Athletics construction paddles on

The Crimson Tide rowing team just moved a new $4.4 million boathouse in October. CW | Pete Pajor

Elliott Propes

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Everywhere on campus new buildings are popping up and old buildings are being renovated, with the rowing and baseball teams being the most recent sports to receive major building improvements.

The University of Alabama is known for its athletics and has made an effort to have the best facilities available, but the swimming and diving team is now the only varsity athletic team without a new facility or a major renovation to an old one.

“The good news is that the new facility has finally been adopted in the five year University plan. We are moving in that direction, and that day will come where we will be the one with newest, best facility on the block,” swimming and diving coach Dennis Pursley said. “So we are excited about that, it’s been a long time coming. It may be overdue in some peoples’ opinions. That day is in the plan now. We are real happy about that.”

The swimming and diving team currently practices in the Aquatic Center, which opened in 1981. The Crimson Tide has won two SEC titles in that building. Pursley said he loves the history of the facility and the fact that it swims fast, but he said there are a lot of disadvantages. It is the oldest aquatics facility in the SEC. In 2002 the facility had minor renovations costing $1.5 million. A brand new facility is now on the horizon, and more pools and space will give Alabama a comparable facility to the rest of the SEC.

“In our daily routine we are not really disadvantaged, but where we are disadvantaged is in recruiting because it is an older dated facility. The recruits are going into competitor’s brand new Taj Mahals and they have all the aesthetic appeal. So that makes it more difficult for us,” Pursley said. “Our divers are crunched for time and space because we are sharing the same tank. In newer, more modern facilities they have separate diving wells for the divers. So we are making it work, we are making sure we are not disadvantaged. It would be nice to step up with the Joneses.”

The new pool is planned for the future, but the Board of Trustees has not made any definitive plans for fundraising yet. Pursley said there have been some preliminary architectural drawings, but it will take a few years before they build the new facility. Once that plan is set into motion, every sport will have had a practice space improvement in the last 10 years.

“One of the goals that the athletic department has is to be a top-flight athletic program and to have the ability and opportunity to win championships, and to do that you are not necessarily going to be a better program just because you have a nice stadium or nice boathouse or a nice basketball court, but all those facilities are important to do a better job of what we discussed whether it be practice efficiency, whether it be recruiting,” rowing coach Larry Davis said. “All these things come together and you have to be on a par, because when students come and look at your facility and they make decisions based on, ‘Where do I want to invest four years of my college education and my athletic career?’ That certainly plays a part in it.”

The rowing team moved into its new facility in October. Since the program’s inaugural season in 2006, the team was stationed in trailers on the Northport side of the Lurleen B. Wallace Boulevard bridge. 

Now the team resides in a $4.4 million boathouse, which features large locker rooms, a training room and boat storage. Davis said there is not a more spacious boathouse at the college level. He also said there is not another boathouse that is as close to campus as theirs. It makes it easier on the student-athletes and for fans to come watch, he said, and will definitely make recruiting easier.

“One of the decision factors that these athletes have had is, ‘Well is this program supported in a way that is going to help me maximize my rowing career in college?’ Whether it be fair or not that is a legitimate decision process they have to look at,” Davis said. “It really makes it to where they understand that, yes, Alabama supports everything they do in athletics, and that rowing is on the same kind of footing as every other sport.”

Baseball at the University has also had trouble recruiting over the last few years. Sewell-Thomas Stadium was built in 1948 and received major renovations in 1996 and 2001, but it has not seen huge improvements since. Stadiumjourney.com, which reviews professional and collegiate sports venues, ranked Sewell-Thomas 49 out of the 143 division-one college baseball stadiums it visited over two years. Nine other SEC schools were ranked above Sewell-Thomas, eight of which were in the top 21.

“Recruits now, it’s not about the tradition. It’s not about, ‘I want to be at Alabama.’ It might be that way for football a little bit, but still to compete, recruit and to do things now you have to have the wow factor,” said Jeff Laubenthal, chair of the steering committee to renovate Sewell-Thomas.

Laubenthal has also been the team physician since 2001 and played for the Crimson Tide from 1989 to 1993. He is helping orchestrate the fundraising for Sewell-Thomas’s total renovation. On Sept. 18 the Board of Trustees agreed on a final plan that amounts to more than $42.6 million. 

The architectural plans feature many new amenities, including a new outfield walk that connects with the concourse, a playground and a mini-infield for families, a pre-game picnic area, a team store and new seats in the seating bowl. The locker rooms will be all new, as will a team meeting room and a weight room. The bullpen and batting cages will be improved, and up top there will be seven skyboxes added, along with a new press box.

“It’s a pretty tremendous thing when you look at it, it’s pretty nice. So we are basically looking at getting it built, and it is going to put us on top of the conference. So we are going to go from next to the last to the top with all the stuff we got,” Laubenthal said.

Baseball and rowing join four other sports outside of football that have seen renovations since 2010. All the sports, not just football, have gotten attention recently.

“All you have to do is look at the money they put behind it. If they didn’t they wouldn’t be building a new rowing facility. They wouldn’t have upgraded the tennis facility. That Sarah Patterson Plaza is fantastic,” Laubenthal said. “I mean football is always going to be the top dog and rightfully so because it pays a lot of bills. In the past the other sports might have been an after thought, but that is not the case anymore.”