By Courtney Ratkowiak
In July of 2009, the Al Glick Field House indoor practice facility on State Street had been a work in progress for a year and a half. Then-fifth-year senior punter Zoltan Mesko walked by the field house one day that summer and noticed brand-new FieldTurf inside the facility.
The doors were open, so he snuck in and tried a couple of punts. But after a few attempts, he realized why the building was still under construction.
"The grass was laid out, but it wasn't stapled in and filled out with the rubber pellets, so it was kind of like loose carpeting," Mesko said. "You didn't notice until you were really trying to hit the ball. I almost wiped out a couple of times."
It wasn't surprising that Mesko was overly eager to practice in the new building -- after all, it was the first time in his Michigan career that he could punt indoors without hitting the ceiling. The 85-foot-high glass ceilings in the brand-new facility were a vast improvement from those in Oosterbaan Field House, where Mesko and former head coach Lloyd Carr had a running joke that Carr would pay Mesko a dime every time he hit a light on a punt (of course, the money was never collected).
Al Glick Field House is beginning its fourth full season of use by the Michigan football team, and the benefits stretch far beyond special teams advantages. With the addition of the field house, the Wolverines now have the most indoor practice space of any college or professional football team in the world -- and with that has come improved practices, stronger strength and conditioning training capabilities, and increased clout in recruiting.
When Oosterbaan Field House was built in 1970, it was at the top of its class. But when the Wolverines used the indoor facility during spring practices and in inclement weather, they had to adjust their practices to fit the limitations of the facility. Instead of fighting the ceiling on punts, the punters and returners would often practice outside on all but the worst weather days.
With only eight feet of runoff room between the sidelines and the Oosterbaan walls, the Wolverines had to remove all practice equipment from the facility before scrimmaging to allow room to run out of bounds. Due to the smaller field size, the offense and defense had to practice with their backs to each other, with one unit on the east end of the field and the other on the west end, in order to avoid collisions.
"You couldn't run certain routes on certain parts of the field," running backs coach Fred Jackson said. "With a post corner route, he could run into the wall. It stopped you from doing certain parts of your offense that you'd normally do, and definitely in the spring, since 80 percent of the time you're in there in the spring."
Al Glick, president of the Jackson, Mich.-based Alro Steel Corporation, had supported Michigan Athletics for more than 50 years. After a conversation with Carr in which Glick learned the Wolverines needed an updated practice facility, he and his family donated $8.7 million for its construction. Work on the $26.1 million project, which also included a new outdoor practice field and renovations to the locker room and weight room, began in December 2007. The University Board of Regents formally elected to name the facility after Glick in 2009, in recognition for his longtime contributions to the football program.
During its construction, the most-debated issues surrounding the new field house were location and functionality. The athletic department determined the facility needed to be on State Street for maximum visibility on campus, but that meant the new building's exterior walls and windows had to match the classic brick facade of neighboring buildings Yost Ice Arena and the Intramural Sports Building. Despite the increased cost and masonry challenges of trying to match historical architecture while using modern materials, the planning team felt the location was a priority.
Al Glick Field House was specifically built with large sidelines, high ceilings and a 4,000-square-foot storage facility for additional equipment.
"As you come down State Street, whether you're a recruit or a student-athlete coming from classes, you see those signature buildings," associate athletic director Rob Rademacher said. "Putting this building on State Street sent a message that [football] is our premier program and we're going to treat it that way."
While finalizing the location, members of the athletic department traveled to schools including Oregon, Nebraska, BYU and LSU to look at strengths and weaknesses of the then-top practice facilities in the nation. Al Glick Field House was specifically built with large sidelines, high ceilings and a 4,000-square-foot storage facility for additional equipment, effectively eliminating the practice challenges from years past.
In contrast to the darker Oosterbaan Field House, the entire south wall of Al Glick Field House is made of glass, designed with anti-glare protection to provide natural light without interfering with practices. Over the past three seasons, the Wolverines have frequently tested the strength of the windows -- one particular window near the coaches' observation deck at the top of the field house, conveniently set right behind the field goal posts, is barraged by Wolverine kickers during nearly every indoor practice.
The sheer space available in the facility -- more than 104,000 square feet -- and the proximity to the weight room have allowed director of strength and conditioning Aaron Wellman to treat the field house as an "extension of the weight room," a luxury he didn't have in his prior 15 years of Division I football experience. The Wolverines use the indoor facility for strength and conditioning almost every day, regardless of the season, for exercises like team runs, speed training, plyometrics work and flexibility work.
For workouts and scrimmages, the full-sized field and the increased runoff space -- 25 feet on each sideline and 20 feet behind each end zone -- now mean that limiting certain routes on certain parts of the field is no longer an issue.
"It makes it much more realistic when you're playing on a full field, as opposed to a smaller one," fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs said. "As a defensive back, you're the last line of defense, and it gives you an idea of how much space you have to cover as opposed to on a smaller field. It transitions to the game."
Entering the 2012 season, Al Glick Field House has already attracted national attention -- though not because of football. In January, the athletic department learned that President Barack Obama planned to speak at the University as part of a multi-state trip agenda. After a women's basketball game conflict eliminated Crisler Center from consideration, White House representatives visited Al Glick Field House, were impressed by the setting, and selected it to host the 3,000-person event. The athletic department and White House worked for the next week to transform the field house into a venue for a capacity crowd with national security.
After his speech on the morning of Jan. 27, President Obama told Rademacher that next time he was in Ann Arbor, he wanted to "run a few out patterns and throw the ball around" in the facility.
"When you look at our indoor facility, academic facility, locker rooms and stadium, you can look anywhere else in the country and they won't look any better. We're at the top."
And beyond impressing the President of the United States, the field house has become a key factor in recruiting the Wolverines' recent classes. A year and a half ago, now-rising sophomore Blake Countess had to narrow down a long list of scholarship offers from schools including Georgia Tech, Tennessee and Penn State. When he went on his official recruiting visit to Ann Arbor, the football facilities made a lasting impression -- especially the fact that Al Glick Field House had a full football field inside, complete with two sets of field goal posts. It was more impressive than anything he could have imagined in high school, a reaction the Wolverines hope is similar for the many recruits who now walk through the field house doors before deciding at what school to play.
"Your (recruiting) pitch doesn't change. You tell everybody you got the best facilities in the country, since whether you do or not, you have to feel that you do," Jackson said. "But now when you say we are the Leaders and Best, you can say it with your chest out -- because when you look at our indoor facility, academic facility, locker rooms and stadium, you can look anywhere else in the country and they won't look any better. We're at the top."
Though the University's athletic department is one of just 22 profitable departments in the nation, it heavily relies on donors like Glick and his family to keep the program's infrastructure on the cutting edge. Without the generosity of the Glicks and the other generous donors who provided funding for this facility, the field house might not have moved from concept to reality. For a man who never attended the University himself -- his older brother was a Michigan alumnus -- Glick's maize-and-blue generosity is evident across the athletics campus.
"I'd like to say this about Al Glick -- he has been a tremendous contributor and friend of the program," Mesko said. "He's a caring person, and always donates his money, time and effort to keeping the program at its highest level."