It used to be that if you were a major university and you had a locker room, a practice field, a blocking sled and some weight machines, you had yourself a football program. Of course, that was before you could download music to your smart phone, or create content for presentations on your flat screen from your iPad.
The game has changed. Now if you don’t have a multimillion-dollar, cutting-edge facility that offers everything you’d ever need to compete at the highest level and the kind of amenities that would cause even the most jaded recruit and his family to shake their heads in astonishment, you might just slip out of contention.
For example, in July the University of Southern California expects to open its brand new John McKay Center, a 110,000-square-foot edifice done up in Romanesque design with a price tag of about $70 million. What USC had before that might have passed for a high school setup if the high school in question were one of those Texas or Florida powerhouses, and it paled in comparison to what some of the more successful college programs boasted around the country.
Now coach Lane Kiffin said he has already detected a difference, even before the new place has opened.
“It does help in recruiting,” he said. “It helped with last year’s class, just them knowing that this process was being done, that they’d be in that building. It does have an impact on recruiting. It has already had an impact on (the last couple of) classes.”
Gaze across a college football map of the United States and you’ll see that the terrain has changed.
At Oklahoma State, boosters led by oilman T. Boone Pickens have provided the Cowboys with Boone Pickens Stadium, which houses a multi-faceted football headquarters that includes sports medicine center, media area, hall of fame area and lots more. At Florida, the Gators operate out of the four-year-old Heavener Football Complex, with interactive displays and plush lounge areas to complement all the usual gridiron bells and whistles.
The same trend toward eye-popping football facilities — and after all, football is the No. 1 revenue-producing sport on college campuses — can be seen at Oregon, where Nike head Phil Knight bankrolled expansion of the school’s Casanova Center; at Alabama, where the Mal M. Moore Athletic Facility houses a 20,000-square-foot strength and conditioning center; and many more. In fact, if a major college football program doesn’t have up-to-date amenities to show off, chances are something is in the planning stages.
And just what constitutes state-of-the-art these days?
“Technology is absolutely huge with young people today. You can’t turn your back to it,” said Mack Butler, director of football operations at Oklahoma State. “We have all that capability in all of our meeting rooms.”
Butler said that flat screens in meeting rooms enable a coach to show anything from game films of opponents to motivational videos.
The Cowboys also put a premium on having everything in their football program fairly close together. Five player lounges with video games, locker room, strength training, training table and football offices are all in close proximity.
Then there are the shower heads.
“One of the things Boone Pickens felt was that there was a particular shower head he liked that he thought was far and away better than the others,” Butler said. “Each shower head is $700, and we have 60 of them.”
After the shower, the players can relax at their lockers, safe in the notion that they’re breathing ionized air through strategically positioned vents.
Chip Howard, who is senior associate athletic director for internal affairs at Florida, has been at the school for 23 years. He said the Gators’ 2008 upgrade was done not to stand out from the rest, but to compete.
“I think our philosophy going in was to have what we really needed, not what other people had,” Howard said. "A lot of times in collegiate athletics there is a sense of keeping up with the Joneses. We just had completely outgrown our old facilities.”
One of the key features in many of these new temples of football is a history lesson. Whether the information comes interactively through touch pads or on graphics emblazoned on walls, programs like to impress upon recruits their rich athletic heritages.
Florida has the Kornblau Foyer, which offers black granite squares honoring each consensus All-American of the past.
“It takes a look at the history and the success of the Florida program,” Howard said, “and recruits can interact with both audio and video. It helps sell recruits and tell our history.”
Mark Jackson, senior associate athletic director at USC who has been involved in the process of the McKay Center since the start, estimated that he and other athletic department representatives visited about 20 universities as well as NFL teams to study what they had to offer before designing the new building. That didn’t include many of the opponents that the Trojans have had on their football schedule in recent years, because USC’s coaches and administrators were already familiar with what those programs had.
“We targeted the places that we thought fit our brand,” Jackson said.
Naturally, donors were needed, and they responded. While there wasn’t one Boone Pickens or Phil Knight at USC, there was a steady flow of check-writers.
The result is one huge two-story (with basement) monument to athletics. At some universities, the facilities are separated by sport: the football program may have its own area, the basketball its own, etc. The McKay Center will be headquarters for all 21 sports, and special attention has been paid both to the successes of all those programs but also Olympic triumphs as well.
And although cynics may chuckle whenever academics are mentioned in connection with big-time college sports, USC’s brass is not among them. The entire first floor of the new center is devoted to academics: computer labs, tutoring rooms, classrooms and more.
The second floor houses all the football offices and meeting rooms. The basement contains a 40-yard indoor field adjacent to a vast strength and conditioning area, with comprehensive sports medicine and nutrition departments nearby.
To dazzle the young 18-to-22-year-old demographic, there are more flat screens scattered about throughout the building than you might find in your local Best Buy. Each locker has its own iPad. The players’ lounge was designed with input from football players, so it has what you might think they’d demand for down time entertainment and recreation. Outside there is a large patio area with a fire pit for dining and relaxing. A biometric entry system will be in place, requiring a thumb print or handprint to gain access to the building.
“Before we started the project, we thought we were 20 to 25 years behind most of the facilities of the schools we compete against,” Jackson said. “When this is finished, we like to think of ourselves as 10 years ahead.”
That should thrust USC into the lead — until the next major football program orders a significant upgrade of its facilities, which could be any day now.
Michael Ventre is a regular contributor to NBCSports.com. Follow him on Twitter http://twitter.com/#!/MichaelVentre44