It was 1990 when the renovated Glass Bowl, with its mammoth press tower, and the new Larimer Center, the state-of-the-art football building behind the north end zone, put the University of Toledo well ahead in the Mid-American Conference's facilities wars.
But it didn't last long. In the two decades since, six schools have built new stadiums, or done extensive renovations, and/or added facilities buildings for football. Six have built new arenas or renovated their existing field houses, often adding auxiliary practice gyms. Five MAC schools have indoor practice facilities for football and other sports.
Along the way, Toledo fell by the wayside. Savage Hall, once a 9,000-seat jewel, grew long in tooth and shabby. When the Rockets prepared for a football bowl game, they'd either shovel the snow off the Glass Bowl field and practice in sub-freezing temperatures or they'd move inside a gymnasium; a sub-standard arrangement, but the best they could do.
A few years back, UT officials realized they had dipped into the middle of the pack, perhaps lower, in a ranking of MAC athletic facilities. So, a plan was set in progress, one that would eventually cost about $40 million.
"Sure, it's fair to say we'd fallen down the list," said Mike O'Brien, the UT athletic director. "We're still very proud of the Glass Bowl, which has always been rather unique in the MAC because of the press tower and the number of suites. But Savage had fallen into the bottom third in the league. And we had issues with a lack of practice facilities.
"When recruits come on campus they see what we have to offer and they compare notes. Coaches call facilities the eye candy. It's important. And so is providing every advantage we can to help our teams get better."
The first phase opened last winter, when the new Sullivan Athletic Center surrounding a renovated - as in gutted to its four walls and rebuilt from scratch - and renamed Savage Arena made its debut.
If you thought that eye candy caused jaws to drop, wait until the Fetterman Training Center, adjacent to the Sullivan complex, is dedicated on Feb. 6. It is big, it is beautiful, and in the attention to detail it is almost beyond belief.
The project, spurred by a $1 million gift from Hal and Susan Fetterman, began by knocking down a hill and removing 48,000 tons of dirt. The beginning of the end will come next week when workers start installing Field Turf, similar to what is in the Glass Bowl, over the indoor field.
Perhaps the most painstaking and time-consuming part of the project was a feature that will never be seen, but will certainly be felt, by those who visit and use the facility.
Forty-two wells, each 300 feet deep, were drilled below the surface of the building for a geothermal heating/cooling system that is both "green" and will save plenty of green. Each well was filled with glycol, an organic liquid gel that absorbs the subterranean temperature. The system will heat and cool the entire turf building through two relatively small vents located at opposite ends of the field.
"In winter, the deeper you go the warmer the ground temperature is," said Mike Karabin, UT's deputy athletic director. "Conversely, in the summer, it's cooler. So the air will be pumped up and extracted from the well pipes. Otherwise, the building has no standard furnace and no standard air conditioning units. This system takes care of both."
It is the first geothermal system on UT's campus and, according to Karabin, is the largest ever installed in Lucas County.
The turf room it services measures 71,400 square feet and includes what is being billed as the second largest indoor practice surface in college athletics.
"I'm told Illinois has the largest," said Karabin, who noted there is 25 feet of space on each side of a full-sized football field.
The building measures 65 feet high at the middle and 35 feet high at its sides. Michigan's new indoor practice structure is reportedly the tallest in the nation at 80 feet at the center point.
UT's building is vast, to say the least. One entire side contains a 100-meter rubberized sprint track and there is a 90-foot sand sprint track - like running on the beach - for conditioning behind one end zone. A full indoor track will be "dotted" atop the turf field. Built into the ceiling is a mechanical structure that lowers a 60-foot-tall, 30-foot-wide batting and pitching cage for baseball. There are multi-level observation decks along the wall at the north end.
There also is an observation terrace at midfield along the west wall. It has exterior windows that open, allowing the area to be used as a press box for UT's outdoor track.
"Almost by accident, our outdoor track is going to be one of the best in the country," Karabin said. "We had to position the new building close to the track, only about 30 feet from the outside lane, in order not to lose too many parking spaces in the east lot. Then we had to cover a fairly severe slope outside the building and figure out where to position the track bleachers. The answer was to attach new stadium seating for the track on the side of the Fetterman building. As a result, the outdoor track complex is spectacular."
So spectacular that the Summit League, a mid-major NCAA conference with which UT has no affiliation, has already rented the facility for its 2010 outdoor track and field championships.
Back inside … well, we're not done yet. There is another 18,000-plus square feet to describe and it is Karabin's favorite part of the project.
Many universities have spent millions to build basketball practice complexes and indoor golf facilities, but UT did both for pennies on the dollar simply by widening and expanding what originally was going to be a one-story "tunnel" connecting the Sullivan/Savage complex with the Fetterman building.
By widening it, there was room to build a golf facility and two locker rooms, one for men's golf and one for the women's team, alongside the connecting passageway. The facility is sized for chipping and putting, but with nets for full shots and a video area for swing analysis.
By expanding to a second level, there was room for a full-sized practice gymnasium for basketball and volleyball. One end has a glass wall so that the facility is visible to fans from one of the arena concourses. If the court looks familiar, it's the last one that was used in the old Savage Hall.
"We had to shorten the end zones [in the turf building] by a few yards to fit this all in, but we felt it was well worth it," said Karabin, who headed the Fetterman project for the athletic department. "When the opportunity presented itself, we did some additional fund-raising and got everything done.
"One of the goals from the very start, from the time we got the approval to renovate Savage, was to develop a complete athletic complex where everything was centralized and where all our teams would benefit."
Added O'Brien: "If we were going to do it, we wanted to make sure we did it right."
And they certainly did.
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