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With Florida’s $85 million football facility open, Gators’ excuses are over

With the state-of-the-art Heavener Football Training Center, Billy Napier has everything he needs to win big at UF.
The Florida Gators' Heavener Football Training Center opened in 2022.
The Florida Gators' Heavener Football Training Center opened in 2022. [ MATT BAKER | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Aug. 22|Updated Aug. 23

GAINESVILLE — As the Florida Gators prepared to move into their new $85 million football complex earlier this month, strength coach Mark Hocke was blunt about the building’s impact.

“I think,” Hocke said, “you’re losing any and every excuse …”

After taking a media tour of the Heavener Football Training Center on Monday, it’s clear that Hocke is right. The excuses around this program are gone. There’s no reason why Florida can’t challenge for championships again — soon.

Gators athletic director Scott Stricklin addresses reporters before a tour of the Heavener Football Training Center.
Gators athletic director Scott Stricklin addresses reporters before a tour of the Heavener Football Training Center. [ MATT BAKER | Tampa Bay Times ]

The previous regimes didn’t publicly make excuses about UF’s facilities, but they grumbled about them. In the final weeks of Dan Mullen’s tenure, he said administrators were working hard at getting the Gators “a facility like most teams in the country.”

“We’ve been behind,” then-coach Jim McElwain said in 2016, “but we’re catching up.”

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

Six years and two coaches later, McElwain’s former program is caught up. The 140,000-square-foot palace isn’t the flashiest in the country, but it has what the Gators need, starting with efficiency.

The Florida Gators can walk from practice to the plunge pool for recovery.
The Florida Gators can walk from practice to the plunge pool for recovery. [ MATT BAKER | Tampa Bay Times ]

The indoor practice facility is connected to the weight room. Players can grab a smoothie at the nutrition area on their way from there to the locker room, or they can wade through the plunge pool on their way to the training room. Coaches’ offices and the analysts’ bullpen flow to the team meeting room, which flows into position meeting rooms.

A month ago, the Gators would have wasted 18 minutes walking from the stadium to the practice fields and another 18 minutes coming back. Now the commute takes a fraction of the time. Add it up over the course of the year, and the Gators have 60-plus hours they can use on things more important than trudging past a parking garage. Perhaps some extra film study that would have prevented the blown coverage at Missouri that cost Mullen his job.

Related: Florida Gators honor former AD Jeremy Foley at new football complex

If increased efficiency isn’t enough to win more games by itself, new technology will help. The Gator Room features massive screens that can help in walk-throughs. Imagine UF’s offensive line setting up in front of a video of Utah’s defensive front. A pair of cryotherapy tanks (minus-67 degrees and minus-167 degrees) should aid recovery.

The Florida Gators have a barber shop at Heavener Football Training Center.
The Florida Gators have a barber shop at Heavener Football Training Center. [ MATT BAKER | Tampa Bay Times ]
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And then there’s the potential recruiting bump. Though the impact of facilities on signing day is probably overstated, buildings will no longer be a point rival staffs will highlight in prospects’ living rooms.

The lobby showcases UF’s three national championship trophies under a massive video board. The athlete lounge has a barbershop — the chairs’ material is designed to look like alligator skin — and virtual reality room. The pool outside wouldn’t look out of place at a nice resort.

A pool table is part of the lounge at the Florida Gators' Heavener Football Training Center.
A pool table is part of the lounge at the Florida Gators' Heavener Football Training Center. [ MATT BAKER | Tampa Bay Times ]

Every part of the complex delivers a powerful message to prospects and the sport as a whole.

“I think the word ‘commitment’ is probably what resonates most about this facility,” said Chip Howard, UF’s executive associate athletics director for internal affairs.

At least one former coach (McElwain) publicly questioned whether that commitment existed. There are no questions now.

The Gators hired Napier’s army to fill out an Alabama-inspired organizational chart. They boosted the salary pool with a trio of million-dollar assistants. And now they have a state-of-the-art building to house every analyst, nutritionist and recruiting director.

UF still has work to do. A major renovation to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium should be next. UF must stay competitive in the name, image and likeness market.

The Florida Gators' Heavener Football Training Center opened earlier this month.
The Florida Gators' Heavener Football Training Center opened earlier this month. [ MATT BAKER | Tampa Bay Times ]

But the Gators have everything they need to be great again. The off-field staff and facility might not be the biggest or best in the nation, but they’re not far behind. The only thing richer than UF’s recruiting footprint is the SEC revenue stream.

Hocke is right. The excuses that have hovered around the program are gone.

With the opening of the Heavener Football Training Center, Napier and the Gators finally have a home befitting their championship history. It’s up to them to prove they deserve it.

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