Thursday, May 23, 2024

Luxurious lockers

October 7, 2005
Greg Bria, founder and president of Lansing-based Oakwood Sports, Inc., poses for a portrait in the men's basketball team's locker room in Breslin Center. The Spartan "S" emblazoned on this carpet and in many other rooms is sacred, Bria said. Merely stepping on the "S" can cost the offending feet a $5 to $20 fine.

In 1991, Greg Bria was sitting in Munn Ice Arena watching the MSU hockey team practice when then-head coach Ron Mason skated to him.

At that time, Bria was just a fan but had spent a lot of time around the team and had developed a reputation around the program as a handyman.

"Hey, we need some new lockers for the locker room," Mason said. "Could you ever do that for us?"

Bria, who had been working with the Michigan Department of Corrections for more than two decades, said he would.

Fourteen years and almost 200 locker rooms later, he hasn't stopped building.

He's now the president of Lansing-based OakWood Sports, Inc., which has designed and built locker rooms for about 75 different universities and professional teams across the country.

"I never thought that when Ron asked me to build a wooden locker that I'd be doing it for a living," Bria says now. "It was just something to do."

He's built 17 different locker rooms at MSU, including ones for the baseball, soccer, football, and men's and women's basketball teams.

You might be having visions of the cookie-cutter metal boxes you used in high school gym class, but there's a little bit more to the lockers OakWood builds.

Each locker is custom-made at OakWood's 8,000 square foot plant in Tekonsha, Mich., then shipped off and assembled at its destination by Bria and his crew of about 10 workers.

The design for each locker is altered to meet the needs of the team and the sport.

For instance, an old design for a hockey locker had to be scrapped when Bria realized that it would cause the ice shavings on skates to drip down on the seat when they melted.

"Each one is a little different," Bria said.

The teams themselves are looking for a balance between form and function.

"We're looking for a lot of space for our players - they have a lot of items to carry," said Bob Eller, senior director of operations for the NFL's Baltimore Ravens, which OakWood built lockers for six years ago. "But attractiveness is also important in a facility such as this one."

And in recent years, the attractiveness factor has become even more important.

For example, before OakWood redesigned the Ferris State men's hockey locker room several years ago, it consisted of a plank of wood on the wall that was painted burgundy and had two hooks hanging from it, Bria said.

Now, big-screen TVs and elaborate hand-crafted wooden storage units have become the norm.

"These things are getting incredibly fancy," Bria said. "People don't know what these lockers are like out there - they see them and are like, 'What? That's nicer than my house!' There are some four-star hotels that don't look as nice as this."

Besides comfort, these lavish facilities also provide athletes with a central place to bond and the university with something to showcase to prospective athletes.

"Players today spend more time in the locker room than they used to," said Mason, now MSU's athletics director. "When kids come in, one of the first things they look at is the locker room. If it's impressive, that helps in your recruiting process."

Mason has been around to see most of Bria's work at MSU, and said his reputation is just as sturdy as the red oak that most of his lockers are built from.

"He's a guru," Mason said. "It's not like a big company where they come in and, boom, build it. He develops a friendship. And if something's wrong, he'll change it."

One needs only to see Bria among his work to see how passionate he is about it.

He walks through the lockers with the glare of an eagle, stopping to examine a loose piece of molding here and a broken hinge there.

"It's a labor of love," Bria said.

Even though OakWood has built lockers for Big Ten rivals Illinois and Indiana, MSU still holds Bria's affection.

Professionally, it's where he got his start, and where, two years ago, he did his biggest job to date - renovating Jenison Field House.

But he's also a fan.

He's had hockey season tickets for 28 years, and he came back here to finish his degree in criminal justice in 1989.

"I'm a green and white fanatic," Bria said. "I have an undying affection for this university."

With a rapidly expanding clientele, Bria said lockers will remain his primary occupation for a while.

"I see no end to this at this point," Bria said. "As long as people keep wanting wooden lockers, we'll build them."

And if you're still not sold on the importance of a good locker room, consider this: In 1999, OakWood built the locker rooms for the MSU men's basketball team, the NFL's Ravens, the Boston College men's hockey team and the U.S. Olympic women's hockey team.

That year, each of those teams won its championship.

"We put something special into these lockers," Bria says with a smile.

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