(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) l-r University of Utah softball team players Chalese Fankhauser, Trina Gomez, Taylor Austin and Marissa Mendenhall Tuesday, May 14, 2013, will be playing on their newly constructed softball field next season.

Utah athletics: With new facilities, Utes are Pac-12 ready

Softball and football complexes open in July; new basketball facility and tennis stadium will follow.


First Published May 15 2013 02:57 pm
Last Updated May 15 2013 11:58 pm

With a great upgrade in conference affiliation comes great responsibility.

Utah athletics director Chris Hill knew this in 2011, when the Utes moved from the Mountain West to the Pac-12. His head coaches in each sport knew it, and so did the athletic department’s major donors and fundraisers. The goal: Improve Utah’s athletic facilities across the board in order to help the Utes compete on the field and floor against better-funded Pac-12 foes.

Two years later, this new, improved picture is beginning to come into focus.

The new track and field facility is in its second year of operation. Both the new football practice facility and softball stadium will be open for business in July. Approval has been stamped for a new men’s and women’s basketball practice facility. The volleyball team is moving to the Huntsman Center for the first time in program history this fall, and a new state-of-the-art Student Life Center — built for the entire studentbody but sure to be a draw for athletes — is scheduled to open late next year.

For Hill and his department, the changes are sweeping. But they had to be if Utah is to be taken seriously in its new conference.

"We knew that we needed to get stuff done when we made the move to the Pac-12," Hill said. "These upgrades give us a chance to make a statement and it makes us more and more competitive."

The first two years of conference play have proven challenging for Utah. This was to be expected — the Utes entered the Pac-12 with the league’s smallest athletics budget. But it only heightened the urgency to get the new facilities online as quickly as possible. Recruits were coming to visit, and the Utes had to show recruits they intended to be a serious player in their new conference.

"Facilities are the backbone of any program," track and field coach Kyle Kepler said. "But recruiting is the lifeblood. We went from a high school facility to our own, and it’s definitely helped our recruiting. Having our own facility is like buying our first house. We get to show ownership."

Utah is still not on a level playing field with the rest of the Pac-12. In Year Three of their phased-in conference membership, the Utes will receive a 75 percent share of Pac-12 television and postseason money — about $15 million. The school will not get its first full share (over $20 million) until 2014-15.

Utah’s athletic budget has grown significantly since leaving the Mountain West, but because of that early, temporary Pac-12 revenue shortfall, the Utes have had to do significant fundraising in the past three years to kick-start the planning and building of new facilities.

The new football practice facility cost $32 million, with half of the total coming from fundraising efforts. The basketball practice facility comes with a $24 million price tag, and halft of that will be funded with donations. Additional plans are in place for a new outdoor tennis stadium adjacent to the Eccles indoor tennis facility. And long-range blueprints call for both the expansion of the football stadium and renovation of the Huntsman Center.

The Utes’ basketball arena will get some minor tweaks to accommodate the volleyball team. Ute volleyball coach Beth Launiere says she’ll miss the cramped, but exuberant atmosphere of Crimson Court, but is thrilled to be moving onto a bigger stage.

"It’s an exciting time for all of us and we’re really looking forward to the change," Launiere said. "It will be different for us, because we had developed a comfort level with Crimson Court. But we also know that this is completely what the program needs. Every other team in the Pac-12 plays on its basketball court. We needed to make this move, and we’re behind it 100 percent."

The softball stadium is scheduled to officially open July 17 with an alumni game. The new facility includes indoor batting cages and bullpens — essential for a team that often opens preseason practice with snow on the ground.

"This is a big deal for us," head coach Amy Hogue said. "We can be wimpy and regulate the temperature. It’s big for the players to be able to access facilities whenever they want. They will have the key to their own place and that’s huge."

tjones@sltrib.com

on twitter: @tjonessltrib

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