Between them, Dexter Wood and Tony Wolfe have spent almost 50 years at Buford High School.
When they arrived in the mid-1990s — Wood in 1995 as athletic director and Wolfe in 1996 as head baseball coach — the school was on the small side, even by Class A standards. The facilities and the sports offered to the students matched the light enrollment numbers.
There was no fieldhouse for football. Sports that are common in modern-day Gwinnett — soccer, volleyball, lacrosse, swimming and diving — were not options.
“We were really very basic back then,” said Wolfe, who transitioned to replace Wood as athletic director in 2017, allowing Wood to scale back to an assistant AD role. “We had 28 football players 9 through 12. I think we graduated 37 senior football players last year. … In ’96, we were a very small school. We had about 420 students. We hadn’t built the fieldhouse back then. Football coaches used an office in the gym that the basketball coaches used after football season. The football team used one of the basketball locker rooms to get dressed. So to evolve to the fieldhouse in I guess Coach Wood’s third or fourth year in ’98 was grand. But nothing compared to moving over here to this.”
The “this” Wolfe described is Buford’s new high school athletic building, one of a trio of multi-story facilities that tower over Buford Highway as part of the new campus that debuts Aug. 7, the first day of school. One building serves academics, one fine arts and the other athletics.
The building itself houses plenty of amenities, including a pair of 1,200-seat gymnasiums and a weight room that is 4,000 square feet larger than the one currently used on campus, as well as a pair of artificial turf fields out back. The two-year construction project has been exciting for the community, as well as eye-catching for those who travel Buford Highway, the road that splits the old campus from the new one.
“The biggest one (I hear from others) is the University of Buford, that comes out a lot,” Wolfe said. “That it looks more like a university campus, just because of the multiple buildings. Just the enormity of it as it sits on this rise, this hill. People have come to expect Buford to do that. The (Buford City) Arena put us in a whole different level in terms of our athletic facilities.
“And you look across the street at City Hall and the community center and for about the last 10, 15 years Buford has really tried to grow and do the things that make it a first-class city in every way. … The way our school has grown and we’ve watched the city do everything possible to always stay ahead of that growth, not only providing us with the resources but doing things in a first-class way. You walk through this building and everything about it is first class. That says tons for our school board and our city commissioners. We’re just so thankful for them.”
The athletic expansion eventually is expected to include a new football stadium, a replacement for Tom Riden Stadium that will be built just across the opposite side of Buford Highway from the new campus. The time frame on that venue has not been locked in, though athletic officials guessed it could happen in the next two to four years.
The discussions include a parking deck with a pedestrian walkway over Buford Highway to allow fans to park at the high school and walk across the bridge to the football stadium, which is expected to feature synthetic turf.
“The football stadium is planned to go across the street,” Wolfe said. “It’s a pretty extensive plan. They want to build, from what I understand, about a 10,000-seat stadium. Very state of the art. We built a stadium for 400 students and we added visitor seating a few years after that (on the old campus), but we’ve outgrown it. And it’s 30 years old. The press box, the restrooms, everything is really to the stage where we either have to spend a lot of money refurbishing it or just build new. The thought is build it across the street. The theme seems to be we’re going to build something extraordinarily nice right here on the highway for people to see as they drive through. Just another showpiece. We’re excited about it.”
For now, Buford’s varsity football program will continue to play its games at Tom Riden Stadium. Those athletes and coaches will begin using the facility on the new campus for lifting and workouts after the Georgia High School Association’s dead week of no activities (June 28-July 4).
A few other sports will remain at or near the old high school, which transitions to a middle school for the 2019-20 school year. Baseball and softball will use their existing facilities, likely permanently, Wolfe said. Tennis also will keep using the 12 courts owned by the city. Track and field stays at Tom Riden Stadium. Varsity basketball games will stay at Buford City Arena, while varsity games in sports like soccer (which has a wide, regulation field now), lacrosse and volleyball will be contested in the new school site.
Buford annually fields about 900 athletes in various sports from ninth to 12th grade in 24 sports. Those additional offerings have evolved greatly during Wood’s tenure as athletic director.
“My greatest joy over the years was the board supporting the idea of adding so many sports,” Wood said. “We have everything the Georgia High School Association offers now. We even have a bass fishing team. That was a joy in those early years, watching those first soccer practices, those first volleyball practices, those first lacrosse practices. That’s been a real joy of my tenure.”
Those athletes will enjoy impressive amenities in their new home.
The athletic building’s main entrance features a lobby that splits to the right and left with the two identical gyms, North Gym and South Gym. High above the wood floors, a running surface spans the top of both gyms. Five laps around the top of both gyms is a mile. The wrestling room and another activity room also are upstairs, splitting up the two gyms. The main lobby and concessions area serves both gyms.
Behind the concession stand, just past two health classrooms, is a shared kitchen that leads into the football meeting room and football offices. Nearby are a football equipment room, the ninth grade football locker room and the varsity locker room with 120 lockers for 10th- through 12th-graders. Basketball, volleyball and wrestling also have locker rooms.
The varsity football locker room has an exit directly into the spacious weight room, which is covered in one side by banks of windows to allow natural light in. After the finishing touches were completed on the weight room floor, construction of new weight racks began Monday.
“We’re working out 140 kids in the weight room every morning in the old school, and they’re on top of each other,” Wolfe said. “With 140 in this weight room, the fit will be much better.”
The athletic building’s upstairs features 16 classrooms — each athletic program will get a room with a projector and white boards for meetings — and a large team meeting area with risers and stadium seating for 120.
As coaches move in this summer, athletic officials like Wolfe will begin the branding of the building, both inside and out.
“The Buford Athletic Hall of Fame sits in the front trophy case of the old school, and we’ve got to determine where that will be,” Wolfe said. “We have to determine where we put the trophy case where it can be visible to students. We will start doing the personal touches, the trophy cases. Like in most gyms, there’s a mascot on the wall. There are big things like that, then just the small details we haven’t even worked on yet. The volleyball coach asked if we were going to have a board on the wall like most gyms with their roster. Some of those things that are really down the line when you’re talking about moving into a facility like this.
“That’s the biggest thing now, just trying to make it feel like it’s Buford, making our kids feel like it’s home. Truthfully, when we do have competitions here, hopefully the visitors will feel like we’re still the same old Buford. It’s going to be a tough place to play.”
To this point, only a select number of adults have toured the new athletic building. The students will see it, seniors first, July 24 for a big unveiling. On July 25, the incoming freshmen get their first experience of it.
They likely will be wowed, though maybe not as much as those who have been around the Buford school system for decades.
“For me, all these years, just seeing a facility like this, I’m just excited for our community and for our kids,” Wolfe said. “It is a first-class facility, one our city is really proud of. I had a great time taking the class of ’64 on a brief tour the other day. They told me there were four lunchroom tables in the school when they went to school. They were impressed. … I’m just excited for our community, for our kids, for our faculty. Everybody is going to enjoy this and take great pride in it.”