A1 A1

Football 'fantasyland': Nebraska's master plan to rebuild Big Red brand, match title contenders

Building a great college football team takes good coaches and players, but big-time programs today say they need something else — more and more dazzling facilities to wow recruits.

Those facilities, like good coaches, come at a high price. The University of Nebraska signaled Friday that it won’t be left out of the competition to give players great locker space, cool meeting rooms, good food and places in which to relax.

NU announced that it will erect a privately funded $155 million facility, including academic support and nutritional programs for athletes in all Husker sports. The plan shows the university’s intention to keep the Clemsons of the college football world within sight.

Today’s wisdom among those who control major college football programs indicates that each wants an outstanding nutrition program and weightlifting area. But they also hope to win over talented high school players with slick amenities.

At some other schools, those include a slide down which a player travels from meeting room to practice field. An in-house barbershop. Putt-putt golf or a golf simulator. A recording studio. A nap area.

NU provided minimal detail about its plans. Work on the 350,000-square-foot complex is scheduled to begin next spring and conclude in summer 2022. The facility will be placed near the northeast corner of Memorial Stadium. Athletic Director Bill Moos said the university is 35% to 40% of the way toward its fundraising goal.

Critics of the nationwide trend abound.

“It’s all about recruiting,” said Gerald Gurney, a faculty member and former senior associate athletic director at the University of Oklahoma. “And the objective is to attract 18-year-old high school players to come to the university because they see essentially a fantasyland.”

If a person stumbled into one of these contemporary football operations centers, Gurney said, he might ask: “Where am I? What in the world does this have to do with education? Is this about higher entertainment or higher education?”

Chuck Neinas, former commissioner of the Big Eight Conference, said that to be near the top, a university has to spend on facilities.

“It’s a reality of life,” Neinas said.

It’s just a fact, he said, that college football is popular and generates a lot of money. “You do have to keep up with the Joneses.”

Gerry DiNardo, a former college head coach and now a commentator for the Big Ten Network, said some college programs have “so much more money now to spend” that it’s logical for them to pump a lot of it into facilities. The Big Ten’s television deal and other contracts in 2017-18 produced more than $50 million for UNL.

UNL spokeswoman Leslie Reed said the profitability of Husker sports benefits academics, too. She said that 2,952 non-athlete students receive scholarships this school year through a $5 million annual infusion from the athletic department.

Husker athletics provides an additional $5 million in annual support for various purposes approved by the chancellor. The Husker athletic department reported $142.2 million in operating revenues in 2017-18 and $135.6 million in operating expenses.

And Husker lovers donate their money to far more than football and sports, including many academic programs at UNL. The university this month announced plans to erect an $85 million engineering building with private money.

UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green said Friday that besides the $155 million project for athletics, $350 million has been or will be directed to academic building projects such as engineering and the newly opened Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts.

Green said after the announcement that his university wants to run with the best both academically and athletically. “We expect to compete athletically. We expect to compete academically,” he said.

Former Husker football coach Tom Osborne said the Huskers probably had some role in the football facilities race. His former strength coach, Boyd Epley, “always wanted to have the biggest weight room,” Osborne said last week. And if another school built a bigger strength room, “that kind of drove him crazy,” the coach recalled.

Osborne said television contracts give many big programs payouts that they never used to enjoy. “You have schools that don’t sell out their stadiums and don’t have fan bases like we or Ohio State or Michigan who are able to build some pretty nice facilities,” he said.

DiNardo, who was the head coach at Vanderbilt, Louisiana State and Indiana, said that historically, the Huskers were among the leaders in facilities. “But I don’t think that’s true right now,” he said.

DiNardo said that among the Big Ten’s 14 schools, the Huskers’ football operations facilities are better only than those at Rutgers, Maryland and Indiana. Operations centers generally include lockers, a weightlifting area, coaches’ offices and many other spaces and perks. Typically, they don’t include the stadium and indoor practice facility.

Northwestern, once the schlock football program of the Big Ten, has turned competitive and last year added $270 million in facilities for all sports, including an indoor practice field. That glass practice facility stands beside Lake Michigan and also affords a view of Chicago’s skyline in the distance.

National college football champion Clemson, in South Carolina, finished its football operations complex in 2017. Besides major features, such as a dining hall and weight room, the center offers a sand volleyball court, outdoor fireplaces and grilling spots, and places for video games, pingpong, billiards and other fun.

Donna Lopiano, president of the consulting firm Sports Management Resources, said the facilities competition has developed gradually, with “continuous upping of the ante” and no restraint.

“And it continues,” Lopiano said last week. In pro sports, she said, a team has player salaries to pay and shareholders or owners who desire a profit. In college football, she said, the player costs are capped at scholarships, and there are no shareholders to appease.

So college football teams can plow their revenues back into coaches’ lofty salaries and sweet facilities. Husker football coach Scott Frost has a seven-year contract for $35 million.

Lopiano said it will take Congress to intervene so that coaches’ salaries can be capped and expenditures controlled. That intervention no doubt would generate controversy. Lopiano said she expects U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala of Florida to submit a bill in the near future calling for a study of how to reform intercollegiate sports.

“We’ve got to clean up the system,” Lopiano said.

Lopiano and others decried the way that major programs keep the pressure on each other to regularly upgrade.

Green said this project will be no short-term advancement. “We expect this to be an investment that is (for) the long haul for the University of Nebraska,” he said.

Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College, said colleges erect cool football buildings “precisely to keep up with the competition.”

The facilities are offered in lieu of high salaries for college players, Zimbalist said. And programs hire well-known coaches so the players anticipate better training and exposure to NFL scouts, he said.

“That’s what the expenditures are all about,” he said.

Gurney, Lopiano and Zimbalist wrote a book published in 2017 titled, “Unwinding Madness: What Went Wrong with College Sports and How to Fix It.”

Some NU regents who attended the event Friday said a strong football team can increase enrollment. That would give UNL more revenue, which would benefit the university as a whole, they said.

“A winning athletic program attracts other students,” Regents Chairman Tim Clare of Lincoln said.

DiNardo said college football is “a cultural thing, it’s an institutional thing.” If a big-time college football program detracts “from the core values of the institution,” he said, that’s a problem. If, for instance, it hurts the academic programs, he said, a school must ask if it’s worth it.

DiNardo said expenditures on buildings, though, are simply part of remaining among college football’s elite programs. “Part of recruiting is who has the best uniforms, who has the best facilities and all that,” he said.

And when a football program is a moneymaker, it helps other sports at the school, he said. “So there’s always a ripple effect.”

NU Regent Rob Schafer of Beatrice said Friday that the new facilities are “another brick in the wall to return the program back to a bygone era when we used to dominate.”

Schafer said he had little question it would benefit Husker football and sports. “It’s like putting a rocket on the back of a racecar and igniting it,” he said.

But Oklahoma’s Gurney said these athletic palaces in an academic setting can teach a bad lesson to everyone, especially the players.

The athletes survey their lovely digs, he said, and know what their assignment is at school. Their role, he said, is to entertain the fans.

Sign up for Big Red Today news alerts

Get a daily Husker news roundup, recruiting updates and breaking news in your inbox.

Other modern football performance centers

Comparing the size and cost of “football complexes” is fraught with convolution. The ongoing nature of new construction, renovation, weight room additions, locker room upgrades and separate indoor practice fields ultimately makes cost and square footage inaccurate measures for any sort of “ranking.” The following is a rundown of facilities from various conferences with information gathered from school websites, local media reports and interviews with athletic department spokespeople.

Other modern football performance centers Nebraska will try to surpass

World-Herald staff writer Henry J. Cordes contributed to this report.

Photos: Nebraska hosts Ohio State

Prosecution and subsequent DNA collection helps solve brutal, decade-old rapes

Prosecutors could have dropped their rape case against 35-year-old Tyron Stapleton.

After all, the child he raped when she was 12 had killed herself while Stapleton’s sexual assault trial was pending.

And the first reaction inside the Douglas County Attorney’s Office was concern: Could they convict Stapleton without the victim’s testimony? Deputy Douglas County Attorney Molly Keane further evaluated the case and determined that prosecutors had enough to move forward.

Turns out, it was fortuitous they pushed on. A jury convicted Stapleton; he was sentenced to 25 to 30 years in prison.

And this month, prosecutors reaped another benefit of that conviction. Upon his arrival at a Nebraska prison, Stapleton was required to submit a DNA swab.

Entered into the state DNA database, the sample turned up a match to the brutal, unsolved, 10-year-old rapes of two Omaha women.

In turn, earlier this month, prosecutors charged Stapleton with two counts of first-degree sexual assault and two counts of robbery of two women in northeast Omaha.

“It just shows how important it is for people to do their job at the state and take DNA upon (a felony) conviction,” Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine said. “The other important thing here is the wherewithal to make sure we obtained the conviction in the first place.

“Now, there will be justice for these two victims from a case that dates back 10 years.”

Sign up for World-Herald news alerts

Be the first to know when news happens. Get the latest breaking headlines sent straight to your inbox.

It is the second major unsolved crime where Omaha police have made an arrest since The World-Herald revealed in 2017 that state officials weren’t requiring felons to submit a DNA sample as required by state law.

The newspaper’s 2017 investigation showed that more than 70 prisoners had refused to submit a DNA sample. For nearly 20 years, if prisoners said they didn’t want to submit their DNA, corrections officials did little to enforce the DNA collection, despite state law and despite judge’s orders that required such collections.

A push by Kleine led state corrections officials to commit to enforcing the law. A few months later, it led to the arrest and conviction of Brandon Weathers in the early 2000s unsolved rapes of at least four women in northeast Omaha.

According to the sworn affidavit of Omaha Police Detective Sarah Spizzirri, Stapleton’s and Weathers’ case have some similarities.

They both have been accused of terrorizing women after break-ins. Weathers broke into homes, cut telephone lines, bound women with duct tape and sexually assaulted them for hours while their children slept in another bedroom.

In the allegations against Stapleton, Spizzirri gave the following account:

After 11 p.m. on May 4, 2009, someone knocked on the door of a home near 48th and Wirt Streets in northeast Omaha.

A then-22-year-old woman answered the door. The man brandished a gun and forced his way past her.

“Where’s your money at?” the gunman barked.

The other woman in the home, then 27, told police that the intruder stole $20 from her dresser.

The man asked the two women where their car keys were. They told him.

He demanded that they unplug the television in the living room and take it toward the car, through the back door.

As the 27-year-old woman carted the TV to the door, the intruder “touched her on the buttocks, then grabbed her by the underwear and pulled her to him,” Spizzirri wrote.

He reached down her pants and molested her, then dropped his own pants.

The intruder ordered the women to disrobe — then, at gunpoint, took turns raping both of them.

He then made them dress and finish carrying the television to a Saturn sedan owned by one of the women. He stole their cellphones, too, and took off in the Saturn.

The two women ran to a neighbor’s house to call 911.

Omaha police arrived and collected evidence from the scene. The two women also went to a hospital to undergo sex assault examinations.

Police booked evidence from both the scene and the sexual assault kits into the Nebraska Medical Center DNA lab.

On June 30, 2009, a Nebraska Medical Center DNA analyst called Spizzirri and told her that they had tested the victims’ underwear and uncovered the DNA profile of an unknown male. At the time, that profile did not match anyone in state or national DNA databases.

Ten years later, on July 23, 2019, Spizzirri received a letter from the Nebraska State Patrol saying that Stapleton’s DNA matched the profile of the unknown intruder 10 years earlier. Confronted by police, Stapleton denied involvement.

In time, authorities allege, Stapleton settled on a different way of forcing himself on females, just as Weathers had. In the years following his rapes of strangers, Weathers had turned to sexually assaulting foster children after he and his wife were approved as foster parents by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

It was his conviction in the repeated sexual assaults of his 13-year-old foster daughter that eventually led to the DNA collection that tied him to the serial rapes 15 years earlier. Weathers, 43, is now serving 210 to 280 years in prison.

Stapleton never officially became a foster father. He just played one in his neighborhood in 2014.

He befriended Sarah — a then-12-year-old neighbor whose mom reeled from addictions to drugs and alcohol. (Sarah is not her real name; The World-Herald doesn’t name victims of sexual abuse, unless they want to be.)

Stapleton saw an opportunity, authorities said. Unemployed, he watched after Sarah and her siblings, befriended her and began grooming her. He talked about his own difficult childhood, later claiming that he had been in “22 foster homes, six group homes, Boys Town and a kiddie prison in South Sioux City.”

Sarah, in turn, told Stapleton that she cut herself. Sometimes, she wanted to kill herself.

“All I want is someone to be concerned about me, to love me, to worry about me,” Stapleton said Sarah told him.

That someone became Stapleton. When Stapleton and his girlfriend failed to pay their utility bills, they moved in with Sarah and her family. Several times in 2014, Stapleton raped the 12-year-old girl while her parents slept and his girlfriend was at work.

Sarah finally broke down and went to her mother in May 2017. In hysterics, she spilled everything. Her mother did little. Two months later, after the children were temporarily removed from their mother’s house, police interviewed Sarah. She told detectives that Stapleton raped her.

“I told him to stop — he kept saying, ‘It’s OK, it’s OK,’ and put his hand over my mouth,” she said in the interview.

Six months after that police interview, Sarah committed suicide. Keane, the prosecutor, scrambled to salvage her case.

Combing through the evidence, Keane found that Stapleton couldn’t shut up. He begged his girlfriend not to leave him, while acknowledging he had sexual contact with Sarah seven times. He told police that Sarah would “follow me around and follow me around and follow me around.”

“It’s more to the story than you guys understand,” Stapleton told a detective. “If I was to come tell you that somebody made a move on me, who’s going to believe me?”

At trial, he took the stand and said that Sarah was the instigator — performing sex acts on him while he slept. Jurors deliberated less than five hours before convicting him of sexually assaulting a child.

Now, Stapleton will be tried for the rapes of two other women.

At his sentencing for Sarah’s rape, Stapleton lamented his conviction — and Sarah’s suicide.

“There’s no punishment you can put on me that’s worse than the one I put on myself,” he said.

Now, there is. If convicted of the four new felonies against him, Stapleton faces another 200 years in prison.

Notable crime news of 2019