SBJ/July 30 - August 5, 2001/Facilities

Weber report: Growing stadium holds many stories

Plenty of sports enthusiasts recognize the name of Weber State University — though not necessarily because they know where it is or what the place is all about.

What everyone recalls with considerable clarity is that Weber State flat-out whipped North Carolina in the NCAA basketball tournament a couple of years ago, and that's worth a lifetime of publicity.

Ironic, then, that the big story in Weber State athletics these days has to do with football.

In fact, there are so many unique angles to the football renaissance at Weber State, it's tough to pick a starting point, but ...

Begin with this: Weber State, which competes in the Division I-AA Big Sky Conference, was losing so much money on its football program that just six years ago, the Ogden, Utah, school was on the verge on dropping the sport entirely.

Instead, Weber's administrators, fans and donors went in the other direction. Stewart Stadium is undergoing a $4.2 million expansion, with 38,000 square feet of sky suites (26), club seating, elevators and press box amenities on the west side of facility scheduled for dedication this season.

It's probably an exaggeration to credit the Stewart family's contributions — $12 million overall — for the entire turnaround, but football probably would be gone without them.

That reversal from nearly eliminating the sport to spending money on it is remarkable enough, but remember that earlier reference to other unusual aspects to the story?

One of them concerns the name itself — Elizabeth Dee Shaw Stewart Stadium is the only Division I football facility named for a woman.

But here's something even more amazing: Architects doing the renovation actually acknowledge that the design concept they're using was devised by another company, and freely offer thanks.

Weber State's work is being handled by the design-build partnership of R&O Construction and Salt Lake City-based Eaton Mahoney Architects.

Don Mahoney, principal-in-charge for the architectural firm, claims designer Craig Elliott is basing the project on an idea that originated at Ellerbe Becket.

"Craig has developed their original concept and then we've taken that concept to working drawings while we work with R&O," Mahoney said.

Football's alive and well at Weber State and architects are throwing bouquets at one another.

What next?

 SO NEAR, YET ...: New Mexico State and the University of Texas-El Paso sit maybe a half-hour apart, down in that forbidding landscape where the Rio Grande River is an international border and the wind howls through rocky hills.

Neither school ever has been what you'd call a sports powerhouse — with the exception of UTEP's 1966 national hoops championship.

In terms of fans, revenue, TV appearances and those things that keep athletic programs humming, NMSU and UTEP more or less have gone nowhere together.

They have similar enrollments (15,955 at New Mexico State, 15,383 at UTEP) and athletic expenditures — $8 million at UTEP, $7.1 million at NMSU.

And yet now, somehow, these two old foes are heading in distinctly different directions.

Perhaps the problem is conference affiliation: NMSU is moving to the distant Sun Belt from the collapsing Big West this year, while UTEP was left in the old Western Athletic Conference and turned out to be one of its stars — averaging conference-bests 44,714 in football attendance and 9,675 in basketball last year.

Up in Las Cruces, New Mexico State's regents have approved a deficit reduction plan for athletics that will offer naming rights to corporations and simultaneously cut costs in the department.

Administrators at NMSU are looking at a debt estimated at $3 million, most of which they blame on sagging ticket sales at sports events and too much frivolous spending. For instance, they want to cut down on travel, perhaps demanding that the football team play a minimum of five home games.

Athletic director Brian Faison said he believed that the state's Commission on Higher Education would pass the regents' plan and that the naming-rights portion was especially critical.

Faison thinks the school eventually could raise $15 million in naming rights. Realistically, he'd like to get a couple million in hand by 2008 or 2009.

UTEP, meanwhile, is in the midst of an unprecedented building surge: soccer-sizing, new AstroPlay turf and video board at the Sun Bowl ($3 million total); new maple basketball floor, video and scoreboards at the Don Haskins Center ($1.125 million); weight room, training facilities and offices at the Larry K. Durham Center ($11 million).

The university also is building a $15 million apartment-style dorm to house 400 students and student athletes.

All work at the Sun Bowl and in the Haskins Center should be done in August. Work on the Durham Center will continue through next summer.

"We're like Humpty Dumpty," said Bob Stull, UTEP athletic director. "Everything's apart right now, but unlike Humpty Dumpty, we'll have everything put back together again."

It's entirely fair to say that UTEP is rockin' and rollin' — especially since the remodeled Sun Bowl will be christened by an 'N Sync concert Aug. 27

Not only that, but UTEP has a nationally televised football game (ESPN2) scheduled against Texas Tech on Sept. 13.

Back up at New Mexico State, meanwhile, there's not much to do at the moment but feel a little jealous.

And buy 'N Sync tickets.

  VOTES AIN'T CHEAP: Public records show that the Vikings spent $162,906 lobbying Minnesota lawmakers over the last three months, for which they received little more than a few yawns.

The Vikes are determined to get into a football-only stadium — which they'd share with the University of Minnesota — as soon as possible. Owner Red McCombs even scoffed when asked about the club's lease at the Metrodome, which doesn't expire until 2011.

The lease is meaningless, McCombs said, because wherever they might wind up calling home, the Vikes definitely won't be in the dome in 2011.

So far, by the way, all that lobbying hasn't gotten the Vikes very far.

Gov. Jesse Ventura and a majority of legislators remain opposed to public participation in stadiums for either the Vikes or the Minnesota Twins — at least in the terms they've heard so far.

Maybe $162,906 is nothing more than dog-track money in the facility world these days.

Heck, the NFL's minimum wage is $200,000.

If you have news, updates or anecdotes about any sports venue, contact Steve Cameron at scameron@amcity.com.

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