NEW TRAINING CENTER FEATURES
• Amphitheater style team meeting room
• Dining hall and players' lounge
• 7,000-square-foot locker room with custom-built locker with electrical outlets
• 22,000-square-foot multilevel weight room
• State-of-the-art video delivery system
• Hall of Fame area and Peyton Manning room
KNOXVILLE -- Excuse the University of Tennessee football team if it's had to battle occasional moments of distraction during preseason camp this month.
There's a black padded wall just a few feet from the sideline on one of the Volunteers' 100-yard practice field, loud beeping of dump trucks and cement trucks in reverse and the sound of jackhammer or saws. All that doesn't include the giant crane that swings its long arm directly over Haslam Field a few times each practice.
It's all for good reason, though.
UT began building is sparkling new 152,000-square foot football training center in May, and the temporary inconvenience pales in comparison to what the outcome will be when the $46-48 million project, funded solely through private gifts, is completed next summer.
The new training cents rejoins the Brenda Lawson Athletic Center and the Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex and will allow immediate access to both indoor and outdoor practices fields.
"I think it's going to be the finest football training center in college football, and it's going to be the standard for the next 10 years," coach Derek Dooley said last week.
Continuing the overhaul
From the exterior improvements to Neyland Stadium, interior changes to Thompson-Boling Arena and renovations at Lindsey Nelson Stadium, the UT athletic department has been working on its facilities for the past five years. Replacing and improving the 22-year-old Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex, though, became a priority.
"One of the larger facilities and most important facilities that we build -- not the most, but one of the most important -- is this one, because it is football," said David Blackburn, UT's associate athletic director for administration and football's main administrator. "It took awhile to plan it and get everything in order to do it."
UT has completed 60 percent of the long-term project to improve Neyland Stadium, but the main football building needed an upgrade. Blackburn and former athletic director Mike Hamilton, who resigned in June, began raising money for the new building four years ago.
"All along we knew we were going to embark on this project at some point, we just didn't know the exact launch date," Blackburn said. "This is where our football team, our football players, our football staff -- this is where they are 99 percent of their football life. This is where they practice, where they dress, where they work out, where they get treatment."
There was another impetus to begin building the new football training center before advancing further on Neyland Stadium's master plan, which is currently on hold and contingent on future funding. The athletic department personnel currently housed in Stokely Athletic Center must be out of the building, which is scheduled to be demolished and replaced by an academic building under the University's Master Plan, by the end of the fall semester next year.
With the football offices moving to the new training center, those in Stokely will move into the offices in Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex.
Hamilton and Blackburn toured seven or eight schools for input and advice on what to do and what not to do. Once the project proceeded through the design and bid phases, construction began in the spring with some excavating work and drainage-line installation.
"I don't think it's coincidental when we built this indoor in the late 1980s that we had the run that we had in the 1990s," Dooley said. "Tennessee was known for having the best facilities in college football, but what happened? We bragged for 20 years that we had the best facility in college football, but everybody started building facility better than ours.
"Then we woke up one day and said, 'Wait a minute, maybe we have one of the worst facilities in college football.' So we found ourselves behind. Now we're going to go pass them all up again."
Navigating the turnover
The design phase on the new training center hit a couple of snags in the form of coaching changes. It started with Phillip Fulmer and his staff, and Blackburn, Hamilton and the architects on the projects sat down with Lane Kiffin and his staff when they were hired after the 2008 season.
Dooley was hired after Kiffin left abruptly for Southern Cal in January 2010, and UT went through the same process of obtaining a coach's input again. UT asks for coaching input with all of its new facilities.
"It's important for the coaching staff to have input," Blackburn said. "Not just the coaching staff, the weight staff, the training staff, all the people that are going to have to live here.
"It really transformed across three different staffs. [Dooley] probably was more involved with the design of the facility than any other coach has been. Derek's just very detail oriented, and it's very important to him."
A blueprint of the new training center still sits in a room adjoining Dooley's office in Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex. His goal for the training center is three-fold: functionality for players and coaches, a tool and recruiting and preserving UT football's tradition and history.
"There's nowhere where our fans or former players can come and just dive into the history of Tennessee football," he said. "We're one of the winningest programs of all time, but we've got nowhere on campus where we can go devour that appetite. That was a couple of the big changes that we made. I went through this whole redesign and got criticized, but one of them was to preserve our history better."
Blackburn added that Dooley wants the building to be classy, yet edgy and advanced enough technologically to impress players and training center.
"Making sure that the building flowed properly, that it was very functional, that it was user-friendly for the student-athletes -- that's been his main focus," Blackburn said. "Any amendments or changes that he recommended really were to improve flow, functionality and to try to make as right as possible because we're going to live in this thing for 20 to 30 years hopefully.
"That mirrors how he's kind of managing the football team: the same class, do it right so it stands the test of time, detail-oriented, honor the tradition of the past, pay the respect to those who have built it up to where we are. Then hopefully it's quality that functions and performs well. There is a parallel there."
Creating the "wow" factor
At the moment, the new training center is merely a construction site and a virtual tour video on UT's athletic website. Beyond that, though, Dooley and his staff are using what's to come as a tool for recruiting.
The Vols want players pick UT for reasons such as a belief in the program and the staff, but it certainly helps to have a flashy new training center to show prospects in addition to the deeper values.
"There needs to be a wow factor," Dooley said. "That wow factor shows the commitment that Tennessee has to football."
The other Southeastern Conference schools that serve as the Vols' primary recruiting competition have quality facilities as well, and most recruits pick schools for more than the football building or the stadium. But, Dooley said, facilities certainly play a role.
"It's a factor, it's not the determining factor," he said. "We at Tennessee always historically have to go in other people's back yards and get guys so we want them when they come to campus to say, 'Wow!' We've got to wow them a little bit, and we're going to do it with this building."
The excitement for what the finished product will be has created more than just excitement for recruits, but the anticipation has spread through the entire athletic department. Blackburn compared it to waiting for Christmas morning or putting on a new pair of shoes.
"It has helped recruiting," he said, "because any time recruits come and see something new, especially at Tennessee because they know we major in really good facilities, it has brought an energy level to our visitors."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...