by Turner Walston
One summer in the late 1970s, Carolina Volleyball had a need. When the team played in Carmichael Auditorium, the temporary poles that held the net had to be anchored by cables reaching from the stands on either side of the court. It was less than ideal.
Head coach Beth Miller reached out to athletics director Bill Cobey about installing a more permanent solution. But volleyball shared Carmichael with men's basketball and other programs and Miller knew that anything done to the arena floor would also affect those teams.
Cobey got in touch with Dean Smith about installing floor plates on the basketball court. "Coach Smith said if this would advance the sport and assist volleyball, he was OK with it, as long as we would wait to start the installation after his summer camp," Miller recalls. "He didn't even seem to blink, as long as it was for the betterment of the program."
That spirit of cooperation among Carolina athletics' 28 programs has endured, as evidenced by the six construction projects taking place beginning this spring. In the next 16 months, the central campus facilities that provide practice and competition space for a dozen Tar Heel programs will undergo a complete transformation.
Shortly after Bubba Cunningham arrived as athletics director in 2011, Carolina began developing a master facilities plan to evaluate the needs of its 28 programs. The Blue Zone at Kenan Stadium was brand new, and renovations of Carmichael Arena and Boshamer Stadium had recently been completed. Some projects could be done in relative short order, such as new locker rooms for volleyball, a softball hitting facility and a made-over practice space for gymnastics. But there would be larger projects to come.
"When Bubba came here and we talked about developing a facilities master plan, the goal was to talk to all 28 programs, all 21 head coaches, and we asked ‘what do you need in a facility to be as successful as you can be?'" says Mike Bunting, associate athletic director for facility planning and management. "As our master plan evolved, the goal was to identify and prioritize projects going forward."
In November 2015, the UNC Board of Governors approved plans for an indoor practice facility. Initially, the athletic department looked at expanding and renovating Eddie Smith Field House, which houses an indoor track and a small practice field as well as offices for the Tar Heel track and field program. The field house is a multi-use building. One day last September for example, football was forced indoors by rainy weather. On the indoor track, cross country began warm-ups. In another part of the building, cheerleading practice was underway.
"We quickly realized the Eddie Smith Field House is so versatile, and it's such a great building, but renovating it wasn't going to fit in the model of doing the best for the most, so we had to find a better alternative,” says Bunting.
The new indoor practice facility will provide the football team with a 120-yard synthetic turf field that head coach Larry Fedora plans to use throughout the year regardless of the weather. This will allow other sports to continue to train simultaneously in Eddie Smith. A pair of outdoor 120-yard practice fields will be built adjacent to the indoor facility and Ridge Road.”
“This is an important project for our football program,” says Fedora. “It's not a facility that will only be used when we have bad weather. We'll use the facility as part of our normal practice routine in the fall, rotating between the indoor facility and the outdoor fields. This also gives our players a facility for offseason workouts and conditioning throughout the year.”
Cunningham and Bunting both invoke the phrase 'doing the best for the most,' and as there is a premium of space in the area that houses Fetzer Field, Francis Henry Stadium, Eddie Smith Field House and Navy Fields, a rearrangement was in order. That plot of land is in constant use, and so changing one facility within that space affected them all. With Fetzer Field in dire need of upgrades, it made sense to move forward with multiple projects concurrently.
And so on Monday (May 22), two days after Carolina women's lacrosse hosts Navy in the final event at Fetzer Field as we now know it, construction will begin on a new soccer/lacrosse stadium, with completion scheduled for the fall of 2018. Removing the track from Fetzer Field allows for closer and better seating for soccer and lacrosse; the first row of seating will be within ten feet of the field. Additionally, the grandstand will sport wider aisles, individual seats and handrails. The new stadium will allow fans to surround the action and provide a home field advantage worthy of the teams that have won 31 national championships while calling Fetzer home.
"It's time that our athletes get to play in a facility that highlights how special they are," says women's lacrosse head coach Jenny Levy. "The fan experience is going to be 100 percent improved. Anson (Dorrance)'s vision has always been for a stadium that wraps around the field so our fans can come and give us a home field advantage."
As mentioned above, bringing soccer and lacrosse fans closer to the action at Fetzer Field means removing the track. With 'doing the best for the most' in mind, a new track facility is already under construction at Finley Fields Athletic Complex on Mason Farm Road, with an eye toward completion for the spring 2018 outdoor season. While the Tar Heel track program undergoes the most significant relocation in this process, it will gain a dedicated facility, including a new track, two turf fields, and increased parking, with the opportunity to host more outdoor meets. "We're looking forward to the starting of a new era of track and field at the new facility at Finley," head coach Harlis Meaders says. "It will be a state of the art facility dedicated to track, where our students can train at the highest level."
The football practice complex (indoor facility and two outdoor fields) will stand on the land currently occupied by Francis Henry Stadium, the home of Carolina field hockey. Karen Shelton's program moves across Ridge Road to Ehringhaus Field, where a dedicated facility is under construction.
"We're excited about our new home, and about all the facilities changes coming, and the way they'll be beneficial for Carolina Athletics," says Shelton. "Henry Stadium was a wonderful home for us. We had a lot of success there and we're leaving it with a lot of great memories, but our new facility will give us space that we didn't have before and allow us to make some upgrades that will be beneficial to our players."
"Henry Stadium is a great facility," Bunting says. "We've tried to carry all those elements that Coach Shelton likes so much into field hockey's new home."
Construction of new athletic facilities doesn't happen in a vacuum; the buildings must fit within the aesthetic that makes the Carolina campus so beautiful. Bunting and the athletic department have consulted often with Facilities Planning & Construction, whose input has been crucial in this process. Furthermore, as Carolina athletic venues aren't used exclusively by varsity programs, Campus Recreation has been involved in the planning. The sharing of new facilities will mean Campus Rec will more than double the eight acres of field space it currently uses.
"We use Hooker Fields, and they use the track. They use Eddie Smith," Cunningham says of Campus Rec. "We're going to give them time in some of the new facilities, and we're going to need time in their facilities. It's not all or nothing, it's what facilities can we build for this campus community that are going to benefit everybody. They have been tremendous partners."
The indoor practice facility, for example, will see use by Campus Rec and the Department of Exercise and Sport Science in addition to varsity athletics, with team practices in the early morning and afternoon, EXSS classes at midday and Campus Rec programming at night. "That's pretty unheard of," said Bill Goa, director of Campus Recreation. "We're very fortunate to have an athletic administration that is concerned about all students on campus, not just the varsity athletes. That's a real plus for this campus, and not always what's on other campuses.”
In addition to the four major venues listed above, there are smaller-scale projects underway or in the planning stages. At Kenan Stadium, synthetic turf is being installed from the sidelines to the wall; the playing surface will remain grass. Next spring, the office suite in Koury Natatorium will be transformed into a new communications and media studio. That project is scheduled to be completed by the summer of 2019, in advance of the launch of the linear ACC Network.
All of this construction takes financing, and as ever, the Educational Foundation has been instrumental in raising the funds necessary to support the new facilities. "Our coaches are blown away by the financial support we've gotten and what we're going to be able to achieve here," Bunting says.
As the Rams Club's Tar Heel Tour has made its way to fans across the state and the southeast, donors have expressed their enthusiasm for the projects. "The thing that we have always talked about at the Rams Club has been first and foremost, we provide opportunities through scholarships," says Rams Club executive director John Montgomery. "But in concert with that, we're also working hard to provide a great student-athlete experience, and that's where these facilities come in."
The master plan is daunting when viewed all at once. But when one considers that twelve Tar Heel athletic programs will directly benefit from these projects, in addition to raising the profile of Carolina athletics nationwide, it's clear the time has come. And in that spirit of compromise, the coaches and programs involved are more than willing to endure a year's disruption to practice and competition schedules for what's to come.
"Everything I've seen is outstanding," says men's soccer coach Carlos Somoano. "I couldn't be more excited, and having to take a year off is going to be well worth it. We forge forward. Now, we have that pot of gold that we can see at the end of the rainbow."
Carolina's master facilities plan upholds a long tradition of excellence and keeps Tar Heel athletics –and the university itself– on the forefront of innovation at the forefront well into the 21st century.
"We want to continue to excel in all the sports we offer," Cunningham says. "We want to continue to have a broad-based program. We want to have our programs in the center part of campus, and there are some challenges associated with that. It's going to require cooperation and sharing of facilities. But what we think is important at Carolina is to have the middle of campus be outstanding, but not over the top. We want it to be consistent with who we are. We strive for excellence, but we're not opulent. We're not excessive, but we have a practical look and feel for what we provide the students. That seems to have worked for a long time, and that's the tradition we want to continue."