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Utah Utes: New facilities, upgrades are a part of the plans

As it stands now, Rice-Eccles Stadium will be the second-smallest field in the Pac-10.
As it stands now, Rice-Eccles Stadium will be the second-smallest field in the Pac-10.
Don Green, Don Green

SALT LAKE CITY — For the University of Utah, a change in conference affiliation seemingly equates to a change in the landscape around campus.

Even before U. President Michael Young accepted the invitation into the Pac-10 on behalf of the university, there was already much discussion as to how the university's athletic facilities would be altered in order to keep up with the new competition.

"There's always things we are doing," athletic director Chris Hill said in a news conference on Thursday afternoon.

He noted there is already a long list of upgrades and additions the athletic department is looking into, and that every sport will be addressed.

"We are taking a good strong look at our sports medicine area and our football complex," Hill said. "We have softball fields we need to take care of; we're looking at practice facilities for basketball, and the list goes on and on. Everybody has something on their list."

The largest topic of discussion is the possible expansion of Rice-Eccles Stadium. It's a move school officials were thinking about even before Utah was invited to join the Pac-10 and, with this new direction, they feel like it's a good time to make the changes happen.

While there is no confirmation yet on what will be done, there is a lot of speculation as to what changes could be made. At the top of the list is upgrading the locker rooms located under the section of seats at Rice-Eccles' south end zone. Also a top priority is creating space to allow more ticket-holders into each game. The Utah facility currently holds just over 45,000 people and is the second-smallest stadium in the new conference. Suggestions for how to add seats have included filling in the corners around the southern end of the stadium, a move that could increase capacity by as many as 15,000.

"I think that's something that's got to be on the table now," Hill said. "We'll take a look at it and we'll see, and it's something that is a good logical thing that might happen."

In addition to the football field, changes to the school's softball and baseball fields are also in the works, just to name a few.

"We've talked about (expanding the field) for several years now," said head softball coach Amy Hogue. "We've had a site and we've had plans drawn up a few times, and it's just been difficult to get over the hump. It's something (Hill) has wanted to do, and now I feel like he is going to have the opportunity to get it done."

The Utes' softball field sits on the upper end of campus, directly east of the Huntsman Center. Current plans call for a stadium-like field to be built north of that location, immediately north of where the new track is being built.

Also looking to move home fields is the Ute baseball team.

"We haven't sat down and talked about it, but hopefully in the scheme of things over the next few years that can happen," said Utah head baseball coach Bill Kinneberg. The team now hosts home games at Spring Mobile Ballpark.

"Ideally, we'd like to have our own. (Spring Mobile) still ranks as one of the better fields in the country, so we're very fortunate to play there. We'd love to have something here (on campus), but for us to move from Spring Mobile, we'd really have to do it right."

Along with structural expansion, moving to the Pac-10 also opens the doors for adding more athletic teams at the University of Utah. The Pac-10 Conference currently hosts men's soccer programs, something the Mountain West Conference and all but two Utah colleges have not done.

"I would love men's soccer at Utah. I think there is a need for it in our community," said Utah women's soccer coach Rich Manning. "Other than Westminster and Dixie (State), nobody has an NCAA program in Utah.

"If you look at the women's teams that do really well, 90 percent of them are schools that have a men's program, too. It creates kind of a culture that really helps both (teams). So, if the resources allow for it, we would love it."

Men's track and field is another program that could make a reappearance at Utah, though no confirmation has been given yet on either activity. Adding sports such as these requires a balancing act by the university officials, as Title IX and scholarship equity must be considered.

"We're really proud of what we're doing with Title IX. That will always be a goal of ours. We don't consider it something that's a responsibility but something we love to do," Hill said. "Right now, we are just going to take a breath and look at our program and decide what our next goals and expectations are."

e-mail: sthomas@desnews.com