When you open the main entrance to the Gophers’ new $166 million Athletes Village, it’s like stepping inside a maroon-and-gold themed Times Square, with nine scoreboard-sized video screens lining the wall, flashing an endless loop of Minnesota highlights.
The sixth floor of the Land O’Lakes Excellence Center, one of five buildings in the complex, offers sweeping views of the Minneapolis skyline, the University campus, TCF Bank Stadium and other Gophers venues.
The athletics department wanted a “wow factor” to capture recruits’ imagination, when it commissioned this project to upgrade the football and basketball facilities, while adding nutrition, academic and career development space for all 750 student-athletes.
The new facilities feature plenty of Minnesota-inspired charms, including Cambria countertops, Kasota stone and Sage Glass adjustable tint windows from Faribault. But what coaches and players talk about most is how functional the village is, how efficient it will make them.
“Our lives are going to change drastically,” Gophers women’s basketball senior Carlie Wagner said before the village opened this month. “The university’s never had something like this before.”
Up until this month, Wagner’s team practiced at Williams Arena, lifted weights across the street at Ridder Arena and ate most meals a few blocks away, at the Bierman Athletic Building.
“They would finish practice, they’d be all sweaty, their hair would be all wet, and now they’re putting on winter clothes to go lift,” coach Marlene Stollings said. “We were worried about people getting sick and things like that.”
Now her players can do all that in the same building. Players can practice on the fifth floor of the “basketball performance” section of the Excellence Center, lift weights on the fourth floor, eat in the second floor nutrition center, study in the fourth floor academic center, and then head to the sixth-floor leadership center for career guidance.
The practice facility rush that swept the country the past two decades encompassed most of the Big Ten, leaving the Gophers’ facilities antiquated by comparison. They opened Bierman in 1972, the same year Title IX passed, when the department had no women’s sports programs and was roughly half the size it is now.
The Gophers added an indoor football complex in 1985 but did little to improve it for three decades. By 2013, the year before Rutgers and Maryland joined the conference, Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo said: “You can make a case that [the Gophers are] 12th of 12, when it comes to resources in the conference. Facilities-wise, it’s not even close.”
The new indoor football building is big enough to swallow the old one whole. The new football weight room measures 16,000 square feet, or about 10,000 more than the old one. Instead of jumping into rubberized bathtubs filled with ice after practice, players can plunge into hot/cold pools and rehab injuries on an underwater treadmill.
“Back when I played, we had everything we needed, but it wasn’t as efficient as it’s going to be now,” said Joe Bjorklund, a Gophers lineman from 2012 to ’15 who worked on the project for Mortenson Construction. “Take the weight room: We used to split into groups — offense and defense. Now we have so many racks, you can get the whole team in there at once.”
Key recruiting tool
Former men’s basketball coach Tubby Smith made no secret how badly the Gophers needed a practice facility. Richard Pitino took a quieter approach after arriving from Florida International University, converting an intramural gymnasium in the Bierman facility into a practice gym.
“I never wanted to make an excuse.” Pitino said. “But we were really, really lacking. Like our locker room at Bierman; my FIU locker room was 10 times nicer than that.”
Pitino’s new office has glass doors with a balcony view of the men’s practice gym. Two stories above him, Stollings has the same setup overlooking the women’s practice gym. The men’s and women’s basketball facilities are basically identical, with two floors dedicated to each. Both courts have sound-engineered floors, minimizing the noise, and there are windows everywhere, inviting natural light.
“They knocked it out of the park,” Pitino said. “It’s going to be real big from a recruiting standpoint, especially locally.
“When you bring a kid in from out of town, you can kind of hide some things — ‘Show them that, don’t show them this’ — but local kids know.”
Sophomore guard Amir Coffey followed the university’s facility plans closely when he was a coveted recruit out of Hopkins.
“I think a lot of guys are looking for facilities and things like that coming out of high school — the newest this, the newest that,” Coffey said. “This just being built, I think it’ll have a big impact.”
More to come
Two of the three new buildings are dedicated to football: the indoor practice field and the football performance center. Combined with the two existing buildings, the Athletes Village adds 338,000 square feet of new building space to the department.
With only eight study rooms in their old academic center, overcrowding left some athletes studying on the floor. Now, the new academic center has 34 study rooms.
Much of the old space will be repurposed. The Bierman gym will be converted into the new wrestling room. The old indoor football facility will continue to be a winter practice space for the baseball, softball and soccer teams, etc.
So far, the Gophers have raised about $105 million toward this $166 million phase of the project, and $120 million toward the full $190 Athletes Village project, which includes a new track that opens this fall.
Of course, with the college sports arms race being what it is, the Gophers can enjoy having the newest Big Ten facilities for only a few months. This summer, Northwestern will open a new $270 million facility on the shores of Lake Michigan.
“I want to be very clear: It’s not the end of the road,” Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle said of the village. “It puts us in the neighborhood with our Big Ten peers, and we need to continue to push, and continue to grow our program.”