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Big Green Plays Catch Up With $120 Million in New Athletics Facilities

  • The Hanover Planning Board visits Dartmouth College on June 14, 2016 for a site tour of a proposed athletic facility in Hanover, N.H. The cranes represent the roof line of the proposed building. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Morgan Lavoy, of Thetford, Vt., practices the long jump in preparation for a track and field meet at the Leverone Field House at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, N.H., on Friday, December 16, 2016. Earlier this week, the Hanover planning board voted down Dartmouth College's proposal for an additional 60,000 square foot indoor practice facility for track and field. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Marie Doyle, left, an administrative assistant for the Dartmouth baseball team, and Christine Anneberg, assistant lacrosse coach, watch Dartmouth's inaugural game at Red Rolfe Field at Biondi Park in Hanover, N.H., on April 1, 2009. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Working out at the college’s new softball park, Dartmouth runner Meghan Everett slides into second base ahead of the tag by Mariah Claw on April 5, 2012. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, December 18, 2016

Hanover — The rain had varied its intensity throughout the Dartmouth College football practice last month but at times it fell as if poured out of a bucket. Coach Buddy Teevens and his 140 players and staff were soaked and chilled by the end of the two-hour workout on Memorial Field.

Teevens’ sneakers squished as he trudged into Floren Varsity House’s lobby for an interview. His baseball cap’s once-stiff brim sagged, and tiny puddles gathered on the floor below his jacket’s sleeves.

“The great thing is we have lights now, so we can see, and we have a surface we can work with,” Teevens said, referring to the installation of stadium floodlights four years ago and the acquisition of artificial turf six years before that. “But as much as you try on a day like today, it’s going to be a sloppy outcome.

“When the wind is blowing, the snow is coming down or it’s pouring rain and you’re soaked? You want to concentrate, but it’s a little bit easier if you control the climate.”

Teevens’ mention of climate control was an allusion to Dartmouth’s hoped-for $20 million indoor-practice facility, which the Hanover Planning Board rejected on a 4-1 vote Tuesday night after nearby residents decried its potential impact on their neighborhood. The college has a month-long window to appeal.

“We’re still digesting the decision and have to re-evaluate and figure out what our options are,” said sixth-year athletics director Harry Sheehy. “We were surprised but it wasn’t totally unexpected.”

The proposed facility is but the latest in a series of projects undertaken by the college to improve its athletics facilities — a campaign that can be traced to a 1997 proposal for a new indoor tennis facility and a lighted, artificial turf field. In the last 15 years or so, Dartmouth has spent about $120 million on new or updated facilities — and the college is not alone among Ivy League institutions in pursuing such a course.

While some questions have naturally been raised about why so much money is being spent on athletics, college officials say the effort is an attempt to compensate for a long stretch when little was spent on sports facilities. In the more general sense, supporters of the effort say, the spending is nothing more than what the college tries to do for all campus activities — provide the best experience possible for students.

Moreover, athletics serve the campus in a way few other activities do, Sheehy argues.

“Athletics and athletic stories are still inspirational,” he said. “One of my main jobs is to help Dartmouth build community. From Monday to Friday on this campus, hardly anyone agrees on anything. But on Saturday, the majority of the 8,000 people at the football game want to beat Harvard.”

A Crucial Piece

Unlike some of the new construction and renovation projects that have occurred over the past couple of decades, the proposed indoor practice facility would serve a number of sports and several constituencies on campus.

The “big box of air” as Sheehy jokingly describes the practice facility, would allow spring teams such as baseball, softball and men’s and women’s lacrosse to conduct workouts without waiting for time in the 51-year-old Leverone Field House. The spring sports teams’ seasons begin Feb. 1.

The new building would feature 56,000 square feet of artificial-turf practice space, compared with roughly 38,000 available in Leverone when both permanent and temporary areas are in use. The field house would then become more available for club teams and the Big Green track squads, which train and compete throughout the winter. Fall-season teams, such as men’s and women’s soccer and field hockey, would benefit from the added indoor space as the weather turns nasty late in their campaigns. About a third of the college’s roughly 1,000 varsity athletes would directly benefit from the proposed indoor facility.

Football, which trains its athletes year-round and conducts 12 team practices during the spring, would gain flexibility in when and for how long it wanted to work during the winter or on inclement days the rest of the year. “We’re always assessing where our facilities stand relative to others,” said Drew Galbraith, a Dartmouth senior associate athletics director.

The Big Green found itself trailing almost every Ivy League foe in that area when the century began, but has steadily risen through the ranks. Bob Ceplikas, Dartmouth’s deputy athletics director, estimated that if the indoor practice facility were built, Dartmouth would rank third in the league in the quality of its sports facilities, trailing only traditional athletic powers Harvard and Princeton.

Within New England, Dartmouth would be third in available indoor athletics practice space, behind only the University of Connecticut and Boston College, both of which compete at a higher level of NCAA Division I sports.

The indoor facility would offer a playing surface measuring 56 by 86 yards and would accommodate a full-width, 85-yard football field and half fields or better for the lacrosse and soccer teams. Full-size infields and portions of the outfield would be available for the baseball and softball teams, which would also have hitting tunnels on the side of the building.

Such a haven is something Ryan Danehy and his teammates could only dream about when the former football player and lacrosse standout attended Dartmouth from 2003-06. Now a coach in the Philadelphia area, Danehy said he could “count on two hands” the number of times the Big Green practiced indoors during his playing days.

Toward the end of his time as a lacrosse coach at his alma mater from 2008-13, concern about injuries and NCAA rules limiting player exposure to sub-freezing temperatures had changed accepted thinking. However, practicing outdoors was not always an option. “As a coach, there are times you know you’re not going to get much out of the kids because of the weather, but you have to practice full-field situations,” Danehy said. “Your boogers are freezing in your nose, the guys on the sidelines are miserable and the cold weather can make injuries a plague.”

If sun melts snow and ice on Scully-Fahey’s surface and plunging temperatures freeze it suddenly, the field can turn rock hard. Players slip and pull or tear muscles, ligaments and tendons. Concussions are suffered when heads strike the ground. And concentration wanes.

“Competition for a decent (indoor) practice time in the department is cutthroat,” Danehy said. “Two or three days before a big storm, all the coaches are scrambling to get what they want.”

Another, less obvious effect of bad weather is how it changes a student-athlete’s academic life. There are winter days when Leverone’s turf is booked from 6 a.m. to midnight. A player facing an 8 a.m. test on Wednesday and expecting a Tuesday outdoor practice at 4 p.m. may learn at noon that her team is instead going inside from 8 to 10 p.m.

Besides expressing concern about the impact that the size and appearance of the $17.5 million facility would have on their neighborhood — and challenging the college’s assessments of the building’s potential impact — opponents have asked why the college can’t move the building to a site that wouldn’t affect an adjacent residential area.

But building athletics facilities off-campus has its drawbacks. Ceplikas points out that Hanover officials have long urged the college to build within its existing footprint. Doing so allows student-athletes with jam-packed daily schedules to move quickly from their dorms, classrooms and laboratories to locker rooms and practice sites.

“We want our students to think about classes first and not restrict their ability to take various course offerings,” Galbraith said. “What we’re doing is no different than theater or music groups on campus in that we need groups of students in one place for a couple of hours.

“These aren’t issues we have with tennis or volleyball or ice hockey because those sports already have indoor facilities.”

Ceplikas said he’s sometimes asked why Dartmouth couldn’t build the indoor practice facility on the Blackman Fields site. He explained that not only is that area a bit too narrow for such a project, but that extending a steam pipe from the tennis center, across the Thompson Arena parking lot and behind Burnham Field would be prohibitively expensive.

In addition, the loss of the lighted Blackman Fields would necessitate their replacement next to the tennis center. That would presumably make the erection of light towers a neighborhood concern. Galbraith added that the 50-foot-high indoor facility would also block some of the view of the Velvet Rocks hillside were it built on the Blackman location.

Catching Up

The Ivy League has recently seen an explosion of sports facility creation and renovation. At Dartmouth, where “at least 80 percent” of $120 million spent over the last 15 years has come from donations, according to Ceplikas, such work was necessary because much of the athletics infrastructure had simply become outdated.

The football team operated out of antiquated and cramped Davis Varsity House and played on a natural grass field that became badly worn late in the fall. Weight-training areas were scattered among several buildings and often became overcrowded.

The men’s and women’s tennis teams’ indoor option was a strip of aging courts crammed inside the Leverone track. The men’s and women’s soccer and lacrosse teams played and practiced on grass fields which drained poorly and sometimes couldn’t be used before mid-April or after Halloween. Half of the baseball team’s Red Rolfe Field sat in the shadows of Memorial Field’s enormous and unsightly grandstand. That sometimes left the baseball field’s west side frozen while the east side thawed. It wasn’t rare for the baseball team to have to cancel games or play them on neutral sites in warmer climes.

The softball program debuted in 1995. It was an advance for female athletes, but also a lesson in separate-but-unequal facilities for a team whose minimalist field sat in West Lebanon. Players bicycled, car-pooled and sometimes rode in vans to reach it.

Following the leveling of the old Davis Rink hockey facility and the 1986 opening of the 88,000-square-foot Berry Center and Leede Arena on the same site, Dartmouth didn’t build a new athletics facility or significantly renovate an existing one for nearly 15 years. The college administration, led by President James Freedman from 1987-98, didn’t make such action a priority, Ceplikas said.

The ascension of James Wright to the president’s position was a boon for athletics, and he was succeeded from 2009-12 by Jim Yong Kim, a former high school quarterback and enthusiastic backer of Big Green sports. Kim hired Sheehy as athletics director in 2010, and the former college basketball standout has made fundraising for construction a hallmark of his tenure.

The college separates facility projects into two broad categories — those that address aging or unsafe buildings, such as the Memorial Field West Stands or the 2011 work on Thompson Arena, and new construction or renovations that represent programmatic improvements, such as Alumni Gym’s Zimmerman Fitness Center or Burnham Field.

Projects in the first category are covered by the college’s maintenance budget, and the athletics department’s needs are evaluated in comparison with those of other college departments, according to Ceplikas. Projects aiming to expand or improve athletics department offerings are typically identified by the athletics director, who then makes the case for the initiative to the president and trustees, who “who evaluate the request in the context of other facility requests across campus and the fundraising potential for each one,” Ceplikas said.

Once such a project is approved, fundraising is turned over to the development office. The development office raised more than $20 million for the indoor practice facility in seven months, Ceplikas noted.

Occasionally, an individual will offer to fund a project of particular interest to that particular donor; such donations are accepted if they align with the athletics director’s priorities and meet the approval of the college president and trustees, Ceplikas said. The athletics department has no master plan per se, but does operate off of what is essentially a running wish list.

“If there’s one thing we learned from 1985-2000, when Dartmouth made almost no athletics facility improvements, it’s that none of our peers were standing still,” he said. “Consequently we’ve had to do a great deal of catching up since then, and we don’t want to make that mistake again.”

The first step forward after the Freedman years was the 1997 proposal to build an indoor tennis facility at the east end of the Thompson Arena hockey arena and a lighted, artificial turf field at the east end of the tennis facility. Neighbors objected to potential light spill from the towers, however, and that last parcel remains undeveloped. It’s now where the college would like to build the indoor practice facility.

In 1998, the college developed the natural-grass Blackman Fields, used for soccer and football practices. The $6 million Boss Tennis Center opened in 2000 and the Big Green’s teams in that sport have become among the best in the Ivy League. The Hanover Country Club, home of Dartmouth’s men’s and women’s golf teams, was renovated for $3 million during 2000, including four new holes and new tees and greens.

Scully-Fahey Field, used by the lacrosse and field hockey teams, also opened in 2000 at the east end of the Thompson Arena parking lot. Its construction cost $2.9 million. The Dartmouth Skiway’s $3.5 million McLane Family Lodge came about during 2000 and Leverone got a $5.3 refurbishment a year later.

The college added the Corey Ford rugby clubhouse and adjacent fields for $3.3 million in 2005 and a year later, $16 million was poured into renovating Alumni Gym and constructing a 14,000-square-foot recreational center for all students. The Karl Michael Pool was upgraded and training tanks for the rowing teams added.

In 2007 came the $19.5 million Floren Varsity House, which includes rooms for equipment, sports medicine, meetings and lifting weights. Offices for academic support, softball, baseball and football are housed on the top level of the three-story building. Memorial Field’s old east stands were razed to make way for Floren and smaller stands constructed in their place.

Burnham Field for men’s and women’s soccer was completed for $8 million during 2008. That same year, Scully-Fahey’s surface needed replacement and the college elected to install FieldTurf, which has longer artificial grass blades and utilizes tiny rubber pellets for cushioning. The same product had been installed on Memorial Field for football use in 2006 and was replaced earlier this year.

Because field hockey is better played on a harder field with the brand name AstroTurf, a facility with that artificial surface was constructed to the south of the Burnham soccer field and opened in 2008. A small “sports pavilion” opened at roughly the same time, providing locker room space for soccer during the fall and lacrosse during the spring.

The size of that building, which sits between Burnham and Scully-Fahey, will be more than doubled when an expansion is expected to open in time for the 2017 soccer season. That construction will allow the soccer, lacrosse, field hockey and softball teams to all have their own, year-round locker rooms.

Dartmouth unveiled a renovated baseball field in 2009, complete with artificial turf and a new grandstand and dugouts. A $5.2 million donation made that work possible. Three years later, a $3.1 million softball stadium opened south of the Blackman fields. Thompson Arena had its cooling system replaced for $4 million in 2011 and a new office suite and lounge for men’s and women’s basketball was completed in the Berry Center during 2012 and with a $1.87 million price tag.

Dartmouth teams have taken well to their updated facilities. The baseball team has won seven division titles and two league crowns since inhabiting its refurbished digs, and the softball team has captured three division championships and two league titles since moving into its new home. The men’s soccer team has won or shared five Ivy League titles since Burnham Field opened. Football, its recruiting significantly aided by Floren’s construction, won a share of the league crown last year, its first such triumph since 1996. The program has also enjoyed the installation of a video scoreboard and a complete rebuilding of Memorial Field’s west grandstand and press box in 2015.

Construction Boom Ending

The indoor practice facility is seen as the final, major piece in Dartmouth’s latest athletics facilities push. Remodeling Thompson Arena and Davis Varsity House is on the wish list, but Ceplikas said there are no plans for new buildings.

That’s presumably good news to the likes of David LaGuardia, a Dartmouth French professor who wrote in a recent email that it’s disheartening to toil in aging academic buildings while watching new sports buildings proliferate or old ones get spruced up.

“I think everyone who works in Dartmouth Hall … is surprised that so much money is going into athletic facilities and new buildings for the sciences, while we were promised more than a decade ago that Dartmouth Row would be renovated,” LaGuardia wrote in an email to the Valley News, adding that Dartmouth Hall has no fire escapes, elevators or air conditioning and that some of its steps are in disrepair.

The building program, however, also enjoys support outside the athletics department. “Part of our prestige comes from being in the Ivy League and this requires fielding competitive teams, economics professor Chris Snyder wrote, adding, “$120 (million) seems a lot to maintain competitiveness, but this is added up over a long period. Doing the division, $8 (million) a year sounds much more reasonable to maintain and upgrade facilities.”

To whatever extent donations drive the college’s decisions about what gets built or renovated, the athletics department enjoys some advantages.

Sociology professor John Campbell, a former collegiate varsity athlete, wrote that he was “recently approached by an alumnus who wanted to make a donation to my department … but only if his offer to the athletic department was declined.”

The campaign to upgrade athletics facilities has earned the support of the administration because it is perceived to serve the college’s mission. Noting that more than 80 percent of students participate in varsity, club or recreational sports, Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon said athletics are an integral part of the Dartmouth experience.

“Beyond promoting physical fitness and health, athletics teach important lifelong skills like teamwork, resilience, strategy, dedication and sportsmanship,” Hanlon wrote in a statement provided through the college’s information office. “Intercollegiate athletics and club sports convene the Dartmouth community around shared interests and activities; and they foster a sense of community.”

Sheehy describes the athletics facilities as his department’s version of the classroom and asks rhetorically how well economics students might learn if their professor taught midwinter classes with all the windows open. When athletics recruits are good enough to play at the Division I level, they’ve indicated that they take the pursuit extremely seriously and they want their practice spaces to reflect that at the school they choose, he said.

“I have no desire to be involved in a facilities arms race,” Sheehy said, noting that roughly half the college’s enrollment plays a sport at either the varsity or club level. “I want to arrive at what makes the most sense for Dartmouth so that our teaching can be the most effective.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.