Even Mike Gundy knew about the dang waterfalls.
The ones that became a popular topic — thanks, largely, to an enthusiastic tweet from Norman North quarterback David Cornwell — during the dog days of the college football offseason.
Alabama had upgraded its football facilities, and four waterfalls flowing into a large pool were part of the revamp.
“I just heard it on the radio,” the Oklahoma State coach said during Big 12 Media Days last month. “It's new. Nobody else has it, so they put a waterfall in there.”
Constant facility additions and renovations are just another way college football's richest programs — particularly the ones from an SEC conference that has won seven consecutive national titles — can get richer and keep their hold on their monopoly over the rest of the sport's landscape.
Though the Big 12 is certainly doing its best to keep up in the arms race.
“It all works together,” Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione aid. “I think success allows (the SEC) to continue to construct facilities. Those schools that are pursuing success realize those that have succeed, they did something to help create that success. So they, in a sense, are feeling like a facility correlates with victories.
“It certainly plays a big role, but by itself, the facility doesn't win. It's the people that operate in the facility that lead to success.”
Sure, student-athlete development is the tangible purpose for state-of-the-art facilities. But arguably the most important “people” who set foot inside the fancy digs are recruits.
In an era where teenagers are swayed and wowed by sparkle and flash, facilities have become an important — no, completely necessary — way to hook prospective student-athletes into committing to a specific school.
First comes a tour of a plush football palace, then a look at the blueprints illustrating what's coming next. And the amenities can range from the practical (a weight room and hydrotherapy pools) to extravagant (a mini movie theater and billiards in a players' lounge) to the, well, peculiar (a mixed martial arts fighting cage).
“I know if I would have been somewhere and kind of looked around and been like, ‘Wait, this is it?'” OU offensive lineman Gabe Ikard said, “that would have been something that actually did matter to me. I don't know if it should…”
Added Khari Harding, the former Edmond Santa Fe star who's now a freshman at Auburn: “The facilities (I visited) — other than Oklahoma State's — were small. Auburn and Arkansas' were big. They had a lot of room in it. Kansas State was small and Texas Tech was small.”
So what's the message here? Keep building. Keep upgrading. Or fall way behind in recruiting. Which often means falling behind on Saturdays.
And get ready to spend Monopoly Money. Millions and millions.
OU and OSU both opened major pieces this summer in the Headington Hall athletic dorm (cost: $75 million) and the Sherman Smith Indoor Training Center ($19 million), respectively, to add to their already top-notch stadiums and football complexes. And several other programs around the Big 12 are on the same path.
Iowa State moved into a new 60,000-square-foot, $20.6 million complex earlier this year. Kansas State's Bill Snyder Family Stadium underwent a $75 million renovation to its west side that will debut this fall. Baylor's $250 million stadium along the Brazos River will open in 2014.
Yet the SEC schools are performing similar makeovers. Tennessee opened a $45-million facility last summer that includes, yep, a mixed martial arts cage in the weight room. Mississippi State, OSU's first opponent this season, moved into a $25-million, 80,000-square-foot complex in January. Arkansas and Mississippi both renovated their locker rooms in time for the start of fall camp.
So while Alabama still sets the SEC facilities standard — it's home to what's believed to be the largest weight room (34,000 square feet, upgraded for $9 million earlier this year) and indoor practice facility (97,000 square feet renovated in 2009) and the fifth-largest stadium in the nation (101,821 seats, expanded in 2010) — what makes SEC facilities superior to the Big 12 and every other conference, experts say, is the excellence across the board.
“That isn't to say when you go to Oklahoma, Texas or any of the other big schools in other conferences you don't see it,” said Tim Brando, a CBS college football analyst who grew up in Louisiana and has covered the SEC for decades, “but once you get past that first tier and you start looking at the second tier of these conferences that are considered power conferences, there is a noticeable difference in what environments at the games are and in what the facilities are.
“The truth is, the SEC has got consistency with its facilities, even with the so-called smaller schools in the less-populated areas. If you go to Oxford, it's just fantastic at Ole Miss. If you go to Starkville, you go, ‘Wow. My goodness.'”
Perhaps that perception is slightly off-base. After all, Alabama visited OSU to get ideas for its recent facilities upgrades, while seven Tennessee representatives toured Headington Hall last month.
But there's no denying the SEC facilities are pristine. And it's generally wise to keep an eye on the competition.
Castiglione stressed that foresight and planning are crucial to building facilities.
He knew a new athletic residence hall was needed when he arrived in Norman in 1998. But he also knew it was important to prioritize and assess, rather than toss out boatloads of cash for a quick fix that could possibly cause OU to spend more money in the long run.
“When we were in the discussion stages,” Castiglione said, “we thought, ‘We have to do an assessment of what students are going to want in a living experience 15, 20, 25 years from now. Because we're not going to be able to do this again.'”
But maintaining facilities is just as important as building them.
Think about the cell phones that were popular in 2009. That's the year OSU opened its glittering West End Zone. If OSU doesn't keep refreshing what's inside, a kid who has an iPhone 5 but already wants an upgrade could conclude that the Cowboy facilities are already ancient.
“If you don't do something in eight years, you're back to everybody's talking about your facility not being very good,” Gundy said. “That's just the way it is.”
And the SEC sure is not stopping, with Texas A&M, LSU and even Kentucky in the early planning or construction phases of stadium expansion projects. Plenty other renovations across the conference are sure to come.
No word on if waterfalls will be included.