Director of Athletics Kent Haslam
Ground was broken Wednesday on the University of Montana campus for a new athletics academic center, and the occasion doubled as an opportunity for Director of Athletics Kent Haslam to announce a $1 million gift that will go toward additional facility improvements.
The building, a two-story structure whose upper floor will be dedicated to the academic pursuits of nearly 300 Griz student-athletes, will be constructed and equipped at a cost of $2.5 million, all of which came from private support.
Fifty-five donors stepped up to advance the academic center from vision to blueprint to Wednesday's groundbreaking. Fundraising for the project was aided by a $400,000 pledge from the Grizzly Scholarship Association.
The $1 million donation, one of the largest cash gifts to the Department of Athletics in school history, will be used for future facility upgrades. A portion will also go toward other department projects.
It was given by a donor who has asked to remain anonymous for now, with the agreement that the academic center will be named in their honor in the near future.
"We cannot do what we do at the University of Montana without donors sharing and investing in our vision," Haslam said. "We are grateful there are people who see we have a need, who take time to understand our vision and who then take action to help us make it a reality.
"The $1 million gift, and all the contributions that are making our academic center and other facility improvements a reality, will impact thousands and thousands of student-athletes in the years and decades to come."
When Haslam was hired to be Montana's AD in September 2012, he challenged his department to overachieve in three areas: athletics, academics and community service. It's been less than two years, but it's clear Haslam's message has been internalized by coaches and student-athletes alike.
Montana had top-three Big Sky Conference finishes in eight of its 14 sports in 2013-14. The Grizzlies have now had 18 straight semesters with a cumulative department GPA of 3.0 or better. And Montana's student-athletes put in more than 2,100 hours of community service last year.
But Montana has been succeeding as a department in spite of its internal facilities, not because of them. While the academic center will address one critical need, from weight room to locker rooms the remaining behind-the-scenes facilities remain in need of upgrades.
That's where Haslam's vision of what could be comes in. Or more boldly, what will be. His department has bought in. With a privately funded academic center and Wednesday's announcement of an additional $1 million gift, it's clear that vision is spreading beyond the walls of the Adams Center.
"The new academic center is the first step in the overall master plan to improve the support facilities for our student-athletes," Haslam said. "I am excited for what lies ahead, and I express my gratitude on behalf of our department and student-athletes for what's been done and what's going to get done."
The new academic center will be constructed in the open space between the Adams Center and UM's Student Recreation Center. The symbolism of the location wasn't intentional, but it can't be ignored either, especially by those arriving on campus to support the Grizzlies via 6th Street.
The new building will be dwarfed by Dahlberg Arena and Washington-Grizzly Stadium, the structures that will tower over it, but another perspective might be that the academic center will provide the foundation upon which all else is supported, that athlete can't happen without student.
The facility will be no Taj Mahal of the Clark Fork, and that's just the way Haslam wants it. In his plan, Montana's updated facilities will be cost-effective and functional, simple while still getting the job done. Purveyors of bells and whistles need not waste their time paying a visit to the AD's office.
Montana's former academic center (a necessary visual for perspective: a basement space now cozily housing Montana's two softball coaches and the program's equipment) was 450 square feet of academic-unfriendly space wedged between weight room, locker rooms and equipment room.
If thumping music and crashing weights weren't enough to ruin one's enjoyment of Chaucer or interrupt one's study of macroeconomics, the smell, the leaky overhead tiles or the lack of outside light certainly would have gotten the job done.
Only 10 students could shoehorn themselves into the study area at any one time, but because an athlete's day is based around the Adams Center, from training room to weight room to coaches' offices to practice sites, the convenience of the former academic center meant it still was heavily used.
The second floor of the new center, which should be completed in time for the start of the 2015 fall semester, will be highlighted by an open, 1,500-square-foot study lounge, a space that comfortably will accommodate up to 60 Griz athletes, whether they be cross country runner or offensive lineman.
There also will be three separate study rooms, one large study room and an office for a member of the department's academic services staff.
The best part, at least for anyone who ever spent time in the former academic center, will be an entire wall of floor-to-ceiling windows that will bathe the space in natural light and open the second floor to the rest of campus and the Missoula valley.
"This won't be a posh place, and it's not an effort to separate our student-athletes from the rest of the student body," Haslam said.
"Few people have the opportunity to see behind the scenes into the life of a student-athlete and experience the kind of demands they face on their time. The new academic center is an effort to make sure we are providing them with another tool that can help them be successful."
The ground level of the new facility, which will continue to be an entrance to the Adams Center and Dahlberg Arena, will provide additional office space for the Department of Athletics and an outdoor ticket office window.
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