March 5, 2015
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
When the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame visit Georgia Tech this weekend for some baseball, they’ll benefit from recent renovations to Russ Chandler Stadium, yet the improvements for visitors pale to those being enjoyed by the Yellow Jackets.
A new bathroom aside the visitors’ dugout is like half an inning compared to a complete game for Georgia Tech, which has added roughly 4,000 square feet of space.
A $4.5 million renovation/expansion in the bowels of the stadium have transformed what has been one of the nation’s top college playing surfaces into a state-of-the-art, all-around facility.
The Jackets’ locker, training and weight rooms are much larger, updated to cutting edge with the help of generous donations, and they, too, now have bathroom facilities next to their dugout.
They no longer have to retreat into the locker room to take care of business during games, although that wouldn’t be such a bad thing as the expanded, modernized Mark Texiera Locker Room made possible by a donation from the former Jacket/current Yankee has made that a more pleasant space.
The low ceilings in the old, tiny, often dingy locker room? They’re all gone, and expanded into spaces that befit the nine-time ACC Champions.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s a lot bigger. They gave us new lockers. We have a new training room; they put hot and cold tubs in there,” said pitcher Jonathan King. “There is a study room with cubicles for before and after practice.
“We have a kitchen and lounge area so we can go in there and eat lunch or get a shake after practice. The weight room is two or three times as big, and it’s unbelievable how fast they’ve done everything. The renovations are incredible.”
The logic behind all the work done at Russ Chandler — which included removing many seats behind the Jackets’ third base dugout and digging out earth to grow the usable space, and then returning the seats – was simple: compete.
Time will tell if Danny Hall and his staff can capitalize on their new digs. The head coach already has a very good feeling, and not just because the coaches’ locker room and shower facilities have grown.
“I think number one: one of the reasons we attacked what we did was that’s going to impact the players that are here every day,” he said. “The carrot in the whole thing is when we bring recruits in, we can stack up against anybody we recruit against with things that are going to impact their lives.
“Our playing surface . . . best in the ACC, probably best in the country. Everything underneath [was] probably in the lower half of everybody we compete against. We’ve got to make everybody think when they walk in here that baseball is important at Georgia Tech.”
There’s no doubt about that now.
What was an 1,100-square foot locker room with low ceilings and modest light is now a 2,000-square foot haven where each player has two USB ports and two outlets, enlarged lockers, and backlit name plates over their cubicles.
Much of the previous clutter that could be found in the locker room is now housed in a “mud room” that keeps the locker room cleaner.
The big dig was not the only way Tech created more room.
The spaces that were the old “pitching tunnel’ under the stands behind home plate and the previous laundry and weight and laundry rooms have been re-apportioned. When there is a need now for pitchers to work indoors, they’ll use the same space that hitters use in the cages that are above ground, beyond the third base bleachers.
Paul Griffin, who retired from Tech in 2013 as senior associate director of athletics, remained on The Flats as a contracted advisor to oversee the project.
He is uniquely qualified, having overseen construction or expansion in recent years of the Shirley Mewborn softball facility, the Zelnak basketball practice facility, the John & Mary Brock indoor football practice facility, McCamish Pavilion and the Ken Byers Tennis Complex.
The Northeast quadrant of Tech’s campus has undergone a nearly complete overhaul in less than a decade and Griffin has had a hand in and eyes on all of it.
“The genesis of the project was function,” he said. “We had functional needs. So we hired an architect to do some conceptual renderings, which we then used to raise money. We said, `Here’s what we want to do, and here’s what we think it will cost. Help us out.’
“One of the things about Georgia Tech that’s not widely understood: while we are small in our alumni and support base in numbers, the generosity that they bring – the Brocks, this, McCamish, Byers, Zelnak – all named after graduates – their generosity far exceeds the depth of the bench.”
An anonymous $2.5 million challenge grant was the sole impetus for Phase I of the Russ Chandler Stadium renovations, along with backing from Texiera, Russ Chandler, and Matt and Brian Price to name a few. Phase II of the renovations, which includes further expansion of the team’s clubhouse facilities down the left-field line, is in the planning stage.
Griffin has been all too happy to continue working for Tech in oversight.
“We extracted a pitching tunnel, extracted a weight room, re-designed all the spaces, and now everything is ample in size and it is functional and new,” he explained.
“It’s redesigned and re-purposed. The locker room goes from about 1,100 square feet to about 2,000 square feet. The weight room goes from 500 square feet to 3,000 square feet. The training room goes from 1,000 square feet to 1,500 square feet. Everything got bigger, and it only works if you take something out.”
Indeed, the big dig bought a lot more space. The weight room – which takes up the bulk of the space created by excavation — may match or surpass any.
The improved ergonomics of the facility are impossible to miss for anyone who ever visited the previous configurations.
The new place has flow.
“We now have a mud room, where players can take their gear off, put their spikes up, and then dirty stuff doesn’t get in the locker room,” Griffin said. “The weight room had challenges; in the digging there were some buried utilities that we had to work around.”
The coaches’ locker room and the players’ training room are bigger, and lighting is better everywhere. New branding is present along most walls, with special recognition of Tech’s previous championship teams, All ACC and All-America players. Former Jackets who’ve gone on to the Major Leagues are noted as well.
Outside, a new outfield wall and pads, new directional signage, and new graphics on the dugouts, have freshened up external appearances.
Griffin, hired in 2002 at Tech after serving as an athletic director at Arkansas State and South Florida with other stops along the way, has capped a long career in administration in fine fashion.
Former Tech athletic director Dan Radakovich placed a priority on facility upgrades when the economy turned down in 2008-’09, as economic conditions for such moves actually improved. Griffin has shepherded these processes.
“There’s been a tremendous economic investment during some of the toughest economic times,” he said. “Not only have people been very generous, but at a time when money was tight. We’re very fortunate to get a lot of these things built when the construction industry was a little hungrier than they are right now.
“We got good value for our dollars and investment . . . I was in this business for 40 years, and the generosity of this alumni base has no peer. There is no equivalent. Our people have come through and made significant donations that are unmatched, and continue to do so. It’s transformed within the past 10 years.”
It all adds up to a much better feel for the game of baseball.
“We have all the ingredients to elevate our program,” Hall said. “The quickest way we can elevate it is to get great players. Then, we’ve got to do a good job developing and coaching those guys every day.
“We’re very blessed. You can thank [athletic director] Mike Bobinski and several donors. If our administration doesn’t want to have a good baseball program, this doesn’t happen.”