By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)
VirginiaSports.com

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — When Ahmad Hawkins arrived at the University of Virginia in 1997, its football program was based in the McCue Center, which then ranked among the finest such support facilities in the ACC. But as the years rolled on, the building began showing its age, and the program outgrew it.

At times it seemed this day would never come, but 33 years after the McCue Center opened, UVA football finally has a new home. Thursday marked the grand opening of the 93,000-square-foot Molly and Robert Hardie Football Operations Center. The facility, named for UVA’s rector and his wife, sits next to the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility and the team’s two practice fields.

“I’m just amazed,” said Hawkins, a former UVA standout who’s now an analyst on radio broadcast of his alma mater’s football games. “I’m at a loss for words, honestly.”

Members of the Board of Visitors, donors, football alumni, athletic department coaches and staff, and media members toured the operations center Thursday evening. The first look, though, went to UVA players, for whom the doors to the building were opened at 8:30 a.m. Thursday.

“We went in and it was crazy,” defensive end Kam Butler recalled.

“It was awesome,” quarterback Tony Muskett said. “We came in and went through the locker room first, so we got to see all the new lockers, and then obviously got in the new weight room, which I think is my favorite, just because of high-vaulted ceilings and state-of-the-art equipment. So it was really cool. It’s going to make a huge difference just in terms of recruiting and our development.”

Butler said everything is “state of the art now. The McCue Center is great, but there’s so much more room in here. The training room feels like it’s three times the size of what it is in the McCue Center. So, we’re just excited to use those spaces and get to work.”

 

In September 2018, the Board of Visitors approved a master plan that would transform the athletics precinct on North Grounds. Its major components included a new football operations center, on which ground wasn’t broken in the summer of 2022, in part because of delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some two years later came a day for celebration.

“Being here today, given our unique journey, is both humbling and joyous,” director of athletics Carla Williams said.

Williams, who started at the University in December 2017, was among the speakers Thursday evening, along with UVA president Jim Ryan, Robert Hardie, head football coach Tony Elliott, defensive back Elijah Gaines, head men’s lacrosse coach Lars Tiffany and Virginia Athletics Foundation executive director Kevin Miller.

“What a wonderful day that we have before us,” Elliott said. “Football is a game that’s all about the team. In order to build a team, you have to have time, space, and opportunity. The new football operations facility is going to provide us what we need to compete as a team. The upgrades in technology and strength and conditioning, nutrition and sports medicine will allow us to be on the cutting edge. We also have the space to truly help our student-athletes grow personally and professionally. So in totality, we have a big piece of what we need to go to work to becoming the model program in college football.”

(from left to right) Tony Elliott, Carla Williams, Jim Ryan, Robert Hardie, Molly Hardie

Elliott offered thanks to all who have supported the new football operations center. “Virginia now has a first-class, industry-leading facility,” he said, “and it wouldn’t be possible without the time and investment that you’ve given to us.”

During a break in the remarks Thursday, a topping-out ceremony was held for another major construction project: the Harrison Family Olympic Sports Center. The final steel beam was placed atop the building, which is scheduled to open in the summer of 2025. It’s named for the family of the late Mary and David Harrison III.

“We will have an elite facility that houses our athletes, our coaches, and our support staff all in one place,” said Tiffany, who expressed his gratitude for the project’s donors and supporters. “We are winning, thanks to Carla and thanks to you.”

 

Ryan said he was “delighted to be participating in this doubleheader. Celebrating these two milestones feels a little bit like celebrating a birthday in one respect and graduation day in another … I think all of you know that this is a somewhat tumultuous time for college athletics, and the landscape is still evolving. In some ways, it’s also a tumultuous time for higher education in general, and I always find it useful during turbulent times, whether it’s in athletics or in any other part of life, to think about bedrock values. That is, things that will never change. Things that can be a north star.

“In my view, one of the things that makes UVA special is that it offers a one-of-a-kind, exceptional student experience, and our athletics programs are absolutely critical to all of that. Our teams bring joy, excitement, vibrancy, connection and inspiration to students, alumni and the broader community. Our teams are also a perfect example of what I mean when I say we should be a university that is both great and good. Our teams compete at the very highest level and they compete to win, but to win in the right way. That will never change. And that’s why I’ve been 100 percent behind Carla’s vision and the athletics master plan from the very start. These buildings are a critical part of that plan, and they’ll offer new and important opportunities to our student-athletes who work incredibly hard all year to succeed both in athletics and in all that they do inside and outside of the classroom.”

Ryan singled out the Hardies for their support of the football operations center, which the rector called a “mission-critical project.”

Robert Hardie smiled as he recounted a story. “When Carla Williams was hired as athletics director in 2017, I told her that we needed to get started on a master plan. She looked at me and she said, “You mean we don’t have a master plan?’ I said, ‘Heck, no. If I’d have told you that you might not have taken the job.’ ”

Mike Hollins

Williams made upgrading facilities a priority, with the backing of Ryan, who “fully understands the value of athletics and what it means to a great university,” Hardie said. “As chair of the board of directors of the ACC, he understands that we can do it all, but we have to do it in a Virginia way. We have to do it the right way, and we will. He also recognizes the value of a strong football program in the changing landscape of conference re-alignment.

“Molly and I also have full faith in Tony Elliott and his staff in building the model program … Tony understands the importance of great athletic programs for great universities and has a stated goal of demonstrating, and I quote, that you can win at the highest level and you can do so while achieving excellence in education, leadership and service.”

Elliott welcomed the football alumni who attended the grand opening. For “those that aren’t with us, today’s about you as well,” Elliott said. “The blood, sweat, and tears that all of you have poured into this university and this program has played a major part in our celebration today.”

Planning for the football operations center had started by the time Elliott arrived at UVA in December 2021, but he had input on its design.

“I wanted the building to be timeless,” Elliott said. “I wanted to capture all different eras, to be contemporary enough to show the flash and the glitz and glamor as an area for certain recruits, but then also pay homage to all the guys that didn’t have an opportunity to walk through those doors today but laid the foundation for Virginia football.”

The new building commemorates former players Lavel Davis Jr., Devin Chandler and D’Sean Perry, who were shot and killed in November 2022 after returning to Grounds from a class field trip. Jerseys with their numbers—1 for Davis, 15 for Chandler and 41 for Perry—are displayed prominently on the first floor. Their
jerseys are also in display cases in their respective position rooms.

“I’m so grateful that we were able to capture it the way that we were able to capture it,” Elliott said, “because at least for my time at the University of Virginia, that’s going to be a huge part of our legacy. And I’m hoping that we’re able to establish that so that it’s forever. Because these young men, they paid the ultimate sacrifice, and we have a responsibility to make sure that when we put on the uniform, we know what we’re playing for, we know what we represent.”

At the request of a donor, the running backs room is named for Mike Hollins, who was wounded in the shooting. Hollins, who recovered and played for the Wahoos last season, is now a student assistant in the program.

Gaines, whom Elliott called “the definition of a Virginia man and a Virginia football player,” was chosen to speak for the current players Thursday evening. Gaines told the audience said he and his teammates “feel incredibly fortunate to benefit from such a committed community. This new facility will significantly enhance our team and the future classes of student-athletes. It aligns seamlessly with Coach Elliott’s vision of the model program, equipping us with the necessary tools for excel both on and off the field.”

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