- Associated Press - Monday, July 21, 2014

STORRS, Conn. (AP) - Workers are putting the final touches on UConn’s new state-of-the-art basketball training center, the first in a series of projects designed to keep the school’s athletic programs nationally competitive.

The university already has committed to building an on-campus hockey arena in the next four years as it moves its men’s program this fall into Hockey East, the nation’s top hockey conference. And UConn is planning new on-campus facilities for soccer, baseball and softball.

“I see the need to continue to do the things that other people across the country are doing, to prepare our student athletes to win in the classroom and win on the fields of play,” Athletic Director Warde Manuel said in a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press last week. “That comes with a constant barrage of facility upgrades.”

There are no plans and little legislative will to use public money for any of those projects.

“I’m sure (school officials) understand the economic realities of the state,” said State Sen. Toni Boucher, a Wilton Republican and the ranking senator on the legislature’s Higher Education Committee. “Right now, it would be very difficult for a request (for money) to get through.”

Brian Otis, the vice president of development for the UConn Foundation, said it has raised $30 million of the $40 million needed for the UConn Basketball Champions Center, which is scheduled to open this fall.

Last week, the AP received the first media tour of the facility, where visitors will be greeted at the front entrance by 13 national championship trophies and an interactive Hall of Fame.

Behind that, the left side of the building is devoted to Geno Auriemma’s women’s program, with offices overlooking a practice court designed to mirror the floor at Gampel Pavilion. The right side of the building has an almost identical setup with a second court for the men (and an extra office for former coach Jim Calhoun). In the middle are shared medical training facilities, a dining hall and study areas.

Manuel said he’s confident that building will be 100 percent privately funded. Otis said the foundation also has received some donations for baseball and soccer, but won’t know whether those facilities can be privately funded until the scope of the projects becomes more clear.

“Hopefully by this year we’ll have the ability to go out and get some architectural firms to update some of the plans and renderings for those things so we can know costs and dollars for this year,” Manuel said.

Manuel has been working with the school’s new chief architect, Laura Cruickshank, who is preparing to present a master plan for entire campus, including the athletic facilities, in December to the Board of Trustees.

By that time, Manuel also hopes to have a better idea where the new hockey arena will be located. The school has considered the site of the current rink as well as other locations, he said. Officials even have looked into what it would take to retrofit Gampel Pavilion with an ice surface under the basketball floor. That does not appear to be the most viable option, he said.

There also has been talk of expanding to the school’s 40,000-seat football stadium, Rentschler Field, in order to make UConn more attractive to one of the nation’s top football conferences.

But Manuel said stadium size would not be a deal breaker for any conference and enlarging it won’t make sense until the school can sell the existing seats.

“It’s not about the size of stadiums; it’s about what our fan base is,” Manuel said. “It’s about what we do. It’s about academics. The stadium is just a piece of it.”