Dick Harmon: UVU to add basketball practice facility: big deal for the school, community

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Utah Valley University broke ground on a new $3.5 million basketball practice and conditioning facility on Wednesday morning at a ceremony celebrating the new building. The 14,500-square-foot facility, which is privately funded, will be named the NUVI Basketball Center after a lead donation from NUVI executive chair Keith Nellesen. The structure will be located on the south side of the UCCU Center on UVU's Orem campus.

Travis Hansen, Kevin Nixon and Brian Santiago, three Utah Valley University stars who carved out big-time careers at BYU and Fresno State, stood by the side and at the back during ceremonies to break ground for a basketball practice facility at their alma mater.

They were amazed, impressed and grateful all at once.

“This is a big deal,” said Hansen. “I didn’t think it would come this soon.”

“People have no idea what it takes, what this means,” said Santiago, BYU senior associate athletic director, who was instrumental in getting BYU’s new practice facility near the Marriott Center.

“This is pretty awesome,” said Nixon, who was recruited to Utah Community College out of Iowa and hit the game-winning shot in the WAC tournament in Fort Collins, Colorado, against UTEP for a tournament title in the ’90s at BYU. “Who’d have thought 20 years ago this school would have this facility?”

The symbolism may be a bigger deal than the actual brick and steel that will be Utah Valley University’s new basketball practice facility we witnessed officials break ground for on Wednesday in Orem.

It is a big deal.

It means UVU is serious about supporting its sports.

It means there are major donors who believe.

It means administrators, boosters and coaches are bent on winning a WAC title and going far with an NCAA bid. It means recruiting and solidarity in the community.

It means the state’s largest (enrollment) public funded school is not resting; that President Matt Holland is aggressive and creative and has a vision.

It means folks believe in Mark Pope, a rookie head men’s coach.

“Now, we’ve got to earn it,” said Pope.

The $3.5 million privately funded NUVI facility will be a 14,500-square-foot home to the Wolverine men’s and women’s basketball teams and will feature coaches offices and a strength and conditioning area.

What it means, said 25-year veteran women’s coach Cathy Nixon, is that UVU has been all about breaking ground; going from a junior college to Division I in one big leap; going from playing in a P.E. gym to the McKay Events Center, now known as the 8,000-seat UCCU Center.

“All we’ve been doing since I came here is breaking ground again and again,” said Nixon.

I spoke to several donors at the ceremonies and asked them why they shelled out the coin. After all, UVU tends to exist in the shadow of the Pac-12’s Utes, is in the home shadow of BYU and must fight Weber State, Utah State and Southern Utah for Division I talent.

“We had just finished up one project where we donated,” said Jeff Alexander, who is in the printing business. “I love what this school brings to the community. Pope certainly has a lot of energy and personality to get the job done.”

Kirt Kimball, a principal behind burgeoning supplement company Forte Elements, said his products are being used by major collegiate athletic programs across the country and he wanted to support UVU’s efforts. “Besides, we got to know coach Pope at BYU and believe in him,” said Kimball.

But one of the most compelling statements came from NUVI’s chairman Keith Nellesen. Growing up in Idaho he saw the drawing power of sports programs at Idaho State and Ricks College, how it linked the community, provided a bond and a front porch to the school. He saw the power of sports and how it became the glue for a community. When Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho) abandoned its sports programs, he witnessed firsthand how it affected the bond in the community.

Speaking with emotion, Nellesen said there are two main things in graduates’ lives that bring them close to their former schools. The first is sports teams and events. The second is when he drops his kids off to enroll.

“This is our roots, this is where we live. We believe in this school and want to help it grow and compete on the highest level.”

Holland, who has become a dynamic force in Utah County with UVU, said the school’s basketball program is a key. “What’s happening with basketball right now is breathtaking,” said Holland.

Plus, Pope is his hire. Holland has a stake in his success.

With former coaches Harry Andersen and Vince Miner looking on, yes, this was symbolic. They remember playing in simple gyms. They were the days of Utah Technical College, Duke Reid, a train of talent, making the best of what was.

Yes, this is a big deal.

A very big deal, indeed.

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