Champions for Life

Champions for Life

The Otis Hawkins Center trains student-athletics to be winners outside the sports arena.
By David Finnerty
“The Otis Hawkins Center at Farrior Hall was the best way possible to start the university’s Go Greater campaign, because, really, it represents everything UF is about: our students, opportunity, creating the leaders of tomorrow, solving problems, being the best. It’s a shining example of what UF is all about and what we, the Gator Nation, can accomplish together.”

Gold medals drape Dara Torres’ neck. Trey Burton, Wilber Marshall and Percy Harvin wear Super Bowl rings. Matt Bonner, David Lee and Udonis Haslem hoisted NBA championship trophies. The long list of Gator titleholders, post-UF, goes on and on. Old and current team rosters across America are peppered with them. And not just in Olympic swimming, the NFL and NBA.

Or, for that matter, sports.

For all but a rare few NCAA student-athletes, the glory days of sports fade with graduation. It’s the third strike, missed free throw, rimmed-out putt reality of college athletics. For every Emmitt Smith gridiron legend and Abby Wambach soccer star, 98 of their Gator teammates will go pro in careers outside the sports arena. That’s where UF’s Otis Hawkins Center comes in. The 82,613-square-foot masterwork is designed to make sure those Gators are champions, too.

Created with gifts from donors, the center is specifically for UF’s 550 student-athletes — with emphasis squarely on the “student” side. Tutors replace coaches. Practice drills are benched for study sessions, game plans swapped for academic advising.

“We want our student-athletes to be champions on the field, court and in the pool and in their lives and professions after graduation,” then-UF President Bernie Machen said in 2014 when it was announced that the new academic complex would be front and center in the university’s Go Greater campaign.

The Otis Hawkins Center at Farrior Hall was one of the earliest projects completed during UF’s Go Greater campaign.

The Otis Hawkins Center became one of the campaign’s earliest initiatives, joining undertakings across campus to create new academic spaces, establish scholarships and professorships, enhance discovery, and support programs that serve communities. For UF Athletics, that first wave of philanthropy rippled through Gator sports to fund game-changing projects like a new baseball park and renovated softball stadium, a standalone football training center, and an upgraded basketball arena.

Two years later, at the Otis Hawkins Center’s grand opening in campus’ renovated Farrior Hall, former UF Athletics Director Jeremy Foley pledged that the new facility would help student-athletes “succeed in the game of life.”

“As an athletic program, we try to win championships,” Foley said at the time. “But nothing is more important than what we’re representing today. Absolutely nothing.”

She Got Game

The Otis Hawkins Center, named for one of the original Gators Boosters, was brand new the year Tori Bindi enrolled as a freshman swimmer.

“I was in the first class to go entirely through using the Hawkins Center and could not imagine my academic [and] athletic career without it,” she says. “The experience I had at [UF] changed my life, and I am so proud be a part of the Gator Nation.”

Outside the pool, the center became almost a second home to her.

“My absolute favorite thing was the third-floor study spaces,” she says. “As someone who was consistently studying in the Hawkins Center until close, I valued the safe and comfortable space of the tutor rooms and computer labs. If it wasn’t for the information technology staff I would not have been able to complete projects or papers when my computer crashed during my sophomore fall.”

Former Gator swimmer Tori Bindi credits the Otis Hawkins Center for helping her be a star in the classroom as well as the pool.

Now, Bindi — spring 2020 graduation’s Outstanding Leader and president of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee her senior year, while majoring in biochemistry — is making plans for medical school.

“The women’s swim team GPA for spring 2020 was the highest in history, and I believe that is because of the Hawkins Center staff’s commitment to the academic success of student-athletes,” she says. “The next chapter of my life will be medical school, and I believe that with the help of the Hawkins Center I am prepared for the most difficult of challenges.”

Bindi insists UF’s focus on the classroom, along with sports, sets the university apart from other schools.

“To the public, Florida is considered a successful athletic institution because year after year we bring home conference and national championships,” she explains. “However, I believe that Florida athletics is successful because it creates champions of life.”

We Are the Champions

NCAA and SEC championships are nothing new at the University of Florida. Gators have won national crowns in golf, swimming and diving, gymnastics, tennis, football, soccer, basketball, track and field, softball, and baseball. So many, UF is running out of space in campus trophy cases.

But UF’s student-athletes — “scholar-athletes” is more accurate — also shine in the classroom. Last year alone, 114 earned degrees and a record 339 made the SEC Academic Honor Roll. UF is the only school with at least 100 athletes on the conference’s honor roll each of the last 23 years. It was also the first to be named a Division I-A Athletic Directors’ Association “program of excellence.”

That’s no accident.

The University of Florida has long made academics a priority in its athletics program. Back as 1979, the university opened a tutoring center for its athletes, known as the Office of Student Life. In 1993, Steve Spurrier famously encouraged Michael Gilmore to skip football practice before that season’s biggest game, the SEC Championship, to meet with a Rhodes Scholars selection committee. A couple years later, in 1995, Farrior Hall opened as the academic services center for student-athletes — thanks to financial support from alumnus J. Rex Farrior Jr. and his wife Mary Lee.

Brothers Preston and Rex Farrior, whose investments in UF’s student-athletes led to the renovation of Farrior Hall, where the Otis Hawkins Center is housed, took part in summer 2016’s grand opening ribbon-cutting ceremony.

“Our commitment to academics extends beyond our student athletes time at the University of Florida,” Athletic Director Scott Stricklin says. “While we offer academic advising, counseling, mentoring, community engagement and job placement services, we stay connected after they leave Gainesville. Our Forever Gators program provides continual career development, networking opportunities and for those who leave without their degree an opportunity to return and graduate.”

That commitment to academics rose to a whole new level during the first months of the university’s Go Greater campaign. Alumni and friends stepped forward once again to create a campus learning environment for scholar-athletes that’s tough to match in all of academia. Brothers J. Rex Farrior III and Preston Farrior contributed millions to their alma mater to renovate the building named for their parents. An anonymous alumnus gave $12.5 million more to honor Otis Hawkins and establish the academic center. Other Gators added gifts of various sizes to enhance the project.

When all was said and done, Gator athletes had a space of their own for tutoring, studying, academic advising, job placement and other services. The new Otis Hawkins Academic Achievement Center has 74 rooms for tutoring and studying, state-of-the-art computer labs and designated online testing space, a 125-seat classroom auditorium, a nutrition wing, 25 academic advising and staff offices, a conference room and wellness center.

Otis Hawkins Center at Farrior Hall: Player Card


  • Ceiling — 41,408 feet (7.84 miles) of long-leaf heart pine reclaimed from the Suwannee River.
  • LEED Gold Certified — meets U.S. green building energy and environmental design standards.
  • Roof and Walls — 21,000 clay tiles, 130,000 bricks (16.25 miles laid end to end).

Nutrition Wing

  • “Fueling station” and demo kitchen — approximately 800 square feet.
  • Fruit and snack options — chosen to target student-athletes’ individual goals.
  • UAA nutrition servings: 285 bottles of hydration per day; 625 snack bars per week; 620 string cheeses per month.

Programs & Services

  • New-student orientation; academic guidance regarding UF and NCAA rules, tutoring; daily communication with coaches; support for learning disabilities.
  • Career counseling; resume building, mock interviewing; job fairs.
  • Workshops in leadership, goal-setting; stress management; fiscal responsibility; alcohol, drug and performance-enhancing supplement education; sexual assault and harassment and healthy relationships.
  • Student Athlete Advisory Committee; skill-specific seminars; Goodwill Gators Community Outreach.

The best is yet to come

Go Greater was a determination, embraced across campus. To continue that pursuit, the university looks to caring philanthropists — the people who feed ingenuity and exploration and create doers and bring ideas to life, imagination to fruition, promise to fulfilment and potential to exceptional. It’s those partnerships with far-sighted leaders that will make UF even more spectacular and enable the university to touch the lives of Earth’s 7 billion people.

So we can all Go Greater, together.

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