The way UNF Track and Cross Country Coach Mark VanAlstyne remembers it, he first brought up the idea of installing a world-class track in 1993 with then-University President Adam Herbert during halftime of an Ospreys basketball game.
Former Athletics Director Dr. Richard Gropper recalls pursuing the idea for more than a decade, through four University presidential administrations and the UNF athletics program’s advancement from NAIA to Division II and now Division I status.
In March, when more than 1,700 athletes from 23 colleges and 23 high schools competed in the inaugural UNF Spring Break Open Track and Field Meet, VanAlstyne’s vision became reality. UNF now has one of the finest track and field facilities in the country with its new $2.6 million Mondo rubberized track, the same surface that athletes competed on at the Beijing Olympics.
The Atlantic Sun Conference will hold its 2009 Men’s and Women’s Track and Field Championships at UNF May 15-16. VanAlstyne expects UNF to one day host an NCAA regional meet. The track was built to specifications required to host international meets and is one of seven facilities in the country to be certified by the International Association of Athletics Federations.
“I think it reaches the goal that Mark [VanAlstyne] had,” UNF Athletics Director Lee Moon said. “It literally puts us on the map as having a world-class track facility that will attract, hopefully, NCAA competitions and national and international events. That means bringing a lot of exposure and revenue to the University and to the Jacksonville community.”
In addition to the three collegiate meets this spring, VanAlstyne booked four additional high school track meets and is in discussions about a fifth.
“We could have eight track and field meets here this spring. And that’s without even trying, without knowing when construction would finish and without publicizing it much,” he said. “But next year, when we do the full PR campaign and really advertise and go for some big events, I expect we’ll be turning more people away than we’ll be booking.”
VanAlstyne also expects the track to “totally transform” UNF’s recruiting. The competition for Division I athletes is stiff, but UNF now finds itself in a better position for that competition. Scheduling high school meets in Hodges Stadium introduces athletes to the UNF campus and the new track.
“No one will have a better facility on their campus than we do,” he said.
The total package is what makes UNF’s facility unique, VanAlstyne said. Hodges Stadium seats about 9,500 spectators, has a full sports-medicine facility, a new strength and conditioning center, locker rooms, a new press box and a warm-up track that would be especially useful during meets with up to 4,000 competitors.
In addition to meets, VanAlstyne said Hodges Stadium would host northern teams seeking a warm place to work out during spring break. Three teams in the UNF Spring Break Open spent the week in Jacksonville, working out daily on the UNF track.
“I could see UNF hosting 20 to 30 teams through the month of March and early April,” VanAlstyne said. “Teams escaping the snow, coming to Florida to train, to have a little fun, get some work done and compete a couple of times.”
John Reyes, president of Visit Jacksonville, the former Jacksonville and the Beaches Convention and Visitors Center, said he would like to see UNF host the U.S. Olympic trials, NCAA championships and other major track and field meets as well as lacrosse and soccer tournaments. Hodges Stadium has already hosted international rugby matches.
“Jacksonville is becoming known as a sports destination because of the Jaguars, the Super Bowl and a number of other things that we’ve held,” Reyes said. “With a quality facility like this, it opens up Jacksonville to start hosting events we haven’t been able to in the past.”
Reyes said the track gives Jacksonville another “product to sell” that will draw visitors – and tax revenue – to the city. The Tourist Development Council agreed to contribute up to $50,000 to help offset costs for this spring’s track meets, with the final figure based on a formula tied to the number of hotel-room stays the meets generate.
A $2 million donation from George and Kernan Hodges helped fund construction of the track, and a $250,000 donation from Key Buick helped pay for the new press box.
Looking back, Gropper said the question was what UNF could do as a new Division I program to be ranked among the very best in the country. The answer was to build the best facility possible with the money available.
“And that’s what we set out to do,” he said. “… build something that could create a name for the University of North Florida right now, and I think with this facility we’ve accomplished that.”