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