Richmond sports tries to stay ahead of game in Division I

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) When John Hardt arrived as Richmond’s athletic director in January, he appeared to be taking over a department that was wanting for little in terms of facilities and infrastructure.

He couldn’t have been more wrong.

That was reinforced during a visit with long-time friend Mike Rhoades, VCU’s basketball coach. Hardt had suggested they get together. Rhoades had a better idea, inviting Hardt to the downtown campus to see the Rams’ recruiting jewel, a $25 million basketball practice facility.

Hardt said his first thought after the tour was, ”That’s an un-level playing field right now.”

On his way out of town, he talked to another Richmond friend, who had heard he’d been impressed.

”If Richmond wants to stay in the game,” Hardt told him, ”you better get one of those. Like now.”

The private school in suburban Richmond has in recent years opened a $28 million, 8,700-seat on-campus stadium for soccer and football and men’s and women’s lacrosse, did a $17 million renovation of the interior of its basketball arena, and put a new surface on its baseball field and a on its field hockey field.

But since Hardt has been on campus, he’s heard jackhammers and other heavy equipment work on a $7 million improvement of the floor below his office.

”You don’t have to listen to too many athletics folks to realize if you’re standing still, you’re falling behind when it comes to Division I athletics,” Hardt said.

When completed by the fall of 2018, the ground floor of the Robins Center will hold state-of-the-art locker rooms for football, lacrosse and coaches, and new strength-and-conditioning, sports medicine and equipment rooms. Then work will begin on a $15 million basketball practice facility to be finished in 2020.

Unlike VCU, which built its basketball only facility with no intention of using it for alumni and booster functions, Richmond plans to build something that not only fits into the campus landscape, but also features an entry-way that will be a ”Spider heritage hall” with an alumni reception area for pregame gatherings.

The way Hardt views it, if you build something shiny and new, you might as well show it off.

”Student-athletes are who we’re here for,” he said. ”You really have to be tuned into that mindset and think about, `OK, what do we need to bring to bear here that’s not only functionally what we need but also has some wow to it. What is it that’s going to impress in a positive way a recruit and their family?”’

A $7.5 million gift to the school to get the fundraising underway for the basketball facility made it more of a no-brainer, Hardt said, especially since the Spiders occasionally recruit against VCU, a rival in the Atlantic 10 Conference.

When visiting the Robins Center, recruits often say, ”`Wow. This is really nice. Now where do you practice? Oh, you practice here? Well, I was just over there and they have a whole separate (facility),”’ Hardt said.

Hardt was the athletic director at Bucknell before joining the Spiders. One of his other main objectives at Richmond is beefing up the athletic leadership program, which promotes not only leadership but accountability among Spiders athletes.

He says it’s similar to one Bucknell launched eight years ago.

”I’ve seen it and I’ve experienced it in action at a peer school,” he said, ”and it really is powerful and really has a positive impact.”