What would practice facility mean to Williams Arena?

  • Article by: MYRON P. MEDCALF , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 5, 2011 - 1:05 AM

The Gophers don't yet have the funds for a facility, but they realize they have to look at what the future holds for their 83-year-old home.

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Both Gophers basketball teams practice and play at Williams Arena.

Photo: Rita Reed, Star Tribune

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As they planned a Gophers basketball practice facility, athletic director Joel Maturi and other officials considered multiple locations.

The site they picked for the proposed $15 million venture -- a parking lot west of Williams Arena instead of connected to the building -- signaled a monumental shift. For the first time, Gophers officials began to ponder a future that might not include Williams Arena.

Maturi promised to raise funds for a practice facility as he and men's coach Tubby Smith took a private jet to the Twin Cities soon after the former Kentucky coach took the Gophers job in 2007.

Four years later, the school hasn't attracted the dollars to move it past a concept. But by plotting to build the practice facility separate from Williams Arena, the Gophers could maintain a presence on campus if they are forced to play off campus during a major renovation of the arena or construction of a new home venue, assistant athletic director Scott Ellison said.

"It still works, but we can't ignore the fact that we've got to start talking about the future," Ellison said.

While Ellison, Maturi and other officials believe that serious conversations won't start for some years -- especially with the state of the economy -- they all concede that the practice facility is the first step toward a scenario that ultimately will require talks about Williams Arena's future.

A 2005 consultant's report recommended more than $20 million in upgrades and repairs for the 83-year-old building, including a $5 million roof replacement, a $2 million interior lighting system that would allow the Gophers to use spotlights during team introductions and a $6  million renovation that would give the building air conditioning for the first time. The university is repairing the Williams Arena roof, a substantial savings compared to replacing it, Ellison said.

That capital project, which will cost the school close to $300,000, will add a decade or more to the roof's usability.

"[The arena] is in good shape. You walk through and paint's sticking on the walls. It's clean," he said. "The floor is in great shape. The seating's in great shape."

Maturi said he will retire before any tangible discussions about Williams Arena's future commence but said they will have to happen.

"It won't be under my watch as athletics director, but some day, all buildings get too old," he said. "Let's face it, it's inevitable. ... We love [Williams Arena]. But the Target Center's way too old, and when was that built?"

Opened in 1990, the 21-year-old Target Center is 62 years younger than Williams.

Smith said he understands Williams' distinct characteristics.

"It has its uniqueness, and I think that's important. That's what's impressive," he said. "Obviously, it has its nostalgia, but I think in this day and time, in any climate, there's always going to be change. If it's change for improvement, then we've got to be ready to make that move."

First, a new practice facility

It's tough for Smith to phone his buddy, Rick Pitino, these days. The two former Kentucky coaches remain good friends. But Smith can't help but envy the current Louisville coach, who often praises his $15 million practice facility and new $238 million arena, when they talk.

"It makes a difference," Smith said about a proposed practice facility. "It energizes people, energizes everyone."

In the coaching fraternity, Smith enjoys star status. As one of the few active coaches to have won a national title, he is revered among his colleagues.

But many of them have something he craves: a new practice facility. Northwestern and Minnesota are the only two schools in the Big Ten without one. Ohio State is trying to raise funds for a second practice facility.

The University of Minnesota's -- and Smith's -- aggressive push for a $15 million headquarters to accommodate the men's and women's teams reflects the school's standing in today's college basketball landscape. With an ancient home venue and no other alternative practice site, the Gophers trail their peers.

If their basketball facilities were cars, they wouldn't have power windows. Meanwhile, their rivals' vehicles can parallel park themselves.

It's that disconnect that has invigorated Gophers officials. Their message: Without a new practice facility, the program won't have the goods to compete in recruiting long-term.

"The arms race has and continues to be a reality in college sports," Maturi said. "We all offer them a scholarship. That's the same at every school. ... Most of us at this level offer the same travel opportunities. We provide them with nice transportation. What are the differences? When you're 17 or 18 years old, some of the differences are the facilities that exist. They're impressed when they walk in and they see this and they have that opportunity [to practice] 24/7. ... I hate to say it, but 17-, 18-, 19-year-olds are not overly impressed when they walk in [Williams Arena] because it's not the fancy arena."

Smith agrees.

"It all helps in recruiting, anything that glitters," he said. "Lots of time, everything that glitters is not the best, but things that glitter really catch people's attention. That's one of the things that people have really gone to."

Especially those programs that don't have the money to construct an all-inclusive arena. Iowa and Michigan are planning to add new practice facilities to older venues in the coming years.

David Crum, the chief fundraiser for the practice facility, said it will increase the shelf life of Williams Arena.

"[A new Williams Arena], it's just not something that's on the immediate horizon," he said. "That's why we want to develop this [practice facility]."

Hesitant about the future

Maturi and Crum are trying to sell some of the school's boosters on their vision. They have jointly stressed the mystique of Williams Arena and the fresh appeal of a new practice facility for recruits and current players.

But conversations about the future make Gophers supporters uneasy. Those discussions spur concerns about the lifespan of their favorite arena.

"The whole idea of replacing Williams Arena for most people is not even on the radar screen," said Gophers booster and former player Al Nuness. "But I think those folks that are closer to the program ... who don't see the reverence, so to speak, of Williams Arena, it's probably on their radar screen."

At this point, however, a practice facility is still a blip. The economic landscape has delayed progress. Only two years ago, the Gophers completed the $300 million TCF Bank Stadium. A chunk of that project demanded private funding. Some of the same donors have been asked to contribute to the practice facility.

Crum said a handful of supporters have donated, but not the kind of money necessary to really anchor the vision.

In recent months, plans have been scaled back, a sign of fundraising challenges. New projections call for a facility that features a practice gym, a recruiting room and a weight room, but it will not be a "Taj Mahal" like what is found on other campuses.

Indiana's practice facility features a separate gym for the men's and women's teams, a museum, offices, a space for private functions, a training room, new locker rooms and a lounge.

Minnesota's facility won't include as many bells and whistles. A tunnel will connect the facility to Williams Arena so players can use its locker rooms and training rooms. Coaches will maintain their offices at the Bierman Building.

It started out as a $20 million-plus idea.

"We need somebody to jump-start this," Maturi said.

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