For low-major programs like NAU, facilities gap an uphill climb in college hoops

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The building, with its high, arched ceilings, could pass for an airplane hangar if it had larger doors. Massive fans span one wall, designed to heat the adjacent offices next door, yet turn the old fieldhouse colder than the already-crisp fall air outside.

The lights have a bug-zapper vibe without the zap, emitting a constant hum, illuminating the center of the concrete floor, leaving the areas along the walls in shadows.

Two basketball courts fill the north side. One is surrounded by a horseshoe-shaped chain-link fence extending from the wall, a small entrance at one end, four feet of clearance from the court in the corners.

Just as Northern Arizona’s basketball players start warming up in this makeshift practice gym, the whir of drills and saws echoes through the building as workers construct two batting cages for the baseball team.

“It’s almost like they waited until we started practicing to begin working,” Lumberjacks coach Jack Murphy said. “I equate it to an English professor trying to teach Shakespeare in a parking garage. I’m not saying I’m teaching Shakespeare, but you would never do that.”

The smallest schools among the 351 in Division I college basketball have trouble competing with the high-majors on the court.

The facilities gap may be a deeper chasm.

At college basketball’s highest levels, weight rooms are like upscale health clubs. Arenas are belled and whistled enough to make NBA teams jealous, the practice courts nicer than some schools’ arenas.

There are fingerprint security systems, underwater rehab treadmills, game-film theaters like celebrity screening rooms. At Nebraska, players have iPod docks at their lockers that connect to the weight room, the practice court, even the showers to play their own music wherever they go.

The smallest schools often play in bandbox gyms or off-campus arenas. Practice courts, if any, can feel like racquetball courts with hoops schedules worked around PE classes. The weight rooms, while not quite Izzy Mandelbaum-era (think Seinfeld), are often sparse, with a hand-me-down feel to the equipment.

It comes down to this: Big programs have money to pay for state-of-the-art facilities while the small schools struggle to afford modest upgrades.

“Financial support is the biggest difference, which kind of dovetails into facilities and lack thereof,” former Wake Forest and South Carolina coach Dave Odum said. “The disparity between practice facilities and major coliseums, all that is under the financial problem the middle or low-major programs have to overcome every day.”

One massive area the facilities gap hurts: Recruiting.

Players love swag, playing in nice arenas, using the best equipment, having every comfort and convenience in their locker rooms and lounges.

The difference between high-end and just-get-by facilities could end up being a recruiting tipping point.

“The resources and facilities is the biggest gap,” Longwood coach Jayson Gee said. “At the end of the day, I believe potential recruits look at that. So when you come to say, a Texas A&M, it sends a message to a potential recruit, that’s what they’re after, so there’s no way we can compete with that BCS-level program that has millions and millions of dollars. We’ve got to sell our relationships and have people who really want to be at your institutions.”

An eye to the future is part of the pitch.

Sacramento State has undergone an unprecedented era of building; a new fieldhouse and weight room, a health and wellness center, science buildings and a slew of dorms, including two sets overlooking the American River.

Talks of building an on-campus arena have gone on for years, but nothing concrete is in place. Until then, the Hornets will continue playing in The Nest, which has new locker rooms and lobby, but is one of the smallest and oldest gyms in Division I.

“We have two things here,” Sac State coach Brian Katz said. “One is the long-term vision build a facility. Is that two years, five, eight? I don’t know what it is. Short-term vision, how do we make things better today?”

Seattle University, the second-smallest school in the WAC, is in the same look-to-the-future situation.

The school has discussed building a 6,000-or-so-seat, on-campus arena in about five years. The Redhawks currently split their games at KeyArena, the former home of the NBA’s Seattle Supersonics, and the on-campus Connelly Center.

KeyArena is a recruiting magnet because it once housed an NBA team, but small crowds can look even more minuscule in the 17,000-seat arena. The Connelly Center seats about 1,000 and is essentially a Division III facility.

“I’m kind of living in three worlds,” Seattle University coach Jim Hayford said. “I coach in a gym an NBA team used to inhabit, I have a school that wants to build a gym like Belmont or Gonzaga and then I’m still stuck in a gym like a Portland State or a Sac State.”

Or Northern Arizona.

There’s been talk of a new arena in Flagstaff. Despite buildings going up all around campus, it has not gone past that stage.

The Lumberjacks’ stint in the dank, dark fieldhouse was at least short: 16 preseason practices in October.

They survived the cold, the prison-yard feel, the poor lighting and the workmen’s whirs, only to move onto another not-exactly-ideal situation.

Most of NAU’s games are played at the Walkup Skydome, which also houses the football and track teams. It’s a unique stadium and was once the largest wood-span structure of its kind in the world, but not the best place for a basketball game with the court set up near a corner and temporary bleachers on the side.

The Lumberjacks also play a few games at the Rolle Center, a nice rec center, but a rec center nonetheless.

“Facility-wise, if we had our own dedicated arena or something like that, this would be one of the better jobs in the conference because we have great location, we have a great campus, the general feel of Flagstaff is positive,” Murphy said. “We have a lot of things going for us, but the facilities are a big drawback.”

The same could be said for low-major programs across the country.