by Dalila Bevab
Bellarmine University announced last year it would be joining NCAA’s Division I (D-I) in June, and as part of the transition and membership to the Atlantic Sun Conference (ASUN), the university agreed to some renovations to its facilities.
There is a timeline that clearly outlines when specific changes would be made in three parts: the softball field, the baseball field and Knights Hall. The most immediate needs as far as Bellarmine’s agreement with the ASUN are the softball and baseball fields.
The renovations were intended to begin after the season ended. But with the COVID-19 outbreak ending the season early, the ASUN has “not made any specific changes” to the agreement with Bellarmine and the two will meet after the crisis is over, ASUN Conference commissioner Ted Gumbart said.
“We’re going to Division 1 for all of Bellarmine, not just for athletics. We really think we present the campus pretty well, but this will give us another opportunity to make that more impactful,” said Senior Vice President Sean Ryan, who’s responsible for the school’s application and transition to D-I.
Ryan said the main focus is to make the fields into nice but modest stadiums with patios for people to gather in a standing-room area. Over time, if needed, the school can expand seating into those patios as well. The softball field is expected to have 250 chair-back seats and there will be 400 to 500 seats for baseball.
Along with seating, one of the primary things needed to be done is the installation of restrooms in the dugouts. Also, to prevent foul balls from one field going onto the other, a very tall net will be placed in between the
baseball and softball fields.
A few years ago, a donor funded a backstop and patio area for the softball field, and the seating renovations will be built on top of that, resulting in the field having virtually the same footprint with only slight changes, Ryan
The baseball field will move back a bit to create more space between the two fields, and some of the fence lines will be slightly different. The warm-up pitching mounds for baseball will move from inside the fence to outside, and the foul territory won’t be quite as large as it is now.
Bellarmine is working on early schematic designs and development for the renovations. Individual parts of the project are being broken out to be sold for naming rights, which is all in process. There might be one name for the whole complex, each field could be named separately, or individual spaces could be sold.
“One of the things (Bellarmine President) Dr. Donovan had made pretty clear is that this transition wouldn’t be funded through student tuition fees. The percent we currently spend on athletics as far as operating athletics will remain pretty similar,” Ryan said.
The money for renovations will be generated through philanthropy and fundraising.
“The exact amount that we need to raise money for is still being determined” said Glenn Kosse, vice president for development and alumni relations. “We also agreed with the university to privately raise the money needed for D1 and ASUN membership fees along with any new operational costs the university might incur before new revenue sources from the move to D1 kick in to make up the difference.”
Kosse said the university has raised more than $5 million and is working with generous individuals and organizations to meet all of its needs, but there is still a considerable amount that needs to be raised.
As for Knights Hall, Ryan said it will become “somewhat unrecognizable” after renovations are complete. The main entrance to Knights Hall will extend into the parking lot to create a large lobby with new restroom facilities and a fan experience gift shop to sell Bellarmine gear. The Bellarmine Athletics Hall of Fame, which is hidden upstairs, will be in the new lobby as well.
The President’s Room will be opened for a standing-room area and entertainment space that will convert to an event room for everyone on campus to use when games aren’t in progress. The stage will be removed and seats added to that space.
The biggest piece of the project that’s being discussed regards the side of Knights Hall that faces Frazier Hall. The plan is to expand the strength and conditioning area, which is currently in the back corner of Knights Hall, to the side of the building that faces the parking lot and Frazier Hall.
Ryan said, “It (the expansion of the strengths and conditioning area) will go up to parking but not take away more parking, so that’s the good news.”
“Right now, the strength and conditioning coach can only work with about 15 student athletes at a time, which means there’s many teams where the whole team can’t even work out together at the same time,” he said.
Plans also call for an academic and student support center for athletes on the second floor of Knights Hall. On the third level, there will be an opportunity for either suites or a bigger room looking out on the floor, but
those final decisions haven’t been made yet, Ryan said.
“According to Bellarmine’s agreement with ASUN, the school has three years to do the renovations, but if fundraising works out the way we think it will and the plans can start sooner rather than later, we hope to start essentially a year from March,” Ryan said.
“Next year, we will play in Knights Hall as you see it today, but there will be some minor upgrades done to be camera-ready for ESPN and that sort of stuff. The biggest changes will happen over the fall in 18 months,” he said.
There are also plans to add on-campus facilities for teams now practicing and competing off-campus. The wrestling team practices at the former church on Newburg Road. “From what I gather, the coaches and student athletes really like it because it’s their own place,” Ryan said.
At this point, there are no plans to move wrestling to Knights Hall, but the team will have its own locker room and facility for matches in the building.
As for the swim teams, until Bellarmine comes up with a funded plan to build a lifetime sports recreation center that would include a pool, the swim teams will continue to practice at Mary T. Meagher Aquatic Center across town. Teams don’t have locker rooms on campus, but they will once Knights Hall is renovated.
There is a master plan to build a lifetime sports recreation center to replace the SuRF or to renovate or add onto it, but it is not part of the immediate renovation plans.
“In order [to have] a lifetime sports recreation center, they’re very expensive… so we’re either going to have a very generous donor and/or create a partnership with groups in town,” Ryan said.
“The Student Government Association has always worked really closely with administration on upgrades to the SuRF center so talking to students and understanding what kind of upgrades would be desired would be important,” he said.
Athlete and senior Connor Clare said, “Being an athlete, I can definitely attest to the fact that we could use some renovations.”
Clare is on the men’s swim team and said he believes Bellarmine should build a pool on campus and provide that for the athletes who have to commute across town for practices, often twice a day.
Clare said adding a pool is not likely to happen soon, but he said he would like to see renovations to the SuRF and the addition of a larger space for athletes to complete their lifting sessions. “Most teams have multiple practices in the weight room a week, and the gym in Knights Hall is not big enough to accommodate every team,” Clare said.
Bellarmine has requirements related to facilities, academic support, compliance staffing and scholarships as part of its agreement with the ASUN. Some plans may be adjusted because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As we have added BU to our conference, we are committed to continued growth and success for Knights Nation. If we adjust our plans, we will do it together and collaborate on serving the student-athletes at Bellarmine and the ASUN,” Gumbart said.
Gumbart said: “Bellarmine is in great shape to meet all of these requirements and has already taken steps to fulfill the staffing, academic support and facility upgrades before the required dates. Most of the changes were in Bellarmine’s long-term plans and the move to join the ASUN put those plans into action.”
Note: Anna-Maria Beck also contributed to this story.