TAMPA — When Stan Heath became USF's basketball coach five years ago, he heard about the school investing in the program, about a new practice facility and renovations to the Sun Dome, its home since 1980.
Standing in the Muma Center on Wednesday, USF's new practice facility, Heath smiled as he talked about the upcoming completion of a $35 million Sun Dome makeover.
"Five years ago, none of this existed. It was just a conversation," said Heath, whose team played most of this season's home games at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
"To see it come to fruition is amazing. A lot of people say things; they're going to do this, going to do that. To watch how quickly things have changed here is just so impressive. It doesn't get much better than this."
Heath and athletic director Doug Woolard gave the media a hard-hat tour of the Sun Dome, which is in the final stages of the renovation paid for by the university.
The arena is barely recognizable with a new lower bowl, fixed second level with concourses beneath, baseline-to-baseline club level on one side, 10 loge suites on the other and center-hung scoreboard.
Paired with USF's first NCAA Tournament appearance this season in 20 years (and first-ever tournament victories), it's a huge surge of momentum for Heath's program, which tied for fourth in the Big East after being picked to finish 14th by league coaches.
"From a recruiting standpoint, it's a slam dunk," Heath said of the improved facilities. "It's going to make a world of difference in our recruiting and our program going forward. I can't tell you how many coaches from five years ago were telling me, 'Man, that's a tough job; I don't know if you want to take that job,' to now, 'Man, you've got a great job.'
"You live in a great environment. You've got great facilities, great support. It's really turned into a special, special place."
The Sun Dome is the latest in a wave of facility upgrades at USF over the past 14 months, including new stadiums for baseball and softball as well as the Muma Center and new football practice fields.
"As much as the other athletic venues have surpassed my best hopes, this has even surpassed that," Woolard said.\
"I think when people come in and see this building, they're going to say, 'Are you kidding me?' "
And the 10,000 new seats aren't the only thing green about the Sun Dome. USF says 92 percent of the debris removed from the renovation was recycled — more than 10 million pounds — and new measures will reduce energy costs by 26 percent and water usage by 40 percent.
USF plans to hold a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony May 2, and the arena is scheduled to host commencement ceremonies May 4-5. The Bulls are expected to hold a "Midnight Madness" for fans built around the first practice in October and could have as many as 18 home games in 2012-13.