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Fighting the Stains of the Old Athletic Facilities

Kevin Sims
Sports Editor

Stains on the Carpet

   Fifteen blemishes on the carpet of the head coach’s office tell a story of an athletic program in dire need. Insignificant spots one might overlook walking into the room.

   Stains shine like badges of honor to a coaching staff so resourceful with resources that do not exist.

   Coach Gwaine Mathews calls Steelman Field House "10 pounds of sausage packed in a five-pound skin." Someone else might call it plenty of space for an athletic program with only one team with a winning record in the 2007 calendar year.

   The fact remains; 15 players made those stains on Mathew’s carpet while sitting on the floor watching game films. The fact remains; no place in Steelman Field House can house those players to adequately prepare them for an upcoming game without sitting on the coach’s floor.

   “Football is just an extension of that classroom,” Mathews said.

   Beginning during the 2007 off season, the University of Arkansas at Monticello’s “Campaign for Athletics” will break ground on renovations that might cleanse stains made from 40 years of neglect.

A Stain on the University

   Anyone stepping foot in Steelman Field House notices the need for a renovation. The same can be said for Willis “Convoy” Leslie Cotton Boll Stadium.

   For the past three seasons while coaching the football team, Mathews made do with the below-par facilities he was given. Some might argue he hasn’t done enough, only winning four games in two years before the 2007 season, and in the past people have won with even less.

   Mathews disagrees:

   “So many times I hear ‘well back in the day all they had was three nails on a wall.’ Well that’s when everybody had three nails on the wall. Ouachita does not have three nails on the wall. Henderson State does not have three nails on the wall. Nobody has three nails on the wall. We can say that all we want at UAM, but we are behind.”

   When senior linebacker Wes Ables came on campus four years ago he was not impressed with the facilities, especially the weight room. He said although the poor facilities do not keep the team from playing well, some of the things the team must do to compete are a burden.

   “We make do with what we have,” he said.

   Unless a person goes to the field house when a coach calls a team meeting, they don’t know the extent of the problem. Space is limited, almost nonexistent.

   The football team’s locker room converts to the visitor’s locker room when the basketball team plays at home. The spare room next to the locker room, once used as a meeting room for the football team under the old coaching staff, became the women’s volleyball locker room when the sport became a part of the university in 2005.

   Both the baseball and softball teams moved out of the field house to their respected dugouts when renovations were made there a few years back. Still space is limited.

   “We have the worst facilities in the conference,” Mathews said. “That’s just the bottom line. We have the worst stadium in the conference. We have no field house to speak of. We have no meeting place,”

   No place in the field house can hold 95 football players, so limited space forced Mathews to look elsewhere for meetings. Every week Mathews fills out 70 sheets of paper work to reserve meeting places around campus for the team’s Monday meetings. Sometimes the team meets in the Memorial Classroom Building Auditorium, other times the Fine Arts Center.

   With no indoor facilities other than the basketball court, Mathews chooses between not practicing and taking charity from the local high school on days it rains.

   Mathews said the team practiced at the Monticello High School indoor facilities six times this season and is thankful the school even lets him use it. To do this, the team waits till 7 p.m. for the Billies to finish practicing, and sometimes practice to 10 p.m.

   Every other school in the Gulf-South Conference owns indoor practice facilities and Delta State owns two. When competing for the same recruits, teams like Delta State uses UAM's facilities against them.

   “Teams know where we meet,” Mathews said. “They will ask recruits ‘Ask UAM where the meeting rooms are? Ask them where they watch film at?’”

   The poor facilities affect every team equally, but some teams on campus rise above to get the best recruits and win championships

   In a career that spans 40 years, Athletic Director Alvy Early seems to win no matter what sport he coaches. Before taking on the fledgling softball team, Early coached the women’s basketball team to 18 winning seasons.

   In recent years he built the softball team to a perennial powerhouse, winning six GSC West Championships since 1997. Even with the success, Early said he sees the need for an upgrade in facilities, although it’s possible to win without it.

   With high schools building outlandish facilities, Early said the need to build has became even more apparent. In recruiting, the person does not want to step down facility wise when choosing a college, so the bridge between the haves and have nots is widening, Early said.

   “I think it all escalated from Division I, the haves and have not,” Early said. “The Nebraskas, the Oklahomas building the best weight room in America, the biggest what ever and everybody tries to match it. Everybody feels like they need to match, but everybody can’t match it. There are haves and have nots in Division I and there are in Division II as well.”

   The need for new facilities is apparent, that is why the administration created the “Campaign for Athletics” to raise money for renovations.

   “I don’t think that’s anybodies fault here,” Mathews said. “I think Dr. (Jack) Lassiter is working his tail off to better that situation. I think every coach on this staff, not just football, but from coach Early to every coach here is trying to better that situation”

Stain Fighting

   In 2005 UAM started the “Campaign for Athletics” for the $3.4 million renovation project funded by private donations and revenue from bonds.

   In an attempt to boost the fund-raising effort, UAM created a position as director of the “Campaign for Athletics” for ex-Weevil football great Hugh Heflin.

   “This is a project I’ve been in that is near and dear to my heart,” Heflin said.

   From 1949 to 1952, Heflin played end for the Weevils, setting team receiving records that stood more than 50 years. It was only fitting for Heflin to head an ambitious fund-raising effort to upgrade facilities that have not changed much since his playing days.

   Heflin started a grassroots fund-raising campaign, either calling or knocking on doors of alumni trying to get donations. In a little over a year, Heflin raised over $500,000 towards the renovation.

   “My objective is really two-fold.  Obviously to help raise the money we need to build these facilities and two to leave an infrastructure for someone to come behind me and carry this thing on,” Heflin said.

   As part of Simmons First Bank, UAM Athletic Association President and alumni Bill Wisener donated $7,500 for five years of naming right on the end zone barriers. He said it was a good business opportunity for getting the Simmons name in front of thousands of people during home games, but the donation was more than just for advertising.

 “We felt like it was a community project and we feel like the university has a big impact on Monticello and we want to be a part of that,” he said.

   Heflin said the renovation will be a three-phase project with a center point being a new indoor practice facility. The practice facility will completely house the football team and staff, giving the team class rooms and meeting areas.

   The practice area itself will benefit not only the football team, but give baseball, softball and the band a space to practice in inclement weather.

   The first phase of the project starts after the football season with a total renovation of the stadium. Built in the 1930s, Heflin said little has been done to the stadium since its inception.

   The renovations will include arm chair seating and a brand new press box on the home side of the stadium. Heflin said the changes will not change the aesthetics of the old stadium and will be finished by the 2008 season.

   Plans to break ground on the second phase, the indoor practice facility, is scheduled for the fall too. Completion could take a few years with the second phase with more fund-raising needed including the million dollar naming rights of the building.

   “We need to see a hole out there where we can point to it and show our recruits,” Early said.

   The third phase will be a complete renovation of Steelman Field House, which has seen work done in recent years. In 2000 the athletic department installed an air-conditioning unit inside the building and more recently an upgrade in seating for the basketball court. No timetable is set for the third phase or the extent of the renovation.

   Heflin said he made great strides to get the fund-raising effort going, but does not plan on staying at the position long. Lassiter and Heflin are looking for an alumnus to take over the effort.

A Clean Feeling

   Although a university's main priority is education, athletics bring prestige to the institution.

   Early said when one of the athletic teams win a conference championship, traditionally enrollment goes up, but even a losing team gives the university publicity.

   Early said; “I think athletics is your best advertising media for the university because your school is in the paper. When I first started coaching, people advised me ‘when you play your games, be sure to call your scores in.’ It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, call them in because it gets your name out there. After a while they don’t really remember if you won or lost, they just remember that they saw Arkansas Monticello.”

   The renovations will give the athletic teams more opportunities to succeed. Mathews said if the facilities are built as they are planned, all the problems from recruiting to game preparation will be solved. The only thing left to do is win.

   The coaching staff agrees that the facilities will not only help out athletics, but will also promote school pride.

   “It gets your student body and everybody involved,” Early said. “Everyone seems to like to be associated with a winner. It just gives you a feeling of accomplishment and pride that you don’t get without that.”

   For now, Mathews does not have much time to look ahead farther than the next game. He still has paper work to sign for the next meeting and more stains to build up during the next game film session. With a smile on his face, Mathews points to a picture of the new facilities on the door.

   “I know help is coming,” he said. “It gives the old head coach a little boost every now and then.” 

   The stains might go deep, but they are not impossible to get out.


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ŠThe Voice 2007
09/17/2007 09:07:11 PM —