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Student athletes are already hitting the books at the brand new Grizzly Student-Athlete Academic Center at the University of Montana.

It's a $2.5 million project connected to the Adams Center, and it has large windows, but an understated entrance.

The idea is a busy athlete with, say, an hour between weightlifting and class can crack open a textbook in a convenient place, said athletic director Kent Haslam. The place also offers different athletes, some 350 from soccer to cheer to football, a chance to mingle.

"I think it sends a clear signal that academics is important, and if you come here, we're going to support you," Haslam said.

On Friday, Haslam offered the media a tour of the Montana Grizzly Athletic Department's new academic center and future locker rooms and changing rooms before a welcome event with donors.

An anonymous million dollar donor helped pay for the academic center.

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The tour started at the old entrance to the Adams Center.

It used to be a place where "the leaves would swirl," Haslam said, and it's been transformed with a new entry.

As part of the project, the Adams Center now has an exterior box office so people can buy tickets outside, and the box office has better exposure to the public. The athletic department is a tenant of the Adams Center.

In the basement, at the level of the basketball court, UM will add dressing rooms and locker rooms so it can accommodate visiting teams in an area of some 5,000 square feet and better host high school tournaments.

The community is pushing to bring in more prep competitions, and UM will have room for those without compromising its own student athletes. The basement was still bare, but eventually, it will accommodate four different teams in different places.

"It's really going to make a difference," Haslam said.

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Upstairs, the study center offered students tables, chairs, a lot of natural light and break-out rooms for small groups, Haslam said. The academic center is under supervision and open 70 hours a week to student athletes who check in with their cards.

The center was designed by MMW Architects and built to be rated silver by LEED's sustainability standards.

Haslam said the beautiful space was in direct contrast to the old, small study area. Its location right next to the football locker room didn't help, he said.

"It didn't smell very good," he said.

It wasn't conducive to learning or teaching, and UM will have a better shot at retaining its athletes with the new center, he said.

Unlike the general student population, athletes don't get to take off a semester to ski or study abroad, because they have to continue accumulating credits, Haslam said.

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Jean Gee, senior associate athletic director, said she's already seeing athletes open up their laptops and spread their study materials across the tables. The room has been so quiet with concentration, she tries not to make a sound walking in the door.

Generally, she said, student athletes have to maintain a 2.0 GPA and must have 40 percent of their credits completed at the beginning of their third year, 60 percent by year four and 80 percent by year five; football players have additional requirements.

Haslam said he was pleased that people had stepped up to raise money for the project and proud of the donors. He said the student center was debt free upon opening.

"That's a good feeling to have," Haslam said.

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University of Montana, higher education