Inside college football’s latest facilities craze: the football-only complex

Florida is building one. Jimbo Fisher wanted one. Here’s why football-only facilities are so important.
Published Aug. 3, 2018|Updated Aug. 30, 2021

To understand the frontline of a college football arms race that’s playing out in Florida and across the nation, look to the extremes.

There are the big and bold extravagances that wow recruits — like barbershops, mini-golf courses and TVs staring out from bathroom mirrors.

And there are the tiny, seemingly insignificant details that coaches, architects and designers scrutinize — like where to put every door in a 100,000-square-foot palace.

The combination of gold-plated luxuries and meticulously devised logistics are why programs from Florida to Oregon State are pouring millions into the sport's latest facilities craze.

The football-only complex.

"Literally everyone and their brother is building a football-only facility right now…" said Matt Huml, who has studied their impacts as an assistant professor of sport management at Texas Tech. "If you don't have a football-only facility, you're wanting to build one. If you do, then you're wanting to improve it."

Huml isn't exaggerating by much.

A conservative count shows at least 17 of the 65 Power Five programs have opened or renovated football-only complexes since 2013. The combined cost: more than $800 million. Add in at least seven other projects that are in the works, and the total hits $1.2 billion.

UF plans to begin construction on its $65 million stand-alone facility by early 2020. USF is raising money for a $40 million, 160,000-square-foot complex that would include a players' lounge, offices and an indoor practice facility. Florida State is studying the logistics of building one, but its lack of progress influenced coach Jimbo Fisher's decision to bolt for Texas A&M (whose Bright Football Complex underwent a $21 million renovation in 2014).

The Gators, Seminoles and every other program already have the weight room, locker room, nutrition center and office space these football castles include. What's different is how they're all incorporated.

"All that stuff occurs in one space…" said Vito Privitera, a senior project designer at design firm HNTB. "Efficiency is key."

To see that efficiency, consider one of HNTB's projects: Kentucky's Joe Craft Football Training Facility.


When tight end C.J. Conrad arrived at Kentucky as a four-star recruit in 2015, the Wildcats' facilities were spread out. Tutoring sessions and practice fields were more than a mile apart.

That changed in July 2016, when the Wildcats opened their $45 million, 100,000-square-foot complex next to Kroger Field.

"Everything's there," Conrad said.

It's all there because a program's most limited resource is time.

RELATED: Florida Gators reveal updated plans for $65 million football complex

NCAA rules limit coaches to only four hours of player interaction daily, and players' schedules are packed with class and training. If a new building can eliminate a 15-minute trip across campus, that's 15 extra minutes they can spend watching film, studying or unwinding.

The same principle applies to a facility's layout.

The Wildcats' weight room flows to the practice fields, so players can transition easily from lifts to sprints. The practice fields flow to the 52-degree plunge pool for recovery. The hydrotherapy area flows to the locker room, where players can shower and change before heading to tutoring, meetings or the players' lounge.

"It's just functionality," Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said.

Similar functionality exists at other complexes. Mississippi State's team meeting room has a sliding wall to quickly split into offense and defense. Penn State and Clemson have nutrition centers adjacent to their weight rooms so players can immediately refuel after workouts.

Contrast that efficiency to UF, where the Gators must walk past the O'Connell Center, a parking garage and McKethan Stadium to get from their lockers to the practice fields. Considering coach Dan Mullen's goal is to develop talent better than anyone else in the country, wasting 10 minutes that other programs are maximizing is a problem. That's why the Gators toured facilities at Kentucky and Clemson and hope to study the flow of corporate offices like Google to get ideas for their new complex.

RELATED: What Dan Mullen wants to learn from Google

"I want guys efficiently moving around the building," said Mullen, who helped plan the Mississippi State complex that opened in 2013. "I don't want a line walking out of the team meeting room. I want to efficiently get in and out fast."

Which means even a detail like where you enter a room is important.

To figure out where to put a single door at a position room in UF's proposed 130,000-square-foot facility, the architecture firm HOK will find out the minutiae of the Gators' schedule. Where is that position coach coming from? Where is he going next? If the coach needs to exit the meeting first but can't get to the door before his players do, then the design team failed.

"It's just like NASCAR," said Nate Appleman, HOK's director of sports, recreation and engagement.  "We're talking about shaving a few seconds, 30 seconds, a minute with each of these little moves. But over the course of a day and over the course of a year, it all adds up."

And what has it all added up to at Kentucky? For Conrad, it's an hour a day.

"At least," Conrad said.

As important as that efficiency is, only part of this facility boom centers on maximizing players' time.

The bigger part is getting them on campus in the first place.


The recruiting pitch at football-only complexes begins when you walk through the door.

Clemson's lobby shows off its championship trophies. At Penn State, a wall of its classic uniforms highlights the program's All-America history.

Kentucky can't match the tradition of either, so the Wildcats' facility tries to excite prospects with a glimpse of what it would be like to join them.

The grand entrance shows off their array of uniform options. To help recruits picture themselves in them, there's an interactive display, so they can customize their own look. If that's not enough, a set of screens provides an immersive, 180-degree view of what it's like to run onto Kroger Field.

"It's about the experience…" said Michael McClurg, who worked on the project as the president of the graphics and branding firm Forty Nine Degrees. "We really wanted to engage them in an interactive way and expose them to the gameday experience."

McClurg said coaches are always trying to outdo each other with out-of-the-box ideas that command attention.

Some of those features have semi-functional purposes. Clemson's mini-golf course and bowling alley provide entertainment in a town of 17,000 residents, and its famed slide is a quick way to get from second-floor meetings to the field. Former Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin had TVs embedded in the Aggies' bathroom mirrors to encourage players to spend an extra moment grooming themselves.

But it's hard to see the practicality of other luxuries, like the 64 giant screens that welcome visitors to Oregon's $68 million palace.

"It's very much all in the competitive nature to recruit athletes," said Jeff Volk, who worked on facilities at Kansas State and Kentucky as the vice president of Alpha Video Sports & Entertainment Group. "While there's certainly training applications both physically and mentally, a large, large part of it is trying to get (recruits) on campus from wherever they live to wherever they are."

Coaches believe that process starts before the building even opens. South Carolina's Will Muschamp said he can already see a shift on the recruiting trail, even though the Gamecocks' $50 million complex won't open until December.

"It shows the investment we're making at the University of South Carolina into our football program," Muschamp said. "No doubt, it's changed the game a little bit for us in recruiting."

How much it changes recruiting is open to debate.

Huml and colleagues at Texas Tech and Niagara University studied the recruiting impact of 107 Power Five facilities upgrades from 2005-15. Their findings, as published this summer in the Journal of Marketing for Higher Education: Teams get a small bump in recruiting rankings during construction that disappears before the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

The data led Huml to conclude that perhaps the biggest impact of college football's arms race isn't about the buildings themselves at all.

"You're spending $60 million to build hype," Huml said. "That just seems like such a waste."

Not to the programs searching for any advantage they can get in recruiting and player development.

To them, it's just the cost of doing business on the cutting edge of college football's arms race.

Contact Matt Baker at Follow @MBakerTBTimes

A look at some football-only facilities


Opened: 2017

Cost: $55 million

Size: 142,000 square feet

Notable feature: A slide from the second floor to the first — an idea from coach Dabo Swinney

"It's super easy for them to hop on the slide, go down to the locker room, grab their stuff, and they're out on the field. It's something that the kids use…They really do. That was all Dabo." — Nate Appleman, Director of Sports, Recreation and Entertainment at design firm HOK

Texas A&M

Renovated: 2014

Cost: $20.8 million

Renovated space: 36,000 square feet

Notable feature: TVs embedded in the bathroom mirrors, a request from then-coach Kevin Sumlin

"That will maybe get the guys to spend one more minute or two more minutes there…Coach Sumlin kept stressing, not all these guys are going to go pro in football. But hygiene, how they maintain their personal wellbeing is key." — Vito Privitera, senior project designer at HNTB


Opened: 2016

Cost: $45 million

Size: 145,000 square feet

Notable feature: Immersive video display of players running out of the tunnel

“The way the content is shot, it makes you feel like you’re standing in the middle of the team as the team is running out on the field. Five years ago, six years ago when somebody asked to be able to do that, either the technology wasn’t there, or it would be so cost prohibitive, it would just be cut from the budget.” — Jeff Volk, vice president of Alpha Video Sports & Entertainment Group