University of South Florida men's basketball coach Stan Heath was in the locker room of the work-in-progress USF Sun Dome on Wednesday afternoon, trying to visualize speaking to his players and making halftime adjustments.
"Where will the board go (to draw up plays)?'' Heath asked, looking at the unfinished concrete walls.
"Where would you like it to go?'' said Frank Cardinal, senior vice president of the Skanska construction firm, which has overseen the Sun Dome's $35.64 million renovation that was approved last spring by the state's Board of Governors and the USF Board of Trustees.
Heath just smiled.
"Wow! I have an opinion (that matters),'' Heath said. "How can you not fall in love with this place?''
The new Sun Dome, which will seat just more than 10,000 for basketball, features 10 loge suites and a baseline-to-baseline 4,500-square-foot Arena Club. Plus, there's a 1,500-square-foot student club section, believed to the first of its kind for college basketball.
Seats are up to 22 inches wide in levels 100 and 200 with molded bench seating in level 300. Wider concourses will feature wall murals of USF's key historical moments and Sun Dome history, plus words to the school's fight song and alma mater.
Overhead, there's a four-sided center-hung LED video board with a state-of-the-art sound system. And in each corner of the arena, there are high-definition video boards for statistics and replays.
USF athletic director Doug Woolard, who helped guide Wednesday's Sun Dome media tour, said he believes everyone will soon develop a similar affection. It could be thousands of students, who will officially open the building with USF graduation ceremonies on May 4-5. It might be concert-goers who attend one of the arena's 200-plus planned annual events, which will be coordinated by Global Spectrum, the Sun Dome's new management firm.
It certainly will be the coaches, players and longtime followers of USF's men's and women's basketball teams, which will inherit a plush home with lots of amenities.
"It's being described as a renovation, but I don't think you can call it a true renovation,'' Woolard said. "This is like a brand new Sun Dome. I think people are going to see it and say, 'Are you kidding me?' ''
For Heath's Bulls, who were 22-14 and earned the program's first NCAA tournament bid since 1992, the timing couldn't be better.
"To have our practice facility (the Pam and Les Muma Basketball Center) attached to the Sun Dome and having it all on campus, it can't get much better than this,'' said Heath, the Big East Conference coach of the year, whose team finished one victory away from the Sweet 16.
"Our guys will feel good about themselves and feel like they're playing in the best facilities. From a recruiting standpoint, it's a slam dunk. People think kids choose schools based on academics and other things, but where you play and what it looks like is huge for recruits. They are very much dialed into visionary things, what they can see. It's going to make a world of difference in our recruiting as we move forward.''
The original Sun Dome opened in 1980. When Woolard became USF's athletic director in 2004, he said the building had become "tired'' and "worn out.'' He said the new building will be an "iconic symbol'' for USF and help to further energize the campus.
It already has Heath dreaming the biggest dreams.
When he was hired in 2007, Heath said some coaches advised him not to take the USF job.
"They say, 'Man, you've got a great job,''' Heath said. "There's a great environment, great facilities, great support. It has really turned into a special, special place.''
Heath wants to hold a "Midnight Madness'' event when basketball practice begins in October. He's seeking a marquee opponent for USF's regular-season opener in November. Woolard also said the Sun Dome will bid to host the state high school basketball tournament, traditionally held in Lakeland.
"We'll see where this exactly takes us,'' Heath said. "Five years ago, this was just a conversation. To see it come to fruition is amazing.
"In my mind, there's no doubt that we can win Big East championships and we can compete at the very highest levels, Final Four and all of the above at the University of South Florida.''