CHAPEL HILL — Days before coaching his first college football practice in five years, North Carolina's Mack Brown didn’t spend much time talking about football.
That’s the nature of things inside the sport’s arms race, where exploding television revenues appear to have given programs carte blanche to build palatial facilities that reach beyond those available to even professionals.
Instead, Brown was beaming about the $5.1 million worth of improvements the Carolina football program has made since he took over in December, injecting life into an aging facility that had grown even more tired with two years of losing.
With private funds from the Rams Club, Carolina invested about $2 million in a cutting-edge AstroTurf synthetic playing surface for Kenan Stadium and about $3 million in gutting the locker room, retooling the weight room and improving nutrition and food programs inside the Kenan Football Center.
Brown said Carolina had to make the change to stay competitive.
“The players look at that as a commitment,” Brown said. “’Are they committed, is it really important here or not?’”
After soliciting suggestions from players, Brown got to work, along with the help of Rick Steinbacher, associate athletics director for capital projects and dacilities, and James Spurling, director of Kenan Stadium.
Updating the new player’s lounge was the first order of business, as players told Brown they didn’t spend time there because it was dated and boring.
In addition to new carpet, couches, tables and areas for studying, there are arcade games such as Pop-a-Shot, Golden Tee and Big Buck Hunter along with two nap pods that offer massages.
Not far away, new wall graphics tout Chapel Hill’s reputation as a town along with a sign reminding recruits that playing at Carolina will change their lives for the next 40 years — not just four. Brown pointed out he wanted something that would stand out to recruits in front of every elevator and aimed to highlight something positive about the program on every inch of available wall space.
Just past the renovated weight room, new strength coach Brian Hess has 23 brand new racks at his disposal — vs. 14 when he arrived — with several Jordan logos on each.
“At no point do we get log-jammed; at no point do we run out of equipment that we might need,” he said. “Our guys are excited about the look of the rack; for me, it’s all about the function these racks give us.”
The sparkling new locker room offers both the functionality Tar Heel players need in their daily work with ventilation to dry their equipment and the Carolina blue glow along the ceiling helps create a photo opportunity that recruits will be quick to blast out to their social media followers.
After having 40 recruits in Saturday, Brown boiled their reaction down to one word: “Wow.”
The timing and execution of the project is something the staff is especially proud of, especially in light of the delays that hit the indoor practice facility, pushing its opening back more than three months last season.
Brown wanted to prove quickly that he was a man of his word.
“It was really, really important from (our) standpoint that what we told them, we got done,” he said. “A lot of people worked really hard, night and day to get this done.”
This is college football’s new reality, where a Hall of Fame coach is thinking about nap pods and nutrition stations and ensuring his players have enough charging stations in their lockers rather than devoting every waking hour to X’s and O’s.
The only thing that differs in the arms race is how much schools are spending.
LSU has been the subject of criticism after recently unveiling a $28 million locker room, while Texas completed a $7 million locker room in 2017. Ohio State just spent $2.5 million on a renovation while Texas A&M dumped $16 million into an overhaul.
Carolina has a ways to go before matching any of those programs on the field. But at least for now, the Tar Heels have the only field of their kind with the first college installation of an AstroTurf 3D3 surface.
To this point, Steinbacher said, only five NFL teams are playing on the surface, which has tested at similar levels to grass in safety studies while draining at 200 inches per hour.
“This is going to be a great surface for our players,” he said. “It’s going to look for recruiting every single day and it’s really, really safe.”