BOULDER – The first heavyweight commitment Colorado Athletic Director Rick George received for his ambitious facilities renovation/expansion project was from Bruce Benson – which was about the best launch point George could have hoped for.

If CU’s president had multiple questions (perhaps even a reservation or two) when George made his proposal, Benson also had faith – and plenty of it. Early Monday afternoon that possible list of questions for George had been reduced to one: “Where’s the pile of dirt?”

Nowhere – but the show went on. George, maybe a miracle worker after all, proved that it is indeed possible to have an indoor ground-breaking ceremony. Without the dirt.

Gathered in the Dal Ward Athletic Center’s Varsity Room, Benson, Chancellor Phil DiStefano and a host of other school officials, regents and construction honchos were left without dirt for their ceremonial shovels. No matter. Outside in mid-30 degree temperatures under threatening skies, they watched a piece of heavy equipment’s bucket delicately dislodge a slab of concrete in the first row of Folsom Field’s northeast stands.

Ground was officially broken; a $143 million project designed to benefit CU student-athletes, the university and the entire Boulder community is underway. Now, George added after the ceremony, isn’t the time to rest. Fund-raising must continue.

“Everybody is fixated on a number that was thrown out when I was hired – one-third of the project (or about $47.6 million),” he said. “That number is important to go forward, but with the sequence of the build the funding is right on par with (it). We’ve got to raise a lot more than 50 million for this project, and we intend to do that. This process is going to go on for the next 16 to 18 months. The fact of the matter is we put a shovel in the ground (Monday) and we hope to have it all completed by the early fall of 2015. Nothing’s changed from that standpoint.”

Gene Hodge, project director for Mortensen Construction, called the venture “rapid, fast, aggressive” and said it will employ about 1,300 workers putting in one million man hours to meet a targeted completion date of late August 2015.

“In the next few days, weeks, months,” said Hodge, “you’ll see an enormous transformation.”

But it won’t disrupt the finish of the Bolder Boulder 10k and the annual race festivities in Folsom Field on Memorial Day (Monday, May 26). George has been in “close communication” with Bolder Boulder officials and has assured them that other than seeing “fences on each side of the build,” participants and fans should notice little different from previous race finishes.

Benson called Monday’s event “an unbelievably great ground-breaking – even though it’s inside . . . it’s finally a reality; we’re getting going on this project.”

It’s a project that has been in the talking stages, maybe the dreaming stages, for a couple of decades-plus. Board of Regents Chairman Michael Carrigan joked to an audience that included CU staffers, donors and other invited guests that skeptics scoffed it would be “a cold day in heck when the facilities get built . . . well, it’s a cold day in Boulder” – and an historic first step has been taken, said Carrigan.

BUT IT HAS BEEN A L-O-O-O-N-G time coming, noted former Buffs quarterback and current football staffer Darian Hagan: “It was being talked about when I was in school (in the late 1980s/early ‘90s). To finally have it at age 43 is awesome . . . at least they didn’t lie. It just took a while.

“The good thing for me, I was able to experience a new building (Dal Ward) that at the time was one of the best in the country, if not the best. Now, 24 years later, here we are again leading the charge. Hopefully this will help us get the right kids in here and put some more championships up.”

Former CU wingback/receiver Mike Pritchard, a Hagan teammate, recalled the buzz surrounding the football program when the Dal Ward construction began just after the Buffs played Kansas State in their final home game of the 1990 season. “We saw the model and everybody was pleased to see it,” Pritchard said. “Now, it’s 2014, we’re in the Pac-12 Conference and there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Echoing a theme repeated throughout Monday’s ceremony, Pritchard called the project “a commitment to be competitive. When you have that and when you create this much excitement, everybody wants to be part of it. When you talk about recruiting the best high school athletes in Colorado, California, whatever state, the facilities and the state of the facilities are important. But more importantly, the commitment and the excitement are going to attract them.”

Hagan offered this about the importance of and need for a facilities refurbishment of this sort: “Boulder is a place that sells itself anyway. I tell people all the time this is God’s country. If God was living here on earth, he’d be living in Boulder, Colorado. (New facilities) sells the university, it sells that we’re committed to the Pac-12. It is an arms race and we’re right in the middle of it. To put up a building like this speaks volumes for the university and the leadership’s commitment.”

Pritchard was “absolutely sure” ground would eventually be broken on new facilities, citing CU’s hiring of George last July as the reason: “Once (he) got hired and took the initiative on this project, I had no doubt. He’s done some tremendous reaching out to former players, getting them back involved, talking about the importance of having them come back, and he’s embraced the alumni as well. I think everybody is excited about the direction of CU athletics and everybody wants to get on board with it.”

Hagan, however, wasn’t so sure about the project getting off the ground. He’s a staunch George backer, but he “never thought it would happen . . . I mean, temporary buildings last for 25 years around here. When they were talking about this, I wasn’t thinking I would be alive to see it. But here by the grace of God I am and I’m a part of it. I’ve even got an office in the building. And me being able to continue what I’m doing is just awesome.”

I asked George if Monday was a particularly gratifying day for him. “It’s really not about me,” he said. “It’s about the student-athletes, the current and future ones and even former student-athletes. This is something that’s long overdue and I’m glad that I’m here at a time when we’ve gotten everybody together working toward something that’s going to be special for our student-athletes.”

There are a couple of fairly amazing timelines in play here, the first being George’s official reporting date for work – Aug. 13, 2013 – and the second being this project’s targeted completion date – August 2015. That’s a mind-boggling accomplishment for one man in two years, but George predictably deflected the credit, saying collaboration and commitment by those in the Varsity Room on Monday pushed the project this far.

IT WAS THE RIGHT THING to say, but former Buffs coach Bill McCartney, in attendance and recognized by George as a mentor, pinpointed one man. Said McCartney: “Everything rises and falls on leadership – every university, every government, every town hall . . . Rick George is a live wire. When you get guys like that in leadership positions, they challenge, motivate and inspire everybody around them.

“What you saw here today was a tremendous gathering of people in important positions, people who have come together with one heartbeat. That’s what Rick George does. It’s a perfect example of what he does. If you just look at who’s here, it’s amazing. In all the years I was here, I never saw anything quite like this.”

Current CU football coach Mike MacIntyre recognized McCartney and former Buffs players attending, noting, “Guys like you paved the way for this. The history you made here has helped propel us.”

When it joined the Pac-12 with Utah three seasons ago, CU already was said to be lagging in college football’s “arms race.” But George prefers not to use that term in explaining the Buffs’ much-needed facilities upgrade.

“A lot of people use ‘arms race,’” he said. “If I had come here and saw these facilities – regardless of what other people had – we would be doing this exact same thing. I know other schools are doing a lot of things, but these really satisfy a lot needs we have. We’ve talked about this a lot: not what would you like to have, but what do you really need for us to be successful? I think this is a move that’s going to allow us to be successful.”

After only one season in Boulder, MacIntyre nonetheless is convinced that CU is “striving to be the best. Competitive greatness is what we want. It’s where we’re headed. This puts a spike in the road; here we come.”

At the recent Pac-12 Conference football coaches meetings, MacIntyre said all 11 of his peers approached him individually and asked if CU’s facilities upgrades were “really happening.” Yes, he answered, dispelling many coaches’ long-standing doubts about one of the conference’s two newest members finally taking the next step with its facilities.

Watch what happens Monday, MacIntyre told them. He had no idea . . .

Before a champagne (or cider) toast was proposed and glasses clinked in honor of the facilities project lifting off, MacIntyre received an unscheduled shower from a tipped tray of champagne. He took it good-naturedly, and later at the podium offered the afternoon’s best audible and what a university hopes holds true for the entire project: “It’s like a Gatorade bath . . . it’s a great sign.”

Contact: BG.Brooks@Colorado.EDU