In the artist’s rendering released by University of Central Florida athletics, the lazy river is crystalline blue as it weaves past the miniature golf course and the sand volleyball courts, turning a bend before it reaches the hot tub. On the patio, a few wooden huts provide a shaded area where — if this wasn’t a facility being built by a state university to attract teenagers — one might expect to find a jovial bartender in a floral-patterned shirt blending a pitcher of pina coladas.
This March, as in years past, the people who run UCF athletics have watched the NCAA men’s basketball tournament with envy. The Knights haven’t earned a berth since 2005. But UCF Athletic Director Danny White has a plan to turn the Knights into perennial contenders in March and a force on the football field every fall. That plan, White announced last month, involves building something more commonly seen in water parks or Caribbean resorts than on a college campus: a lazy river intended to recruit star high school athletes.
UCF’s lazy river — part of $25 million in athletic upgrades UCF plans on its sprawling Orlando campus — is the latest innovation in the college athletics facilities arms race, a nationwide competition between many of the country’s largest universities to build the best, most luxurious facilities as recruiting tools. At UCF, like at many other schools, this arms race is subsidized by students, through mandatory athletics fees tacked onto tuition bills.
For its proposed “athletics village,” UCF is taking an idea originally hatched at Clemson University and adding a wrinkle. Clemson’s $55 million football-only facility, which just finished construction, features a “players’ village” with sand volleyball, laser tag and mini golf. But the new home of Tigers football does not have a lazy river.
White and other UCF officials declined to comment for this story.
In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, White explained the athletics village would be “a place for them [athletes] to recover, relax, get to know each other a little bit, kind of like an Olympic village. . . . So we thought of having a leisure pool, some putt-putt golf, some recreational amenities, and the lazy river to really top it off and hopefully make it the most unique athletics village in the country.”
In a 2015 interview with The Washington Post about Clemson’s facility, Gerald Gurney — board member of the Drake Group, a nonprofit that advocates an overhaul of college sports — unwittingly predicted UCF’s innovation.
“This is all about pandering to the fantasies of 18-year-olds. It has nothing to do with the mission of a university,” Gurney said then. “What’s probably next down the line is a floating river attraction.”
In a phone interview this week, Gurney said UCF’s facility is more troubling than Clemson’s, because UCF is not an athletics powerhouse that rakes in more than enough money to cover its spending without help from students in a mandatory fee.
In 2016, records show, UCF athletics needed $22.4 million in student fees to cover its $59.4 million in spending. UCF’s 64,000-plus students each chip in $14.32 per credit hour to athletics. For a UCF undergraduate taking a full 12-credit-hour courseload, the athletics fee comes to about $172 per semester, or $344 for the year.
Created by the state legislature in the 1960s to build a workforce for the space industry, UCF has undergone meteoric growth over the last two decades to become one of the country’s largest public universities. UCF President John C. Hitt has been candid about the prime role he believes athletics play in building a great university.
“If you’re a state university in the South, and you want to be taken seriously, there are several things you do,” Hitt said in a 2015 interview with The Post. “You do a fair amount of research. You award a fair number of PhDs. And you play Division I football.”
The Knights’ athletic history has largely been marked by mediocrity. The men’s basketball team has only appeared in the NCAA tournament four times, and has never won a tournament game. UCF football has occasionally produced star players, such as Daunte Culpepper, Blake Bortles and Asante Samuel, and in 2013 the Knights had their most successful season, a 12-1 campaign culminating with an upset win over Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. UCF’s moment in the football sun was short-lived, though. In 2015 the Knights went 0-12.
White, in his second year running UCF athletics, hopes to change the school’s sports history. Previously the athletic director at Buffalo, White comes from a well-connected college sports family. His father, Kevin, is athletic director at Duke, and formerly held the same title at Notre Dame. His brother, Mike, is the men’s basketball coach at Florida. Another brother, Brian, is in athletics administration at Missouri.
Shortly after taking the job in late 2015, White announced his goal to turn UCF into a “perennial top 25 athletic department,” despite competing in the American Athletic Conference, outside the so-called “Power Five” conferences that control the lucrative College Football Playoff.
In a recent fundraising video, White explained the financial challenges UCF faces. The average “Power Five” school annually makes — and spends — $80 million to $100 million on athletics. The average American Athletic Conference school spends about $48 million on sports, White said.
“We’re in the middle of the pack,” White said in the video. “I know you guys don’t want to be in the middle of the pack, competitively. I know our coaches don’t want to be in the middle of the pack. Help us close the gap.”
It’s unclear exactly how much UCF’s lazy river will cost. Travis Bozick, an engineer who designs lazy rivers, said he generally tells clients to expect to spend about $1,000 per linear foot, so a 1,000-foot-long lazy river can cost about $1 million. The price can vary widely depending on specifics, though. Among potential frills clients have requested, Bozick said: wave machines, whitewater runs and a waterfall or oversized bucket to douse people as they ride.
“You can really do anything under the sun,” said Bozick, project manager for the Brannon Corporation, a Tyler, Tex., engineering firm.
Gurney predicts UCF’s lazy river will soon be matched, then outdone, by rivals.
“Eventually, college athletics recruiting will basically be building facilities that look like fantasy land. We’re going to have amusement parks for athletic operations facilities,” Gurney said.
UCF’s plans have not gone unnoticed by in-state competitors.
“We’re aware of it,” said Brian Siegrist, University of South Florida athletics spokesman. USF has no plans to build its own, Siegrist said, as athletics officials have struggled to come up with a “practical application” for a lazy river. When informed UCF called its river a “recovery cove,” implying a therapeutic benefit, Siegrist laughed.
“Is it going to be chilled? We have recovery pools, most of those are cooler, chilled water, in order to reduce inflammation in the muscles. . . . Normally a lazy river is like 85 degrees,” Siegrist said.
Over in Gainesville, the University of Florida is building a $60 million football-only facility with all the latest amenities, according to promotional materials, including a “3-D hologram training center.” It will not, however, include a lazy river, according to Florida athletics spokesman Will Pantages. For now.
“In college sports, the facilities arms race is ever-evolving,” Pantages said. “We don’t have plans for anything like that currently, but if a lazy river would help, we would do that.”