by Rudy Jones, FurmanPaladins.com
It wouldn’t be accurate to say Furman coach Ron Smith speaks of the new baseball support facility like a youngster suffering his first pangs of puppy love.
But it wouldn’t be far off, either.
Before Smith’s arrival as coach in 1994, not much had been done to the baseball stadium since it was built after the school moved from its downtown campus in the 1950s.
Over the last two decades the Paladin mentor has worked diligently to improve the sport’s home on one of the nation’s most scenic campuses. He secured $250,000 for the installation of lights so the Paladins could play some home games at night. He also was instrumental in the installation of more traditional dugouts and has overseen the addition of a nicer scoreboard, some chair back seats, and a press box/concession area.
While still modest by Division I standards, Latham Stadium has a much different look than it did in Smith’s final season as a player in 1977, and that look is changing again – in a big way.
“This new facility has come to fruition very quickly,” Smith said recently. “We’re grateful for the initiative some people showed in making it happen. President (Rod) Smolla was 100 percent behind it and assisted with the fundraising. Our development people helped with the fundraising and really reached out to a lot of people. We had some hugely generous folks.”
Work is winding down on the building parallel to the right-field line at Latham Stadium on campus, but things are looking pretty spiffy inside the approximately 11,000 square-foot facility. Its cost was announced as $2 million, and Smith said those involved with the project have done a great job of providing what was needed.
“It’s almost exactly what we had envisioned,” said Smith, who is less than two months away from beginning his 20th season as head coach at his alma mater. He added the fundraising goal for the building has been met.
Seating, concession, restroom and press box upgrades are planned for Latham Stadium in the future. There’s no target date for that project, which has an estimated cost of $1.5 million.
“I really think that when we finish Phase 2 we’re not only going to have the nicest place in the Southern Conference, but one of the nicest in the Southeast,” Smith said. “Now, it’s not going to be as big as some of the places, but in terms of quality and setting you can’t get any better. We’re grateful, we’re excited, and it’s been a tremendous boost for our recruiting. When players come in now we’ve got that ‘wow’ factor.”
Smith notes that the “wow” factor has always been a selling point for Furman as a school.
“That’s why when you come in that front gate you’ve got those fountains going,” Smith said. “People say ‘wow, this is beautiful.’ Well, we’re getting that same reaction when we show (recruits) this facility.”
Smith believes the improvements only enhance an already picturesque setting. “In terms of the setting, I think there’s no prettier place. You’re looking out over Paris Mountain and it just looks like this field belongs here. There are trees in the background.
“We’ve always had a great setting,” said Smith, who played on NCAA Tournament teams in baseball and basketball as a Furman student. “People love to come here and play us. Our field has always been really nice. We’ve just needed some amenities, and boy, do we have an amenity now with this fabulous building.
Smith said the facility gives Furman a leg up in the Southern Conference baseball facilities arms race.
“I don’t think anybody in the Southern Conference has a building specifically for baseball that includes an indoor facility,” said Smith, who coached his 1,000th game at Furman last season.
Locker rooms, coaches’ offices, a players’ lounge, an indoor workout area, a laundry area, and other support facilities are included in the building. There’s also a porch/patio area – there will be a canopy installed at some point – where recruits or boosters can watch games.
The new digs are only a couple of hundred feet away from the current baseball home in Lyles Alley Gymnasium but decades ahead aesthetically and technologically.
Smith said the building includes a series of video cameras so player at-bats and workout sessions can be taped for later study.
Smith and his assistants will be able to sit in their offices and look out large windows at Latham Stadium – as head coach Smith has a better view – instead of having a view of a cinder block wall or a parking lot through small windows at Alley Gym.
“We think this is going to be a great place to sit down with potential players,” Smith said.
The players lounge will have couches, tables, a refrigerator, a TV and a spot to serve the postgame meal. A music system and 12 ceiling speakers will add to the player comfort – depending on the musical tastes of the player(s) in charge of music selection.
Spacious wooden lockers – which seem to add more of a classic ballpark feel than metal ones – are already in place in the locker room.
Adjacent to the locker room is a laundry facility, something of a Godsend for equipment managers and players alike.
“We’re very excited about that,” Smith said. “The guys will be able to put their laundry right into the washer. We like that. Before we put the laundry in a 55-gallon thing and carried it down (to the basement for washing),” Smith said. “It was a hassle.”
Also adjacent to the locker room is a training room where players can get needed treatment. Until now baseball shared training facilities with other sports.
A large part of the building is devoted to a workout room, with movable netting allowing the room to be partitioned for several players to take batting practice or do other training at the same time. Mound and home-plate areas will allow pitchers to throw bullpen sessions in any type of weather. There is space for a weight room and for players to work on mobility/agility.
Smith said there could be four long tunnels if desired, but “rarely do you use the whole tunnel. Usually you split it in half and do short stuff inside.
“We just think this is going to be a fabulous area for our guys to get better,” Smith said. “We’ll have a couple of cameras in here where we’ll be able to focus in on a hitter or a pitcher and really look at their mechanics. We can talk a lot, but there’s nothing like seeing what you’re doing. We think that’s going to be really good.”
There are garage-style doors on the end of the workout room closest to the field.
“It’s going to give us some daylight,” Smith said. “In the summer time we’ll open the doors. There are some fans to suck air through.”
An adjacent equipment storage facility room will allow the program to centralize that aspect. In years past it hasn’t been unusual for fans needing to use the Latham Stadium restrooms to have to navigate around a shopping cart of batting practice baseballs or groundskeeping paraphernalia.
“I think, especially with the video system and it being indoors and being so convenient, the players will have access to this building 24 hours a day,” Smith said. “A number of them will probably use it a lot.”
Smith ended his tour of the facility on the porch, which he plans to utilize to the fullest.
“We just think it’s a fabulous place to watch a ballgame,” Smith said. “It’s a great view. The canopy we’re adding will protect some folks from the rain if we do have some weather.
“In Phase2 (improvements to the stadium itself) there will be a couple of pavilions that will extend out over a couple of rows of seats,” Smith said. “There will be a covered area of seating. For right now, this (porch) will be very good.”
The school held a symbolic groundbreaking for the project in February at the baseball program’s Upstate Diamond Class fundraiser.
Enough work was complete for Smith to be able to show potential recruits what would be available to them. The fall signing period recently ended with Furman announcing a class of nine recruits.
“I think what this facility indicates to young men and their families is the University’s commitment to baseball and athletics,” Smith said. “That’s very exciting, so I think that has helped us a good bit with our recruiting.”
Smith can’t quantify how much help, but he’s made sure to do what he could.
“I’ve had drawings of Phase 1 and Phase 2 in my office for a year, and you can believe that I showed those.”
Smith was a standout baseball and basketball player at Elkhart (Ind.) Memorial High School and was being recruited by basketball coach Joe Williams in 1974 when the Paladins were among the top Southern Conference programs while playing at cozy Memorial Auditorium downtown.
“When I was being recruited by Furman they had an artist’s rendering of the new arena which was going to be built downtown,” Smith recalled. “I was kind of told it would be done by my sophomore or junior year. It was a beautiful facility, and I was all excited.
“When I visited, Coach Williams – and I think the world of Coach Williams — took me to the airport,” Smith said. “We drove through downtown Greenville and there was a vacant lot and there happened to be a bulldozer there. Coach Williams said ‘Look, Ronnie. They’ve already started breaking ground.'”
Twenty-plus years later, Greenville finally got the Bi-Lo Center. By that time, Furman had committed to building Timmons Arena on campus.
Smith said he has no idea when Phase 2 of baseball work will begin. “Honestly, I was a little bit surprised how quickly we were able to secure the money for (Phase 1). We’re so grateful to the people who were so generous.
“It just takes one person to step up in a big way,” Smith said. “If that happens, then, boy, we’re well on our way and can get started with Phase 2. When you walk out and look (at the stadium) and look at this (new building), there’s a stark difference. I think it’s important for us to get Phase 2 going, but right now we’re enjoying and are grateful for the baseball building.
“It’s been my observation that 17- or 18-year-old young men are very impressed by facilities,” Smith said. “Everyone says Furman has a beautiful campus – and it’s true – but it is not what makes Furman a special place. It’s the people. We can have the greatest facility in the world, but if we don’t have good people working hard together toward a common goal, you’re not going to have a good experience. We want to combine both.”
The baseball improvements are part of a significant upgrade plan for Furman’s athletic facilities. Stone Soccer Stadium is getting a field house. A press box and new operational home were completed this summer at Pepsi Softball Stadium, and demolition began last week on the old press box tower at Paladin Stadium, to be replaced by a new 44,000-square foot complex that will serve as the new operational home for Furman’s football program. In addition, Furman recently completed an extensive expansion of its golf practice facilities.
“Not a lot had been done to our athletic facilities over the past 10 to 12 years,” Smith said. “That’s been because there’s been a huge emphasis on (renovating) the middle of the campus, which was needed also.
“That helped us indirectly, because when you walk into the middle of the campus to just fabulous classroom buildings, new science building, library and university center,” Smith said. “All of these things helped us, but in the meantime nothing was done (to athletic facilities).
“Now, with President Smolla’s initiative, we’re going to start trying to catch up,” Smith said.
For many years Furman didn’t provide the maximum number of baseball scholarships allowed by the NCAA. The school has pushed the baseball scholarships offered from seven to the NCAA-limit 11.7.
“When you look at the expense here at Furman, not to have the full allotment of scholarships really put us in a tough situation,” Smith said. “Now, we have some more flexibility with some money but it’s still an expensive school. We can offer someone a half-scholarship and they’ll still have a large sum of money to pay.
“But, we think you get what you pay for,” Smith said. “We’re still going after the top-notch players, but kids who are really, really strong students as well.”
In addition to facilities and scholarship funding, Smith is enjoying having two full-time assistants – Jeff Whitfield and Mike Ranson – for the first time.
“I started out with one part-time, then we moved it up to where we had one full-time, then we had one full-time and one part-time,” Smith said. “Coach Whitfield and Coach Ranson worked very, very hard on this past recruiting class and now they’re getting in to the 2014 recruiting class. They do a great job of representing Furman, and it helps a lot to have two full-time assistants out there working.”
Smith acknowledges the investment in facilities, scholarships, and staff has raised the bar for the program, but “I embrace that.”
Furman had a 28-31 record last season and tied for seventh in the Southern Conference. It marked the first time since 2004 that the Paladins hadn’t defeated a nationally ranked team. A contributing factor to that was some of Furman’s traditional rivals weren’t in the rankings.
The Paladins’ best Southern Conference regular-season finish under Smith has been third (four times). The 2005 squad finished eighth in the standings but won the Southern Conference Tournament and an NCAA bid.
Three SoCon teams received NCAA bids last season, marking the seventh time in the past nine years that the conference had received more than the minimum.
“Baseball is the Southern Conference’s strongest sport by far,” Smith said. “We were the sixth-best league in the country last year; better than the Big Ten, better than a number of BCS conferences. It’s a very, very competitive league. We’re proud of it; we like that, and that helps us as well.
“Plus, with our non-conference schedule we don’t hide from anybody,” Smith said. “We play really tough teams, and I think that’s how you get better.”
Beginning in 2013, Smith can mix facilities into that improvement equation, too.
Take a video tour with Coach Ron Smith
Rudy Jones wrote about hundreds of Furman University sporting events during his almost 40-year-career with The Greenville News and Greenville Piedmont. His coverage of the Paladins’ 1988 football national championship earned him a first place writing award from the South Carolina Press Association. The Travelers Rest native maintains a blog about college baseball in South Carolina: palmettostatebaseball.blogspot.com. Contact Rudy at email@example.com