By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — As a high school phenom trying to decide where to continue his running career, Robby Andrews visited four colleges: Penn, Georgetown, Arizona State and UVa.
Ultimately, of course, Andrews chose Virginia, where as a freshman in 2009-10 he won an NCAA title in the indoor 800 meters. He liked the University’s academic reputation and the Grounds and had forged a strong relationship with Jason Vigilante, the Cavaliers’ director of track and field/cross country.
It didn’t bother Andrews, who grew up in Englishtown, N.J., that UVa’s Lannigan Field ranked among the least impressive tracks in Division I.
“In high school, the track I ran on had cracks in it, potholes in it,” Andrews said.
“You can have the nicest pair of running spikes, and just because you put them on doesn’t mean you’re going to run the best. So just because you train in the best facilities doesn’t mean you’re going to be the best athlete.”
“But it won’t hurt you, that’s for sure,” he said with a smile.
Thanks in large part to the generosity of Amy Griffin, a UVa alumna who has pledged $5 million, the Wahoos can finally look forward to having a first-class facility for track and field. A year from now, when UVa hosts the ACC outdoor championships, it will do so in what essentially will be a new venue.
“I think it shows that we’re really trying to become one of the top programs in the nation,” said UVa sprinter Kevin Anding, a junior from Houston. “I think we have some of the best coaches in the country, and that pulls in recruits, but having a great place to train is also a big deal.”
Griffin’s pledge is the largest ever for an Olympic sport capital project at UVa.
Work is scheduled to begin on the project’s first phase May 9. In all, the project is expected to cost about $14 million.
“It means the University of Virginia cares about track and field,” Vigilante said. “I haven’t been able to say that previously by way of showing a dedicated track-and-field facility.
“We’ve lost a lot of recruits, because it’s like, ‘Hey, what investment do they have into the sport that I love?’ Quite honestly, we’re putting our money where our mouth is, and we’re saying we want to be really competitive in this sport.”
A 1998 graduate of the University, Griffin lives in New York City with her husband, John A. Griffin, and their children. She formerly worked for Sports Illustrated magazine as marketing manager and Olympic manager.
John Griffin is a 1985 graduate of UVa’s McIntire School of Commerce. Amy Griffin, who was an English major, was a standout on UVa’s volleyball team, which during the offseason regularly trained at Lannigan.
“I ran on that track, and there were holes on it when I ran on it,” Griffin said by phone. “My husband said he ran on it as a non-athlete at the University, and there were holes on it. I found it sort of appalling that there are Division I athletes who are trying to compete at the very top level without [adequate] facilities.”
At a school with such athletic venues as John Paul Jones Arena, Scott Stadium, Davenport Field and Klöckner Stadium, Vigilante said, it’s been difficult for members of the track and cross country teams to not feel at times like second-class citizens.
“You can’t not,” he said. “The kids have to use porta-johns at practice, and the public uses them. By and large, it’s not cool to look at JPJ or Davenport and then turn around and not be able to wash your hands after using the restroom. You’re going to feel less than important.”
But the planned new facility is evidence that “we’re getting there,” Vigilante said. “I’m pumped. I’m really pumped.”
That a former volleyball player would give so generously to her alma mater’s track-and-field program is “tremendously impressive,” Vigilante said. “But you go out to our track, and it needs help. It needs a spark, and so she’s done that.”
Griffin said: “It wasn’t a matter of beautification. This was a matter of upgrading a facility for a Division I athlete to bring it to the level that it should be. And also, I look at it as an athletic department facility, and I think Jason would say the same thing. It’s amazing to me that it is going to help the track program. But this is to me an upgrade for the entire University. It will benefit student-athletes and non-student-athletes and the community.”
A member of the Virginia Athletics Foundation’s board of trustees, Griffin donated $1 million to the UVa volleyball program in 2006. She also funded the sand volleyball courts that UVa added last year.
Since graduating, Griffin has stayed active with UVa athletics.
“I vaguely remember writing the first check for $50 or $100 my first year [after college], when I was sitting at my desk at Sports Illustrated, thinking, ‘OK, here I go,’ ” she recalled. “It was never a question of when I would get back involved. It was how I would stay connected, and not wanting to lose that connection.”
Before coming to UVa in 2008, Vigilante coached at the University of Texas. After he accepted the job at Virginia, Vigilante and his wife put their house in Austin on the market. One of the prospective buyers, as chance would have it, was Griffin’s best friend, Courtney Childers.
“She called me, and I happened to be in Charlottesville that weekend,” said Griffin, who grew up in Amarillo, Texas. “She said, ‘Amy, you’re never going to believe this, but we really want to buy this house of this family, and they’re moving to Charlottesville, and he’s going to become the head track coach at UVa.’ “
So Griffin tracked down Vigilante’s phone number and called him. What are friends for, right?
“I told him, ‘I know this is really strange, but I went to UVa, I was involved as an athlete, I’m involved with the VAF, and my best friend’s trying to buy your house,’ ” Griffin recalled. “And he said, ‘That’s so funny you called, because my wife’s still in Texas, her name is Amy too, and she decided about an hour ago that she feels like the karma is right to sell it to your friend.’
“So my best friend lives in his house.”
After Vigilante moved to Charlottesville, Griffin said, she “would see him at VAF meetings, and I think I invited Jason and his wife to come to a football game. We just started connecting, and in talking about my past experience as a player, and in his needs for his teams, it reminded me a lot of how I felt when I was an athlete … I didn’t care, because that was where I wanted to go to school, but it became very clear that there were just not some of the basic things that we needed [in the volleyball program].”
Eventually, the track facility will include a new track, lights, scoreboard, locker rooms and seating for 1,500.
“It will allow us to be able to showcase the exceptional athletes that we’ve got to the public and the city of Charlottesville,” Vigilante said. “And it allows us to host, hopefully, a state high school championship. It allows us to host major invitationals. It allows our kids to have a locker room, their own space. We don’t have a meeting space, and that’s a challenge. When you’ve got 85 people, 90 people on your roster, you need to have a place to gather.”
Griffin said: “I feel like I owe it to the current athletes at the University. It feels good to make something better for someone else, to pave the road. It feels good to pave a better way for future athletes.”
Those current athletes include Andrews, who recently returned to competition after redshirting in the fall and winter seasons while recovering from plantar fasciitis. He and his teammates were ecstatic when Vigilante told them about Griffin’s gift.
“I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting her,” Andrews said, “but I sure would like to say a big thanks to her.”