Published Saturday, January 19, 2013 at 10:00 pm / Updated at 7:55 pm
BASKETBALL
Shatel: Decade of prosperity at CU came grudgingly

Ten years later, it all seems natural.

Creighton ranks sixth in the nation in college basketball attendance, behind Kentucky, Louisville, Syracuse, North Carolina and Indiana — and ahead of Kansas.

The Jays bring in $4 million a year alone from their booster club, the Jaybackers.

They reportedly pay their head basketball coach in the neighborhood of $1 million annually, total package.

The campus off downtown now sprawls east, with a soccer stadium, a women's sports facility, a health and sports center and a new basketball facility going up next year.

Largely because of these things, Creighton is being mentioned to join a conference with DePaul, Marquette, Georgetown and other Catholic institutions.

Creighton basketball is now an Omaha sports franchise, and a national success story.

And to think, Creighton's board of directors voted it all down. Twice.

Imagine Creighton still playing in the Civic Auditorium. Imagine neither Dana Altman nor Greg McDermott coaching at CU. Imagine Athletic Director Bruce Rasmussen, the man whose name is on the health and sports center, having left town a long time ago. Imagine no new sports facilities on campus.

Lucky for CU that Rasmussen made a third run at the board to get it to approve a move to the brand new, 17,000-seat Qwest Center Omaha. The third time was the charm. Ten years ago this winter, CU signed the contract to change its history.

The Qwest Center, now the CenturyLink Center, has changed Omaha. It transformed Creighton in this town, too.

Who knew? Nobody, not even Rasmussen, who doubled down on Creighton's future and his own career.

“It was pretty well understood that if it didn't work out, I was gone,” Rasmussen said.

It's a fascinating tale. And it starts in the late 1990s, when the concept of the Qwest Center was being debated in Omaha.

The issue was split in the city, between an old-school guard who pointed out that the Civic had just been renovated and would be good enough, and the crowd who envisioned the city growing into something bigger.

Rasmussen and Altman were in the latter crowd. Even though the Jays couldn't sell out the Civic, they were convinced the program needed to make the move. Building an on-campus arena was not an option; Rasmussen said the school considered the Civic its on-campus arena.

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“Dana at that time could have run for mayor and won,” Rasmussen said. “The reality, for me, was we got Dana here with the vision that we were going to be a nationally-relevant basketball program on a regular basis.

“That meant coaching salaries, facilities, budgets, etc. We didn't feel we could (recruit) if you drive by the best facility in town to go to yours.”

The first time Rasmussen approached President Michael Morrison and the board with the proposal, he told them Altman would not stay at Creighton if they didn't make the move, and if they couldn't keep coaches like Altman, Rasmussen wasn't going to be around, either.

But Morrison and the board didn't exactly share their vision. During this time, CU was in the middle of a run of five straight NCAA tournament appearances. During that run, CU had gone from 3,000 season ticket holders in 1999 to 5,200 in 2003. And that was for the 29-5 team led by senior Kyle Korver, one of the most popular Jays teams ever.

At that point, it was hard to imagine CU hoops getting better or bigger than 5,200 season tickets. Or how that would look in a 17,000-seat arena that wouldn't be cheap rent.

“There was a real debate at Creighton,” Rasmussen said. “For the first time, ever, we had some sellouts at the Civic. Why would we go into a new arena and have two-thirds of it empty, and lose the atmosphere, share dates with UNO, when we could have the Civic at a lot lesser price?

“The Jesuits are fiscally conservative, which would be a complimentary thing to say. To say the Jesuits were excited about us moving into the new arena would be a misstatement. We dragged them into it reluctantly. Certainly, there was a huge exposure. If we went into the new arena and started drawing 5,000 fans a game, the athletic department, in a lot of ways, was going to have some real financial issues.”

Omaha voters approved the building. But the Creighton board was less convinced. It rejected Rasmussen's first attempt, saying it didn't want to put the university at risk.

Months later, he made another pitch. The board sent him back again, saying it didn't believe his numbers.

Then, Rasmussen had an idea.

He needed an insurance policy, a cushion to soften the blow if the move didn't go well early. He looked into new arenas at Xavier, Marquette and Saint Louis, and saw they had a spike in attendance for one year, but then leveled off or dropped.

Rasmussen went to his Jaybackers. Their annual payment was due on Sept. 1. He proposed that they make the following year's payment on July 1, or two payments in one year. Rasmussen would use that money, $600,000, as a reserve fund to help CU in case it lost money initially at the Qwest Center.

“I figured we had a one-time opportunity,” Rasmussen said. “We needed some money. The board would not go all-in because of the financial risk.”

Rasmussen also hired a marketing director, Mike West, who had built up the Cox Classic golf tournament. West's job was to create a big-event atmosphere in the larger arena. Rasmussen then went back to the board one more time, armed with a reserve fund and a young, energetic marketing man.

“The board said we'll give you three years,” Rasmussen said. “If it doesn't work out, we're moving back (to the Civic).

“I told Mike (West), we have three years. If it doesn't work, we're all gone.”

Rasmussen then did something else that had some questioning his sanity. The contract with MECA called for club-level seats to be sold to patrons for a package of CU hoops, UNO hockey and concerts. Rasmussen said that wasn't acceptable. Instead, CU bought the club-level seats from MECA and sold them to its fans. Same with the parking garage for CU events. The idea was to produce more revenue. Another gamble.

It all worked. Rasmussen won. And then some.

He said CU needed 7,000 season tickets (up from 5,200) in 2003-04 to break even in the new building. CU sold 8,921, and many fans bought them without being able to see their finished seats.

MECA was so skeptical of CU's ability to draw that it had plans to put a curtain around the upper deck and just use the lower bowl for Jays games. Creighton averaged 12,016 that first year. It wasn't a fluke.

In the first nine seasons at the building, CU averaged 14,453 fans per game. Last week, Creighton surpassed the 200,000-fan mark for this season, the sixth time the school has done that. No Missouri Valley school has ever done that once.

It's a phenomenon, to be sure. A Valley school with good tradition, playing to large crowds in an NBA-sized arena. Des Moines built the Wells Fargo Arena, but Drake wouldn't think of playing its games there. Wichita built Intrust Bank Arena, but Wichita State recently renovated its on-campus arena, Koch Arena. What Creighton has done has not become a trend.

Maybe because nobody can still believe it's happening. Believe it.

There are still lots of people who say it's the beer sales. That's an old argument. And it's wrong. Creighton sold beer back at the Civic, when there were 2,000 people in the stands and no lines at the beer line.

“The product was a reason,” Rasmussen said. “Mike West was a reason. But the Qwest Center was really the star. When they built it, they did it right. And Roger Dixon (and MECA) do an outstanding job of running it.

“When I came to Creighton and Dana came to Creighton, the perception was we were doctors, lawyers and dentists. We weren't Omaha's team. When I became A.D., my presentation to the board was, I had seen private schools become successful, but they had to be that community's team. DePaul was Chicago's team. Marquette was Milwaukee's team. We had to become Omaha's team.

“To do that, we needed a building that set us apart and a coaching staff that set us apart.”

Creighton hitched itself to the right wagon. The CenturyLink Center has been wildly popular, and brought big-time sporting events and concerts to Omaha annually. It's changed the way Omaha looks at itself.

Same with Creighton. It's hard to recognize the campus from pre-Qwest Center. And, Rasmussen noted, the corporate commitment in the arena spilled over into Creighton's capital campaign, thanks in part to the impact of Jays' basketball in the new building.

“I think Creighton could have had a successful capital campaign, but I don't think it could have encompassed all that it did (campus expansion) without the Qwest Center (and those corporate partners),” Rasmussen said. “And now the leadership of Creighton has invested and reinvested in the (athletic) program.”

Rasmussen is quick to note that he wasn't alone in this vision. He says there were members of the board who supported him, Father John Schlegel (president of CU in 2003) and others on campus.

And he's quick to credit the city of Omaha, from the big money to the little guy, and the attitude of giving back and getting behind things that raise the quality of life in the city.

That's true. But 10 years ago, somebody had to open the door, somebody had to sell the dream, put everything at risk.

It's an anniversary worth celebrating.

Contact the writer:

402-444-1025, tom.shatel@owh.com, twitter.com/tomshatelOWH

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel

tom.shatel@owh.com    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.

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