GAINESVILLE — When Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin heard a proposal to move the football athletic facility to the old McKethan Stadium baseball grounds, he thought it was a crazy idea. The groundwork was already in place to build the Gators facility on the north side of the track at James G. Pressly Stadium.
But a tight footprint made it a struggle to really get everything Florida would need for its newest athletic addition. And it’s why Chip Howard, executive associate athletic director for internal affairs, suggested the Gators scrap their original proposal and build a new ballpark instead.
“I looked at him like he had three heads because I felt like we were pretty far down the road of this other idea,” Stricklin recalled. “But (it was) a great idea.”
After playing a full season in the new Florida Ballpark at Alfred A. McKethan Field, the Gators’ athletic program celebrated another milestone. Tuesday, the final beam was placed at the entrance for the James W. “Bill” Heavener Football Training Center. With the framing complete, the $85 million facility’s opening is set for the beginning of summer 2022, six years after the initial plans were announced.
Gators football coach Dan Mullen isn’t exactly picking out the backsplash, but every decision from the flow of rooms to where a door is placed is purposeful.
Mullen’s time with his student-athletes is short — a maximum of four hours daily — so the smallest details make a difference. Such as where a meeting room is located in correlation to the practice fields and how many players can fit in a hallway walking side-by-side. The kind of things an average contractor might not think about.
To prove his point, Mullen brought in three of his larger players — 432-pound defensive linebacker Desmond Watson, 346-pound outside linebacker Ethan White and 354-pound outside linebacker Stewart Reese — to test out chairs for the team’s meeting room.
“Our guys are not normal human beings,” Mullen said with a chuckle. “When you’re in architectural design you’re not thinking about 6-foot-5, 350-pound guys as being the normal person walking around.”
Player functionality isn’t the only focus of the new facility, either. The coaching staff needs the right fit, too. Mullen’s corner office is placed so he can “observe everything that’s going on” from the southwest corner of the facility through glass windows, an office he’s set to occupy through 2026 with his new contract extension.
While the focus of the facility is on efficiency and functionality, there’s room for fun, too. Mullen said the structure — which will take up nearly 142,000 square feet — will include a recording studio, barber shop, virtual reality gaming centers, golf simulators and more.
Parts of the facility — like the dining and outdoor recreation areas, outfitted with swimming pools and a multipurpose lawn — will be accessible to all athletes. The weight room, locker room, meeting areas, lounge space and rehabilitation facilities will only be for those in the football program.
Mullen hopes the new common areas provide a social opening for Gator athletes who don’t normally cross paths with each other. Having that strong bond between programs is what makes Florida stand out, the coach added.
“One of the big (wow factors) for us was to design that for all sports to create great student-athlete interaction, so that our players can be around Olympians and world-record holders and national champions, and they can all interact and grow and learn from each other,” Mullen said.
But Mullen has to be patient — something he admitted is not his strongest quality. Construction won’t be completed for another eight to 10 months instead of the original January date.
But it’s worth the wait as long as it’s “the premier facility in the country.”
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