In the summer of 1991, the Colorado athletic department celebrated the grand opening of the Dal Ward Athletic Center.

It marked a new era for the Buffs. Coming on the heels of CU`s 1990 national football championship, Dal Ward was a state-of-the-art facility when it opened, a building that moved the Buffs into the same neighborhood as the nation`s elite programs. It was -- and still is -- a brick-and-mortar tribute to the man who put CU football on the map, Bill McCartney.

Fast-forward 20 years. For the first time in two decades, CU is ready to take another major step forward when officials break ground today on a new practice facility for the men`s and women`s basketball teams and the volleyball team.

It`s been a long time coming.

Since the construction of Dal Ward, facilities improvement at CU has come in fits and starts -- mostly fits.

For the last half of the 1990s, improvements were minimal. CU`s competition caught, then passed, the Buffs. When CU joined the Big 12, the gap became even greater as the "arms race" escalated. Colorado`s facilities began to become outdated at a rapid pace when compared to its league brethren.

CU did commit to one major facilities improvement in the early 2000s by expanding Folsom Field with luxury suites and club seats in 2003. But thanks to a variety of economic conditions and other factors, those suites and seats have yet to provide the annual economic benefit officials originally projected, and thus have had minimal impact on CU`s student-athletes.


Not that there haven`t been some steps forward in recent years. The renovation of Prentup Field into a soccer stadium has helped increase attendance and allowed CU to host NCAA Tournament matches. Other improvements include a football practice bubble, renovated locker rooms for the football and basketball teams, a new basketball operations center, resurfacing of the Potts Field track, a new floor at the Coors Events Center, tennis courts on the South Campus and -- thanks to a major donation -- a golf course the Buffs can call "home."

But most of those are smaller-scale improvements that CU has managed to piece together despite serious fiscal challenges. It`s a tribute to CU`s administration -- from chancellor Phil DiStefano on down -- that the Buffs have managed as much as they have.

Still, CU hasn`t been able to build something to match the scale of Dal Ward.

Until now.

Construction of the basketball-volleyball facility, scheduled to begin in earnest in April, will directly benefit three of CU`s higher profile teams. The facility will include two basketball practice courts as well as a specific volleyball ops center. It will also include new locker rooms for the women`s basketball team, which will then allow the volleyball team to move into the Coors Events Center on a full-time basis.

In short, it will be the most significant facilities-improvement project at CU in 20 years, and it will come at a cost. Estimates for the building that will be completed in the spring of 2011 range between $10 million and $12 million.

That`s a hefty price tag.

There are places in the Big 12 where $11 million projects are completed with a shrug. But for Colorado, it`s a major project -- and for the basketball teams, it`s the most significant improvement since the Events Center was completed in 1979.

It means that two programs that have far too often been given short shrift will at least level the playing field somewhat in terms of their Big 12 competition. It means CU`s teams won`t have to find practice time at local high schools when the Events Center is being used for exams or other functions. It means the three teams involved won`t have to stagger practice times, and there will always be a practice floor available when needed -- something that`s certainly not the case today.

And, yes, it will help in recruiting. High school kids are impressed by facilities. They want to know that the program they sign with is important to its athletic department. They want to know that they`ll have what their competition has.

Simply, they want to know that they matter.

Today, CU is sending the message that its basketball and volleyball programs do matter -- and that`s a solid step forward.