If You Build It, Will They Come?
by Art Stevens
TSL Extra, Issue #16
Of all the NCAA rules that might need to be changed, one needs to move to the top of the list. Currently, when prospective athletes come to visit, the school canít give him or her anything like a t-shirt or pair of workout shorts.
Well, something has to give with the way things are on campuses today. Namely, a school ought to be able to issue a hard hat.
Pick a campus, any campus, and chances are youíll find construction crews adding to or improving the athletic facilities. Itís a "build it" world out there and no one wants to fall too far behind.
"Thatís what it seems like to me," said Brian Mattes of Wyoming, Pa., a well-regarded defensive lineman who signed a grant-in-aid with Notre Dame. "I went to so many campuses and it seemed like 75 percent of them were building something new."
Said Aaron Rouse of Virginia Beach, a Virginia Tech signee: "Everybody wants to keep up with the technology and all the latest developments."
Facilities do count. Sometimes they donít count for everything, but they always count for something. Good facilities may not always get you your man (or woman). Bad facilities will pretty much guarantee you donít.
Virginia Tech is well aware of that and is continually trying to upgrade facilities that already rank with the best. The Hokies have done an excellent job of arranging everything for their football players in a central location. Major stadium expansion has begun that will, when finished, leave Tech with what coach Frank Beamer has called "one of the best stadiums youíll find anywhere."
Work on a new training room has begun, and Tech is also continuing to upgrade its facilities for other sports as well.
TechSideline.com Extra spent some time talking with recent recruits about what they were looking for and what they found on their various visits around the country. We talked to athletes who chose Tech and those who didnít.
We found out that facilities didnít cause Tech to lose any of the players who signed elsewhere.
"They have great facilities," Mattes said. "I just felt like Notre Dame had a little more to offer me educationally. I think when Tech gets that stadium finished it will be really awesome. I was there for the Miami game (Dec. 1) and it was so loud. I canít imagine what it will be like when that end zone is enclosed."
Athletes placed different priorities on facilities. Running back Mike Imoh, a Tech signee from Robinson High in Fairfax, ranked them very high. Mattes said they were somewhat important but ended up not choosing the school he thought was best in the facility department Ė Penn State. Others said academic and "non-football" facilities were just as important.
"The most important thing to me was coaching staff," said Rouse, a prep defensive back who projects as a collegiate linebacker. "The facility needs to be state of the art, but it doesnít do you any good if the coaches donít have a good work ethic. I found a lot of the schools are pretty even with facilities. Guys are looking at where they can get some playing time as much as they are facilities."
Said Imoh, "Facilities were huge for me. Techís are incredible and thatís what got me to sign with Tech."
Letís take a tour through some athletesí eyes.
Imoh, the Group AAA player of the year in Virginia, took official visits to Tech, Pittsburgh and Wake Forest.
Tech, he said, got big points for the proximity of everything. You take a short walk from the locker room to the practice field. Same thing Ė meeting rooms to practice field. Lane Stadium is a tunnel away. If you think thatís a small consideration, try trudging a good distance in football gear after practice on a hot day, during mid-August two-a-days, knowing another practice is five hours away.
"Everything seemed to be right about Techís facilities," Imoh said. "You walk in and immediately youíre comfortable, and you want that out of a place youíre going to be for four or five years.
"The memorabilia room (in the Merryman Center) is so nice and the practice field is great. The weight room is incredible."
Imoh and Mattes (more from him later) gave Pittsburgh extremely high marks. In fact, Imoh said, Pitt may have an edge (very slight) with their locker, weight and training facilities.
"Just incredible, everything new and top of the line," he said. "It was tempting, really tempting, really, really tempting."
The big strike? Pitt shares the facility with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but that's not the strike -- the problem is, itís not easy to get there. "You canít just walk out of your room and be there like you can at Tech," Imoh said. "But once you get there, itís WOW."
Wake, he said, is trying. The campus itself is "beautiful, like a country club.
"But the football stuff isnít quite up to date. Theyíre in the process of renovating, but itís not quite up to the rest of them."
Imoh also saw Penn State and called the Nittany Lionsí facilities "very nice, kind of like Pittsburghís."
Mattesí seconded the notion about Pitt and Penn State.
"Penn State was probably the best Iíve seen," he said. "The football building has everything imaginable in it and itís all state of the art. A stadium that seats 110,000 canít be compared to much."
Mattes said Georgia Tech has a very nice weight room "and theyíre supposed to be adding on to that." He also paid a compliment to Techís big in-state rival. "I liked Virginiaís setup. Everything was self contained," he said.
Weight rooms were an important consideration for the 6-6, 245-pounder, and he said they all were much the same.
"My thought was that it is much more what goes on inside them," he said. "It doesnít matter how nice the weights look. You still have to lift them. I tried to look at the whole thing along with academic support systems, which was pretty important to my choice."
Notre Dameís facilities didnít particularly stand out. He liked many other things the Irish offered.
"They have all the things everybody else has," Mattes said. "The facilities are very nice. They do things a little different with housing and stuff. You have to stay in a dorm, your roommate is not a football player. I had a great visit there."
Antoine Rutherford, a defensive back from Miramar, Fla., who signed with the Hokies, only took an official visit to Tech. He agreed with Mattes that people who knew how to use the facilities were perhaps more important than the physical plant itself.
Tech won him over quickly with its support. "I took a good look at the nutritional part, how they eat, how they exercise, stuff like that," he said. "I got the impression they really looked out for the people who came there. The educational part was important.
"For me, it was much more about education. Then I considered the athletics. I do like the way Tech always seems to be working to improve (facilities). Theyíve made a lot of progress and I liked that, too."
Rouse said his first impression of Virginia Tech was, "Wonderful. That weight room was awesome. Iíd never seen anything like that. I thought the training room they had was great, too, and then I found out theyíre building a new one. That was a big plus.
"I loved the stadium and the fans there made me feel like I was already there. It will be something with an even bigger crowd."
Rouse also saw Georgia Tech and said it seemed the walk to the practice field was long. He also said the field didnít appear up to par with other schools. The rest of the facilities there were fine, he said.
"What brought me to Virginia Tech were the people and the atmosphere," he said. "I didnít feel like I was leaving home. I felt like I was at home. If I wasnít comfortable, I wouldnít want to be there."
Laenar Nixon, a tight end from Miami, signed with Oklahoma. Like Notre Dame-bound Mattes, he had no complaints with the facilities at Tech. He does think Oklahomaís are better.
"Everything was in one area," he said. "They have spared no expense. They have a two-floor weight room with top-quality equipment and a lot of motivational stuff like slogans on the floor and ceilings and stuff. Everything at Oklahoma just seemed bigger and a lot more intense.
"The weight room was the first thing I had to go see. Thatís what is going to make me the player I am, give me the foundation. Then I took a look at the educational center and other things on campus, the places I could go to get away from it for a while."
Tech, he said, "was good and all, just not like Oklahoma."
Nixonís other visit was to Central Florida and he wasnít at all complimentary of the Golden Knightsí facilities.
"Garbage," he said. "It was like a high school weight room. Everything was like Ö unorganized. Thatís one thing that turned me off, the unorganization. It didnít stand a chance with Oklahoma."
Word gets around quickly among top recruits. Though some obviously prefer other schools, Techís reputation for facilities and support is excellent. Imoh said North Carolina is another school with a reputation for some serious facilities.
"I have not seen it but Iíve heard when you do, it is very hard to walk away from that," he said.
Maryland, Imoh said, is a school he expects to make great strides following the success of 2001.
"With the money they brought in, theyíll soon be on their way to being up there with everybody else," he said.
Schools that ignore their facilities will pay a price, no matter how strong everything else is around them.
"I wouldnít want to go anyplace thatís really a dump," Mattes said. "I really didnít focus on it all that much. To me, it seemed like everyone was trying to keep up with the Joneses."
Thatís why a hard hat should be mandatory.