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SBJ/December 5 - 11, 2005/SBJ In Depth
Race For Recruits
Published December 5, 2005
When Tommie Frazier visited the University of Nebraska on a football recruiting trip in the winter of 1992, he was wowed by the expanse of a 30,000-square-foot weight room and the sprawl of a $3 million indoor practice field that put the Cornhuskers a decade ahead of most programs.
|Work continues on the $51 million Tom and Nancy
Osborne Athletic Complex and indoor practice field at the
University of Nebraska.
“The facilities were above and beyond other schools, to the point that there weren’t many that really compared,” said Frazier, a consensus high school All-American who went on to quarterback the Huskers to two national championships. “Today, Nebraska is not even close to the top. Not even close.”
This is the message Frazier took to Nebraska supporters during the last two years, working as a fund-raiser for the school’s athletic department. Despite its rich tradition and its iconic standing across the state, Big Red football had fallen behind on the facilities front; not in its stadium bowl, which included well-appointed suites, club seats and jumbo video screens, but in the amenities that attract the nation’s premier athletes.
The last 10 years have brought an unprecedented building boom for athletic programs on campuses across the United States, with at least $15.2 billion spent on sports facilities, according to research compiled by SportsBusiness Journal. At least $6.4 billion of that was spent on football.
Schools spent the overwhelming bulk of that on stadium refurbishment, adding suites and club seats that generate millions in additional revenue for football programs that often fuel overall athletic budgets.
But the more meaningful spending has come outside the seating bowls. On campuses across the country, schools have spent more than $600 million building bigger, better training facilities, many of which are attached to football stadiums. The idea is to bring together a plush football locker room, state-of-the-art training center, coaches offices, meeting rooms, academic support center and well-appointed players’ lounge, all under the same roof.
If you can attach grass practice fields, an outdoor turf field and an indoor turf field in close proximity, all the better.
Student views on athletics
Sports Illustrated On Campus surveyed college students in October about sports facilities on campus. Here are some of the magazine’s findings:
Nearly half (47 percent) of students surveyed use their school’s athletic/recreation center facilities “a few times a week.”
Less than 5 percent said they “never” use the athletic/recreation center facilities at their school.
Twenty-eight percent said that athletics/athletic facilities were an “important factor” in their choice of school.
A quarter of the respondents said that athletics/athletic facilities were an “extremely important” factor in their choice of school.
Only 7 percent said that athletics/athletic facilities were “not at all important” in their choice of school.
Forty-eight percent of the students surveyed said that “academics” was the most important factor in their choice of school.
When asked “which of the following facilities on your campus have state-of-the-art equipment,” 85 percent of respondents picked “athletic/recreation center facilities” followed by classroom buildings (71 percent); library (70 percent); student center (52 percent); and dining hall (36 percent).
Twenty-eight percent of those surveyed said they have to pay an additional fee and/or membership dues to use their school’s athletic/recreation center facilities.
Note: A geographically dispersed group of 502 college students participated in this survey.
Source: Sports Illustrated On Campus
“It’s all about getting the players and developing the players,” said Mike Holleman, vice president and director of sports facilities for Heery International, an architecture firm that has done football projects at Alabama and Florida and is working on one at Ohio State. “High school students are young and impressionable. They’re swayed not only by coaches, but by facilities. When they see the big wow factor, that plays into their decision to some extent. And when somebody else has something and you don’t, they notice. Improving your facilities is one way to move ahead.”
Critics of the spending refer to it as an “arms race.” Proponents cringe at that description, but most concede that the race is a real one, driven by the inescapable fact that elite athletes usually factor in the quality of facilities when choosing a school.
“We’re all in the facilities race,” said Charlie Whittemore, assistant athletic director for facilities at the University of Georgia. “I get these phone calls from other schools all the time. ‘Hey, do ya’ll have this? I heard you had that.’ Half the time we have it, half the time we don’t. If it’s something a lot of your competitors have, and you don’t have it, you can guarantee that it’s something your coaches are going to want.”
Big spending in Big 12
Consider the building binge in the Big 12 Conference alone.
Colorado spent $14 million for an athletic complex that opened in 1991. Iowa State christened a $10.6 million building in 1996. In 1998, Texas completed a $15 million project that included a $10.5 million renovation to its strength training center. Oklahoma followed with a $6 million football building named for Barry Switzer in 1999. In 2001, Oklahoma State completed a $55 million renovation of its historic, on-campus basketball arena that included strength and training facilities for all sports, attached to its football stadium. In 2003, Texas A&M opened a $27 million football building, Texas Tech opened an $11 million football training center and Kansas opened an $8 million strength center.
There’s more to come.
Missouri is working on a $16 million renovation of its athletic complex, scheduled for completion next year. Kansas State has a $5.8 million renovation of its football complex under way. Baylor is raising money for a new, $14.5 million facility. Kansas has its eye on a $40 million building.
While some of those service athletes outside of football, all have been built with football as the focus, located in or adjacent to stadiums and practice fields.
Texas Tech, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State all have followed Nebraska’s lead on indoor facilities — spending $4 million to $12 million each — and Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Colorado have plans in the pipeline.
“It’s been good for our donors to see what some of the other Big 12 schools are doing,” said Nebraska athletic director Steve Pederson. “It’s not the usual suspects that everybody thinks are expanding beyond belief. It’s schools that our donors wouldn’t think could build facilities that compare with ours. But they have.”
After winning national titles in 1994, ’95 and ’97, and reaching the BCS championship game in 2001, the Huskers stumbled to 7-7 in 2002. Since then, they’ve spent only one week in the AP’s top 10. This season, they lost league games to Texas Tech, Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas.
Frazier is convinced that a slip in facility development played a role in Nebraska’s fall from national football prominence.
“College football has changed when it comes to recruiting kids,” said Frazier, who left Nebraska in June to become head football coach at Doane College, an NAIA school in Crete, Neb. “It used to be getting on national TV or winning conference championships that attracted them. Now, it’s ‘What do you have to offer me,’ in terms of the environment.
“If a kid is being recruited by Texas, Oklahoma, Florida State and Nebraska, the one thing he’s going to do is compare the facilities. If one is better than the others, where do you think he’s going to go?”
Nebraska was among the first programs to put an emphasis on its strength program, spending $700,000 to build a state-of-the-art weight room in 1981 and then expanding it to its current size nine years later. In 1989, it built the indoor practice field.
Midway through the ’90s, as Nebraska was celebrating back-to-back national titles, it built suites and clubs seats to meet the evolving desires of its football-crazed fans. But, along the way, it slipped in other key areas, at least in comparison to many of its Big 12 brethren.
Of course, anyone who has ever been to Nebraska knows that the Huskers faithful couldn’t allow that to be the case for long. In August 2004, construction began on the $51 million Tom and Nancy Osborne Athletic Complex. It will be attached by bridge to an indoor field house that will include a full-sized indoor practice field, making Nebraska the only program in the nation to have two of them.
Tommie Frazier is helping his alma mater
raise money to upgrade its football
For now, at least.
“If we build what we think is the best facility in the country — and that’s what we’re doing — there is somebody out there that will try to top us,” Pederson said. “But you don’t build stuff just to build it. We don’t do that at Nebraska. When you have been in the same locker room since 1973, it’s time to do something different. When you have a training room that was built for 150 football players now taking care of 550 student athletes, it’s time to address that.
“It’s not responsible to think you can continue with things as they are.”
Nebraska’s old-school rival came to that same conclusion a decade ago. In 1999, Oklahoma opened the Barry Switzer Center, which put locker rooms, coaches offices and a strength and conditioning center large enough for 400 athletes under the same roof, along with a shrine to the school’s football tradition.
“We were way behind,” said Joe Castiglione, who came to Oklahoma as athletic director from Missouri in 1998. “Other programs were embracing the notion of what facilities improvements could mean to the recruiting of the best and brightest student athletes. Oklahoma found itself comparing to schools that might shock a few people.”
Message for donors
One of the hurdles facing some of the more successful programs has been getting donors to realize that the schools they’d been throttling for years were getting an edge on them.
Texas A&M, keeping up in the Big 12, opened
a $27 million football complex in 2003.
Castiglione understood it because he came from a program that had closed the gap. But delivering that message often raises eyebrows.
Dave Hart was in his sixth month as athletic director at Florida State when the time came for him to begin the requisite tour of booster clubs. On his first stop, a man asked, rather proudly, what he thought of the Seminoles’ athletic facilities.
Hart told him the truth. While upgrades at Doak Campbell Stadium made it one of the nation’s prettier football stadiums, the guts of the building and the other facilities that serviced the athletes had been largely ignored. Hart told the boosters that he found the facilities to be substandard. Football players worked out in a spartan gym a quarter-mile from the stadium. They dressed in cramped quarters. When the boosters raised their eyebrows, he invited them to come to Tallahassee for a tour.
“When I told coach [Bobby] Bowden that we might have the worst locker room in major college football, it shocked him,” said Hart, who arrived at FSU in 1995. “I’d been in about 50 of them and ours was at the bottom. He’d become so accustomed to overcoming things like that, he didn’t notice.”
Backed by Bowden, Hart spurred the department’s first capital campaign, raising $70 million. The ’Noles went to work rebuilding. Late in 2003, they opened a training center in the north end zone of the stadium. Included are the latest in en vogue hydrotherapy: hot and cold Jacuzzis that each seat 15, eight whirlpools and an exercise tank with an underwater treadmill. At a combined 35,000 square feet, the weight room and training room are three times their previous size. An adjacent sports medicine center includes two doctors’ offices, an X-ray station and a pharmacy.
It’s the stuff you’ll find in most major college training centers built in the last five years. Like most schools, FSU expects it to keep the program on level ground on the recruiting trails.
“If someone is interested in biochemistry and they walk into the science building and see six beakers from the 1950s and a Bunsen burner, it’s reasonable for them to worry that that’s going to limit their ability to learn,” Castiglione said. “I don’t know why anyone would expect athletes to think any differently about the things that give them the opportunity to improve and excel.”
The race is on
While some of his neighbors might think otherwise, Hart insists that he “can say without hesitation that this was not an arms-race decision.” He points to all the years that FSU scrapped and scraped as an independent, without the benefit of shared conference revenue.
Of course, Hart does see evidence of a facilities race elsewhere in the ACC. Few athletic directors like to concede that they’ve chased the competition. But, somehow, they notice when others chase them.
“When Florida State came in to the ACC, if you look at the adjustments made on some other campuses since then, that’s very notable,” Hart said. “I wouldn’t argue that some of that arms-race thinking wasn’t in play.”
Two hours to the east on I-10, FSU’s in-state nemesis has been a leader in development of athletic facilities for the last 20 years. University of Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley downplays the development at other schools, saying all the work done on his campus has been in response to athletes’ needs.
“I see some other facilities that I think are a little bit overboard, but, to each his own,” Foley said. “I don’t necessarily agree with the concept of an arms race. I always felt that was just a convenient term that people who are not advocates of college athletics put on what we do.
“If the University of Florida wants a new library, is it because Cal Berkeley built one? Of course not. It’s no different when we build a new baseball locker room. We’ve never built a building we don’t need.”
Two years ago, the University of Oregon raised eyebrows when it spent $3.2 million revamping its football locker room into a dazzling, high-tech playpen that includes three, 60-inch plasma TVs and a security scanner keyed to players’ thumbprints.
“They’re creating a brand up there and part of it is this cutting-edge-type stuff,” said Randy Bredar, national director of sports architecture of HNTB, who was the principal in charge of the Oregon project while at another firm. “Is that an example of them participating in an arms race? Or is it the marketing and packaging of a product that you’re putting out there in a competitive environment? Facilities are one way people are looking to differentiate themselves from the competition.”
Athletic directors also point to changes in NCAA rules as a factor. Limits on practice time make the hours that athletes spend on their sport precious. Less time traveling from locker room to training room to practice field means more time together in pads. Putting the academic center near the coaches’ offices makes it easier to make sure players are attending study halls and meeting with tutors.
The NCAA also has tightened limits on contacts between recruiters and high school players, making facilities a more important component in a prospect’s choice of school.
“We’ve spent 10 to 15 years legislating fewer and fewer interactions between coaches and [high school] athletes to the point that the athletes are put in the position of making comparisons and judging your level of commitment based on what they see,” said Pederson, who worked as Nebraska’s recruiting coordinator before moving into athletic administration.
Real needs or overkill?
Recruiting is one of the catalysts driving the football renovation boom. The calendar is another.
“Many of these stadiums were built in the ’20s and have gone decades without a whole lot of improvement,” Bredar said. “So you’re talking about making sure the plumbing works and the electrical is up to code and the stadium is structurally sound.”
Pederson’s predecessor as athletic director at Nebraska, Bill Byrne, said that while much attention was paid to the suites and jumbo screens added to the stadium in the ’90s, the initial decision to renovate was driven by structural erosion and outdated plumbing and electrical systems. He said he’s encountered similar issues since taking over as athletic director at Texas A&M in December 2002.
“When we turn on the electricity at Kyle Field, we have circuit breakers that were installed in 1929 that we’re dealing with,” Byrne said. “I have an 11-page letter from the state fire marshal on my desk that details what has to happen in terms of crowd safety. We have ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] issues that we have to address. We have facilities that have to be brought up to snuff as far as what codes are.
“None of that is an arms race.”
Of course, there are other improvements that have taken the Aggies well beyond code. In 2003, A&M opened the Bright Football Complex, a $27 million facility that follows the model of many others across the country, bringing coaches’ offices, a strength training center, academic center, player lounge and locker room together under one roof.
The complex includes a 6,500-square-foot locker room that the Aggies are quick to point out is the largest in a size-obsessed state, replete with 130 solid oak lockers.
To make sure recruits who are considering visiting A&M pull the trigger, video tours of the plush digs are available for viewing on the Aggies’ Web site, under the aptly titled “A&M Cribs.”
“When you’ve got nice, new things that are out there that are available, and they’re going to help in recruiting,” Byrne said, “you have to consider them.”
In fairness, A&M’s locker room has nothing on the digs of that of its chief rival. The football locker room at the University of Texas comes straight out of Better Homes and Gardens, the feature piece a lighted relief of a Longhorn that looks down from the center of the ceiling, surrounded by clouds.
“I know there’s a lot of discussion about expansion of facilities, but is it really that different from what is happening all over our campuses?” Pederson asked. “I know everybody wants to ask whether this is right or wrong. The reality is, this is the world we live in.
“Do you want to compete? Or do you want to stand on the sidelines and complain?”