SportsMonday Column: A monumental leap forward

Athletic director Warde Manuel stood in front of the facility and welcomed the teams into their new home.

Athletic director Warde Manuel stood in front of the facility and welcomed the teams into their new home. Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

 

Sunday, December 3, 2017 - 9:37pm

Last Saturday morning, the ribbons were finally cut.  

After three years riddled with anticipation, the Athletics South Competition and Performance Project is finally complete. The 280,000-square-foot facility — with an estimated cost of $168 million funded by outside donors — will accommodate the track, cross country, lacrosse, soccer and rowing teams and provide training spaces for the gymnastics, tennis and wrestling teams.

Surrounded by the athletes and coaches of those teams, athletic director Warde Manuel stood in front of the facility and welcomed them into their new home.

“Today is a great day for me,” Manuel said, “but more importantly, for you and your coaches to open this building, to get a chance to see this facility, to walk around (and) touch what you’re going to be connecting to for many decades beyond you.

“Much work was put into this, many donors to thank over time that you’ll see throughout this building. Many of our staff worked hard to raise the money to build this facility for you. So I am excited to open this up for you.”

It has been a long time coming. The project was first announced in September 2014, at which time Manuel was in Storrs, Conn., as the athletic director at the University of Connecticut.

Former athletic director Dave Brandon initiated the process less than two months before he ultimately resigned in the middle of a 5-7 football season, and the Board of Regents signed off on the deal.

“We are grateful for the support that our Regents and University leadership have continued to provide as we execute our transformational facilities plan for Michigan Athletics,” Brandon said at the time. “This phase of the plan will complete several of our largest projects that will have a major impact on the future of Michigan Athletics.”

Suffice to say, much has changed for the athletic program in the time since.

I was a freshman at the University during that tumultuous fall, when the Michigan community — the student body, in particular — stated its case for Brandon’s resignation with a critical petition around campus and a disapproving rally in the Diag.

His job performance had already been questioned by students frustrated about expensive football season ticket packages, which were $280 during that year, compared to $150 this season. The uproar took on new life after the concussion sustained by former quarterback Shane Morris and aftermath of the injury.

Morris, fairly or not, became the symbol of protests focused on the department’s mistreatment of student-athletes. 

Looking back on that time three years later, the Athletics South Competition and Performance Project seems to be a monumental leap forward, especially for these teams that have been prioritized less than Michigan’s big three revenue-generating sports: football, hockey and basketball. Through writing for the Daily, that disparity became distinctly apparent.

When I covered the soccer teams at the start of my career, I sometimes interviewed the coaches in their offices on non-game days. That may seem normal. The abnormal part is that we were sitting in a makeshift trailer on the side of the parking lot at U-M Soccer Stadium.  

When I sat in weekly story meetings waiting to decide which events to cover, I noticed that the Wolverines didn’t host the track and field events. That’s because the old facilities didn’t have the space, for the media or a crowd. The new indoor and outdoor facilities will have permanent seating for 2,000 and 1,000 spectators, respectively.

When I heard my fellow colleagues talk about covering lacrosse, I found out that the team played inside a nearly-empty Michigan Stadium. That’s because the lacrosse teams — which didn’t become varsity sports until 2011 — didn’t have a stadium of their own. The new facilities include a stadium with a capacity of 3,000 people.

And during my freshman year, when my roommate was a member of the rowing team, I learned that the Wolverines had outdated training equipment and raced at Belleville Lake, a 25-minute drive from Ann Arbor. The athletic department obviously couldn’t build an entire body of water, but in the new facilities, they did build the first indoor rowing tank in Michigan history.

With the completion of the Athletics South Competition and Performance Project, these often-overlooked teams now have a place they can call their own.

In addition to their competition venues, they have brand-new practice spaces and locker rooms, along with a 20,000-square-foot strength and conditioning center and specialized areas for performance nutrition and athletic medicine.

The facilities will see their first game action in January, as the track and field team begins its season with the Wolverine Invitational on Jan. 13. The lacrosse teams will follow suit in February.

Last Saturday, these student-athletes received the first glimpse into their future at Michigan. Simply put, the future looks bright.

Ashame can be reached at ashabete@umich.edu or on Twitter @betelhem_ashame.