Along with the Tar Heels' three national championships since the building opened and even with the recent designation of Carolina as the "most valuable" college basketball program in the country, the Smith Center has been quietly aging. Still a fine building, it's been in need of updating, as the needs of today's college basketball programs and athletes have evolved. Which is why the recent renovations at the Smith Center were of paramount importance for the basketball program.
The project, which began immediately after the 2009-10 season ended and was finished in October before the start of the 2010-2011 season, included a major overhaul to the basketball offices. Among the work completed by Corley Redfoot Zack was the addition of 4,000 square feet of space between Koury Natatorium and the Smith Center and the renovation of roughly 13,000 square feet. Andy Cruickshank, a partner at the firm, says the addition and improvements reflect head coach Roy Williams's vision of Carolina basketball now and in the future.
"There was nothing wrong with the Smith Center," said Cruickshank. "But it's been used for so long. It was really important to get more space and to improve how the space functions for the operation of the basketball program….Coach Williams wants a family atmosphere around his program. He really wanted places where everyone could eat together—that's important to him. So we put in a full-blown kitchen so they can cook and eat together. This builds team spirit and fosters morale. We also built a patio space with a grill, which serves a similar purpose."
In addition to new eating spaces, the renovation of the basketball offices at the Smith Center includes weight and training room changes and design features that serve the players and coaches much better.
"It's been an ongoing process of improvement," said Cruickshank. "It started with the lower-level—the locker room level. The weight room was undersized, so we took the existing space and reconfigured it to give them a larger weight room and training room space."
With strength and conditioning and training programs becoming essential—and quite complicated—elements of successful high-level basketball programs, the input of the men's basketball staff was critical in helping the firm design the upgraded facility.
"Jonas Sahratian and Chris Hirth were heavily involved, and Jerod Haase was instrumental in this," said Cruickshank. "Jared was a great resource in terms of trying to understand what the coaches wanted. We don't just design in a vacuum. Jared was the go-to guy."
Tim Smith, a major gift director at The Rams Club and a point-person on the project, agreed that the facilities were in need of serious improvement.
"We needed to renovate the workout space," Smith said. "The facility was certainly dated. Not to mention women's basketball, swimming, and men's basketball all had to share the same space, which wasn't ideal….So we talked to Jonas and to others and asked, ‘What do you need?' We asked the pro guys coming back what was missing, what they have with their teams. The NBA guys said, ‘Here's what we have that we like.' Plus the coaches have been everywhere, the NBA guys have been everywhere, and our current players have been recruited by everywhere. So we really did our homework."
Former Tar Heel Eric Montross was brought on board to be a fundraiser for the project. He has seen first-hand the evolution of the training of elite athletes.
"Weight training is a much bigger deal today than when I played and when the Smith Center was built," Montross said. "It's just a huge deal now. So much has changed. So it was critical that we consult closely with Jonas on the functionality of the existing space and what we could do to improve it."
In addition to the strength and conditioning and training facility improvements, the new offices serve to celebrate Carolina basketball and Carolina athletics, to bring all of Carolina's excellence on the fields and courts of its sports programs to visitors of the Smith Center's offices.
"A large lobby functions as a gallery space to show off national title trophies," said Cruickshank. "The old museum is now the Hargrove ‘Skipper' Bowles, Jr. Hall of Champions, which has an exhibit within where they honor individual and team titles in all sports. It's a big open space for people to gather."
Functionally, the space has been improved to meet the needs of those who use it most. Part of the trouble with the old space was that it wasn't as comfortable as it should be for those who spent the most amount of time in it—people who are, to be frank, quite a bit larger than the average person.
"The office space that was original to the building was very tight," said Cruickshank. "The corridors were very narrow. In the new edition we made sure that we put in generous steps and tall doors. We needed to make the space comfortable for big athletes. And it's not just the players. The coaches are big guys too."
Perhaps chief among the goals of making the project a success was to blend the past of Carolina basketball with the present and the future.
"There's space for things to hang on walls—player-of-the-year honors," said Cruickshank. "But we didn't want to duplicate the basketball museum. This is all about recruiting. We used materials, designs, styles, natural light, and new space in a contemporary way to give it a contemporary feel, appealing to 18-year-olds, alumni, fans, and coaches."
Appealing to alumni and recruits was critically important for bridging past, present, and future, and doing so effectively would allow for the building to be a part of Carolina basketball for years to come. Tim Smith echoed Cruickshank's sentiments.
"The Smith Center has not been touched since it was built," said Smith. "The size of the rooms was a big problem. If you think about it, recruits and players weren't even born when the building was designed. So we wanted a space to reflect all that Carolina basketball is—something that would honor the past and look to the future."
As a central figure in the fundraising process, Montross was chosen to promote the project to donors. Montross was first approached by Williams to help with the effort. He describes the renovations as an important step for Carolina basketball and for the athletic department.
"I came on in early October 2009, after being approached by Coach Williams," Montross said. "This really began as something Coach Williams is passionate about. He wanted to update the offices. As one of the top programs in the country, and after playing for 25 years in the Smith Center, he really felt that the offices needed improvement. He wanted the space to be more functional to make sure that the staff and athletes had the space they needed."
The fundraising component to the project is perhaps the most important part of the story. Charting a different course from other athletic department facilities projects, the new basketball offices will be debt-free. Williams didn't want the project to be funded on the public level and the university to trouble itself with debt from the renovations. Instead he wanted the basketball program to pay its own way.
"While the new offices were very important to him, he didn't want any debt service at the university level," Montross said. "From his perspective, he wants the program to be self-sustaining and operate in a very responsible fashion."
For the first time in Carolina history, former players were approached about contributing to the renovations and to the Carolina Basketball Family Fund, the new operating endowment of Carolina basketball. The goal was to raise $25 million for Carolina basketball—$9 million to be spent on the renovations, the remaining $16 million to go to the endowment. The additional money will allow the basketball program to operate independently of the athletic department and university when it comes to capital projects like the renovations or facility upgrades.
"The endowment is a great thing for the health of the program," said Montross. "Each year the interest can be spent on anything from facility improvements to training equipment to recruiting travel—spent at the discretion of the coaches, for the betterment of the program."
The endowment will also have a positive impact on Carolina's other sports. With the basketball program able to fund those expenses that aren't previously budgeted for, the athletic department will be able to spend more freely on the needs of Olympic sports.
In large part, this new-found flexibility is owed to those, like Montross, who have gone through the Carolina basketball program.
"This is the first time in the history of the men's basketball program that we've gone to the lettermen," said Montross. "But we're also going to general donors. We've had very strong support from everyone—the lettermen, the general public, and from folks who have given before."
Fortunately, Williams came to the table with some experience, which has helped everyone who has been a donor feel a part of the project.
"He had done something similar at Kansas and it was a formula he brought here," said Montross. "The players have really embraced it. The share of ownership in the program is so important. Last year, when the pro guys came back, it was something they learned about and it immediately appealed to them….There's been no pushback from the players, only a desire to be involved. It's a great leadership gift. And it helps the current student-athletes to see former players who have gone through the program and see the commitment they have. That's a sign of leadership."
The project and endowment will allow for the Carolina program—and the culture surrounding it—to be self-sustaining and grow. Having played in the NBA for nearly a decade, Montross knows how special the Carolina program is for players.
"The goal is to create a culture that goes beyond the years of being a student-athlete, which will help sustain the program. … Some of the things I've heard from former players is that it's important to give other young men an opportunity. Carolina can't be re-created later, as you move on to other parts of your life. In my pro career, with six teams, the one thing I was always asked in conversations with other guys was, ‘Why do you go back to Chapel Hill?'"
Tim Smith sees the loyalty of the former players as a unique part of the Carolina program.
"I think that our lettermen were a huge impetus," Smith said. "We would not be doing this without the support of the lettermen. ‘Family' is one of things that makes this place one of the most special in country."
For Montross, fund-raising for the basketball offices and endowment has been a new experience, but one he's embraced.
"It's been a pleasure to work on the project," said Montross. "Having walked through the program and felt the value of what it's done for me, it makes it special. The impact of the people who support Carolina athletics at the monetary level is hard to wrap your mind around when you're a player. … But a lot more goes into it than what's on the surface. … The program makes money, but it also has to spend money to be successful. … This program is known for looking forward, for always finding ways to improve, for always being cutting edge, even down to the plays they run. The new offices and the endowment are a way for UNC to improve and to make a stronger program."