ATHENS, Ga. – As a rain shower became a downpour Wednesday, Georgia players began to sprint through the walkway between the school’s track and the construction site where their grass practice fields used to be located.
An artist rendering of the expansion project ongoing at Georgia's Butts-Mehre building (Courtesy of UGA).
At the end of the walkway, on two adjoining turf fields across from Stegeman Coliseum, the Bulldogs continued practicing for Saturday’s game at Colorado in spite of the wet conditions.
For the moment, on and off the field, Georgia football remains very much a work in progress.
A 1-3 start to the Bulldogs’ 2010 season has coincided with the ongoing $39.5 million expansion of the Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall, which houses much of UGA’s athletics department on the top two floors and the football program on the bottom two floors. Right now, the work to expand the complex is taking place on those bottom two floors.
It has required some adjustments this season.
“That’s a little bit of a pain,” UGA coach Mark Richt said. “It’s not too bad, but when it’s raining real hard and you’re trying to get from a special teams meeting out to the trailer and it’s coming down hard, you’d just as soon not get them soaking wet right before their meetings if they’re in an air conditioned building.”
While construction continues, the weight room UGA’s team must use is located in Stegeman. Training rooms and positional meeting rooms for the Bulldogs are in trailers lined up near the construction zone. They sit an area where grass practice fields were until this season.
Georgia’s two remaining useable practice fields are both artificial turf, which means that for the 2010 season, the Bulldogs are temporarily working without a grass practice field except for rare trips to Sanford Stadium.
All 12 games on Georgia’s schedule are on grass surfaces, including each of the four games to this point and Saturday’s game at Colorado’s Folsom Field.
“Well, I think that would be good (to have grass fields),” Richt said. “But once our grass goes dormant, we’re better off practicing on the field turf. You rip up that grass, it tends to really not be in great condition after you wear it out a little bit. … In the beginning of camp, it was really hot. We would have normally been on grass, which is a little cooler for them. But other than that, it hasn’t been a big inconvenience.”
New UGA athletics director Greg McGarity said he was surprised to learn that Richt’s team did not have a grass field this season because of construction.
“That’s just an inconvenience,” McGarity said, “but I don’t think it has any correlation with hampering a team’s chance to get ready for the season and things like that. There’s some schools that don’t even have grass fields to practice on. Yeah, it’s a little unusual that we don’t have it, but at the end of the day, we’re going to be in great shape in the future.”
The ongoing Butts-Mehre project, started on the watch of McGarity’s predecessor Damon Evans, is designed to add approximately 53,000 square feet of new space to the building. Plans include a new weight-training room, athlete lounge, training facility, offices, meeting rooms and a multi-purpose area that addresses one of the football program’s major needs: An indoor practice facility.
UGA remains one of the few SEC schools without one (Florida is another), though ongoing expansion will add a room with turf where the team can go when it rains.
“It’s got a high ceiling,” McGarity said. “You may not be able to do some kicking drills in there, but needless to say, it will serve the same purpose as an indoor facility. It may not be 100 yards, but when you’re doing your real work during the season, you can get things done in that area.”
Asked if a full indoor facility is a goal of his, McGarity replies, “I don’t think so.”
“Not to say it’s the same for every program," he said, "but in 18 years at Florida, we never had an indoor practice facility. FSU has been pretty successful without an indoor building.”
In the meantime, Georgia’s practices are now being limited on most days to the two turf fields.
Richt likes the artificial surface on the two current practice fields, saying it’s a far cry from the old Astroturf days.
“They play almost the same,” Richt said. “Now the new synthetic turf fields are so much closer to what the real thing is. It’s a big, big difference. Back when you had the true carpet and grass, there was a big difference there. You wore different shoes. It was different.”
Players say it hasn’t been much of an issue so far.
“The only thing about the construction I would say that bothered us is summer we usually go on the grass fields,” cornerback Vance Cuff said, “because it’s a lot cooler than turf field. But this summer, we were on turf.”
“Nobody really thinks about that, but it affects (us) a little bit,” place-kicker Blair Walsh said, “because it’s a little different when your foot catches along the ground. But it’s worked out fine.”