterday,” Clegg said. “But it’s a gradual process. And we’re very early on.”

An on-campus baseball stadium would replace the Utes’ shared occupancy of Smith’s Ballpark with the Salt Lake Bees. The department has looked into plans that would expand Utah’s current practice field on Guardsman Way, next to the Salt Lake City Sports Complex, and add seating and other infrastructure similar to Utah’s softball field.

The biggest issue is land: This particular proposal would require the university to make a deal with the city to use a portion of Sunnyside Park. Hill said two months ago that he would like to shoot for the ballpark to be open by 2018 to help attendance and alleviate scheduling problems, but there are a lot of variables to overcome ccc donors, space, and planning ccc before the project can gain momentum at the university level.

Space is also a challenge for a proposed golf building: Clegg envisions access to hitting bays, video equipment and a film room, and an area to work on chipping and putting, ideally with at least 12,000 square feet of room. It likely would have to be built onto an existing golf course in the area.

Utah also hopes to have other improvements that benefit multiple sports: The Burbidge Academic Center where many athletes study and get tutoring support is in need of expansion and modernizing. Locker areas in the HPER, next to the new basketball facility, could be upgraded to help the Olympic sports housed there.

The athletic department is still on the hunt for the funding to get rolling, as athletics department projects are primarily pushed through by donors. The department will also be paying off bonds that helped fund the football and basketball facilities that opened in the past three years.

A project further down the line that could be time-sensitive is the south end zone building, an aging part of Rice-Eccles Stadium sitting in front of the $13.5 million video board and sound system that was recently installed.

Deputy athletic director Kyle Brennan, who presides over facilities projects, said the department is still deciding what to do with the space. Besides locker rooms and seating, there could be added space for recruiting areas, medical assistance and luxury options.

There’s also a spirited segment of the fanbase who would like to see the seating capacity (roughly 45,000) expand after 38 consecutive home sellouts. Coach Kyle Whittingham said himself that, if it makes financial sense for the university, he would like to see the department extend the building on either end to close out the lower bowl and perhaps boost the crowd.

For now, he isn’t being picky. On Friday, Utah football’s Twitter account posted a clip of Whittingham watching football highlights on the new 7,808-foot board while listening to his beloved AC/DC’s piercing chords, as he told the crew to “turn it up.”

It’s a nice setup, to be sure. But there’s always something to make a little better.

“The south end zone building would be the finishing touch for us, I think,” Whittingham said. “It’s an arms race in college athletics. Your stuff better be as good as the next guy’s.”- The Salt Lake Tribune