Alan Caldwell remembers the early 1970s when the Tar Heel football program had one particular facility improvement on the horizon: a “turf” practice field.
“We were playing on a lot of AstroTurf fields at the time, and we needed one to practice on,” says the defensive back who lettered from 1973-76. “It's a whole different feel playing on turf. So Coach Dooley lobbied for it, they raised the money and installed it over at Navy Field.”
Things are no different today. Programs evolve, competition ramps up and new needs arise. That's why Caldwell and his wife Lisa were happy to make a generous contribution to the new Football Practice Complex currently under construction on the site of old Navy Field.
“In order to compete at the highest level, we have to provide facilities so that all our student-athletes can be the best they can be,” says Caldwell, who lives in Winston-Salem and recently retired from R.J. Reynolds. “If Wake Forest has a quality indoor facility, if Duke and N.C State have them, what does it say about Carolina not having one? This is something we felt was very important. We need facilities that are up-to-date and on-par with our competition.”
Ground was broken in May not only on the new football facility but also a revamped Fetzer Field and venue for soccer and lacrosse. A new track and field complex is under construction at Finley Fields, and soon construction begins for a new field hockey stadium on the site of Ehringhaus Field.
All told, 12 sports will be improved and affected by the new facilities. The Football Practice Complex will cost an estimated $36 million and the overall project some $100 million.
“This facility is going to be state of the art,” Coach Larry Fedora says. “It's going to be unbelievable. It's going to do a lot for our program. We are the University of North Carolina, and it's time we stepped up. I hope all of our Lettermen will pitch in and help. This program is here because of the blood, sweat and tears they've put in. I've always used the standard of the Lettermen to judge how we're doing: If they think we're doing the right thing, we're probably on the right path. Now we just need everyone to help us again.”
The Football Practice Complex will include the indoor facility with a 120-yard field, and two outdoor fields, one natural grass and one synthetic turf. There will be a connected training building with space for sports medicine, strength & conditioning, football equipment and facilities management.
A common misconception about the facility is that it's there for practice on inclement weather days during the season and spring ball. That couldn't be further from the truth as strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez and his staff will make more use of the building than anyone.
“Our two most important training periods are winter and summer,” he says. “In winter you're battling rain, snow and wet fields. In summer it's pop-up thunderstorms and lightning. You're constantly monitoring the Weather Channel and you're constantly juggling schedules.
“This facility will give us the opportunity get some consistency with all of our off-season conditioning programs. Our guys are on tight schedules with classes, study halls, meetings. One strike of lightning sets us back 30 minutes and it throws everything off. Now, we'll have a schedule and we'll stick to it. Time is crucial. We won't be wasting time like we've done for so long.”
The new facility will also have a sand pit and an incline running track—all the better to give Hernandez flexibility in training the Tar Heel athletes.
“Unfortunately, we've really lagged behind our competition,” says Hernandez, who's been at Carolina five years after having spent the previous seven at Illinois. “At Illinois, we had an indoor building and didn't give a second thought to the weather. You took it for granted you'd get your work done. Here, it's like, ‘Holy smokes, here comes a storm, we can't do what we've planned on.'”
Fedora and The Rams Club staff are appealing to all Lettermen to make at least a donation of $1,000. Those players will have their name on a special Carolina Football Lettermen Wall at the practice facility.
“We've got just over a thousand living Lettermen and I'd like to see every name on that board,” says Brian Chacos, an offensive lineman from 2001-06 and Rams Club official now. “It's important that all of us take ownership of this program.”