Bret Bielema Sold on UA's Athletic Facilities

UA Basketball Practice Facility, Estimated Cost: $20 million-$25 million    
UA Basketball Practice Facility, Estimated Cost: $20 million-$25 million    
Baseball/Track Indoor Training Facility. Estimated cost: $7.75 million to $9.6 million.
Baseball/Track Indoor Training Facility. Estimated cost: $7.75 million to $9.6 million.

University of Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long had a number of tools at his disposal as he made his pitch to head coaching candidates earlier this month.

Included in his presentation was an overview of planned facility projects for football and other UA athletic programs. Long had the facility plans available in a variety of formats, but felt most comfortable showing candidates a three-ring binder full of photos.

“We went old school with it,” Long said, noting he could have used an iPad as he offered details of what is coming next in the athletic valley on the UA campus.

Beyond Long’s choice of how to present the projects, there is little, if anything, that could be considered old school about the plans Arkansas has for its athletic facilities. Currently, the Athletic Department is carrying out various stages of a $320 million master plan for new building projects and upgrading existing facilities.

Arkansas’ 80,000-SF football operations center is the closest to becoming a reality, and naturally was the project Long spent the bulk of his time detailing. It is scheduled to open for team use by mid- to late summer of 2013, and the practice field/parking lot component of the $40.31 million project is already in use.

Coach Bret Bielema came away impressed by what he saw of the facility. What the Razorbacks could offer to high school players who were considering Arkansas was a big selling point for his leaving Wisconsin, a place where Bielema had a great deal of success.

Besides upgrading his salary to $3.2 million and getting additional money to build a staff, Bielema will inherit a brand new office, complete with locker, film and athletic training rooms for the Razorbacks. UA officials are also studying the feasibility of an expansion of Reynolds Razorback Stadium that will cost between $75 million and $98 million.

“We’re building a new facility here at Arkansas that is off the charts,” Bielema said during a recent radio appearance. “That is just going to open so many doors in recruiting.”

‘All the Tools’

Football is just one component of the athletic facilities master plan. Long wanted to make sure Bielema saw that there are ample resources for all sports at Arkansas.

While football generated an estimated 64 percent of $99.8 million in athletic revenue for 2011-12, Long has made it a point to invest in other areas. That was part of his pitch to Bielema.

“I think he was honestly impressed with all we have going here and what we have planned for our student athletes,” Long said. “They have wonderful facilities at Wisconsin …. but what we’ve worked hard over the last five years to do is provide the head coach all the tools, all the resources needed to be extremely successful.”

Bielema got a look at all planned projects at Arkansas, including a $20 million to $25 million basketball practice facility, $7.75 million to $9.6 million track/baseball indoor facility and a dining/academic facility that will cost between $18 million and $23 million to complete. Those three — with an emphasis on the dining/academic center — will most immediately follow the football facility.

Timelines for those projects have yet to be defined. Arkansas will need to raise funds — a capital campaign for athletic facilities is in the works — and a firm budget for the facilities must be set. Funding for the projects will come from a mix of private gifts, department revenue and bonds.

Coaches and administrators are currently in the programming phase of the basketball, baseball/track and academic support facility. Every few weeks they meet with architects, contractors and Matt Trantham, senior associate athletic director for internal operations, to discuss how to fit needs into the budget.

“We want ‘wow.’ We want what we can use to recruit,” said Matt Trantham, senior associate athletic director for internal operations. “But we don’t want to sacrifice functionality, because that would just be a waste of resources.”

To Bielema, the Arkansas football center is as impressive as it is practical. He can sell athletes on choosing the Razorbacks, and then use it to make them better once they get to campus.

“I believe in player development,” Bielema said during his introductory press conference. “If a player comes in good in year one, you want him great by year four. … That facility is going to allow us to do those things.”

New Coach Will Have Limited Input

Former University of Arkansas football coach Bobby Petrino was instrumental in making the football operations center a reality. Petrino was involved in much of the planning, in areas as broad as overall facility design and as detailed as furniture in specific rooms.

Construction on the $40.3 million project is so far along at this point — all concrete and steel work are complete — that new Arkansas coach Bret Bielema will have a limited say in how the center is designed.

There are a few details he’ll be able to oversee, including graphics and other finishing touches inside the complex. Bielema and his new staff can also have a say in furniture and layout inside the meeting rooms, though any major components are already set.

Any major changes would impact the budget and timeline for completion of the 80,000-SF structure.

“The timing is such that it doesn’t allow a whole lot of stop and wait,” Trantham said. “We’ve got to proceed with most of what we’re doing. … Almost everything — the layout, where rooms are located — that’s not changing. It’s moving forward and has to in order to hit our timeline.”

Arkansas football is expected to begin operating out of the facility this summer.