Sean Miller remembers when center Kaleb Tarczewski was still just a 2012 recruit. At the time of his visit to McKale Center, the then-undecided 7-footer had already visited a number of elite programs with state-of-the-art basketball arenas.
During Tarczewski's visit, the Arizona head coach stopped and asked for his thoughts of the new locker room the Wildcats had just put together.
"I couldn't wait to bring him in it to say we have the nicest locker room," Miller recalled. "Before I said it, I said, 'How does this locker room compare to the others?'"
Tarczewski's response: "Very similar."
That, however, is the reality in the today's collegiate athletics arms race, and a reason why the top-ranked team in the country is in the opening stages of an $80 million renovation to McKale Center. UA athletic director Greg Byrne, along with Miller and women's basketball head coach Niya Butts and school president Ann Weaver Hart, were on hand Monday to announce the initial phase of the project - highlighted by a $6 million kickstart donation from Cole and Jeannie Davis, who also were in attendance.
Phase I of the renovation, expected to be completed by the start of the 2014-15 basketball season, will include a new floor, a new women's basketball locker room, a coaches' locker room for the men's team, video rooms for both teams and a players' lounge.
The initial phase, expected to cost $30 million, has now collected $12.6 million in donations and is expected to reach $20 million in the near future. A new high-definition video board - roughly 25 percent larger than the current board - above the court will be the lone feature of Phase I that will be implemented this season. The video board will be installed over the holiday break and be ready for the Pac-12 Conference opener against Washington State on Jan. 2.
Byrne said the plan is to have all $80 million paid for entirely through donations, with a "backstop" from the revenue generated via league TV contracts, if needed. He added that almost 99 percent of the capital gifts have been collected in the last decade.
"The good thing about McKale, even though it's about 40 years old, it still shows well," Byrne said after the press conference. "But at the same time, too, we're starting to fall behind."
The fan experience will be upgraded by replacing every seat, in addition to expanded concession and restroom areas. The Zona Zoo will include a patch of red seats that make out the "block A" school logo, and Byrne said he is exploring the idea, if it "makes some sense," of expanding the student section out to behind the team bench area. As of right now, there are no plans to move the student seating.
The familiar yellow seats Byrne remembers when the arena hosted the 1987 Pac-10 tournament during his time at Oregon will be swapped out, too.
"I remember walking in almost four years ago now," Byrne said, "and saying, 'It looks very similar.' And that was the case for a number of our facilities."
The Davis family, Tucson residents but not U of A alums, has now invested $10 million into the program, including its leadership donation for the construction of Richard Jefferson Gymnasium and the strength and conditioning center inside the facility.
Cole Davis said the interest started when Miller was hired in 2009.
"We've seen it work," Cole Davis said of the impact in recruiting and the product of Miller's teams in five seasons. "And take a look at where the basketball program is today.
"Jeannie and I feel that this is just the beginning. I think Sean's going to take the program to where we've never seen it before and that is a tall order."
Miller said the impact in recruiting and the decision-making process for a prospect does not happen in the winter months, but in the summer. When basketball games to attend are no longer part of the visits to campuses across the country, it is the facilities that become an integral part of the pitch, he said.
Arizona had the No. 4-ranked recruiting class in 2013, highlighted by the nation's third-best recruit in current freshman Aaron Gordon, according to Rivals.com. The Wildcats are currently in the same slot for 2014, led again by the nation's No. 3 recruit, Stanley Johnson.
"You walk into McKale in July, it looks a little different than it does on game night," Miller said.
Other upgrades also will include a new tunnel for the players to walk through directly from the locker room. Currently located in one of the south corners, the players' entrance to the floor will be moved behind the basket and the seats up the middle will be eliminated. Byrne said the idea is to have a narrow tunnel, similar to the look of the NBA's Miami Heat. Two of the four empty corners will be used to put in more seating, though Byrne added that full capacity will remain around 14,500.
Construction of the locker room is expected to be completed, "or just the finishing touches," by the start of the 2014-15 season, Byrne said.
The remainder of the project is expected to include changes to the outside of the building. Byrne said the idea is to expand the concourse and enclose the area, accounting for half of the $80 million price tag, but a timetable to begin that phase of the project has yet to be determined. Sizeable donations could affect the timeframe, he added.
In January, Byrne told GOAZCATS.com that the plan could include a club area, as well, and that "the front of McKale will look like a completely different arena."
The project will be the most significant upgrade since McKale Center opened in 1973 and was built for $8.1 million.
"We want McKale to be an iconic building with a new facelift," Hart said.
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