IOWA CITY — Minnesota ran out of ammunition in the Big Ten’s facility arms race this summer, and football coach Jerry Kill is tired of it.
While hosting a recruit on a visit, Kill received the news no coach wants to hear: the player picked a different school. But it had nothing to do with Kill. It had everything to do with the Gophers’ football complex.
“‘Coach, I love you. Your camaraderie on your staff, longevity, I love everything about you, love the school,” Kill recalled the conversation. “But this other school, they’ve got all this stuff.’ That’s how kids are.
“It would be like you saying you want to go — I don’t want to use hotel names — but you’ve got a chance to stay at the Carlton-Ritz or stay at a lower-level hotel for the same amount of cost for each of them.”
Minnesota boasts a 4-year-old $288.5 million stadium with terrific amenities. As part of a two-year lease agreement, the Vikings will spend $4.5 million in upgrades by the 2014 season. But the Gophers’ football complex was built in 1985 for $5 million and is considered perhaps the league’s worst practice facility. The program has lost recruits to its major rivals, and each day it falls further behind.
Every other Big Ten school has been in Minnesota’s situation over the last dozen years, and nearly all have rectified their stadium or practice facility woes. Since 2001, Big Ten schools have spent more than $1.56 billion on football facility upgrades. Some of the upgrades were deemed vital, such as Iowa’s $89 million stadium renovation that reformed seating in a crumbling south end zone. Others have cosmetic value. But nearly all are designed to give the program an edge — or at least keep up — in recruiting.
“There’s some extreme examples unveiled, as you know,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It continues to be an arms race, more so in college football with recruiting. It’s just critical. It’s really not a new discussion. If you go back 50 years ago, kids were interested in what the facilities were, but the price tag certainly has changed and the extent has grown.”
Nine of the Big Ten’s 12 stadiums were built in the 1920s. Most have undergone significant and necessary renovations but the structure remains intact. Michigan Stadium was built in 1927 and reconstructed for $226 million in 2010. In 2001, Ohio State expanded its 91-year-old stadium to around 103,000 seats costing $194 million. Wisconsin’s 96-year-old Camp Randall Stadium, the league’s oldest facility, was renovated in 2005 for $109.5 million.
Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta referenced the 1920s construction spike when relating to the current building boom. The current batch of facility improvements coincides with increased television revenue. Ten years ago, when Iowa was raising funds for the Kinnick Stadium project, the school received $10.4 million from the Big Ten. This year, the school expects to receive $25.4 million from the league.
“We went in a long period through the 70s, through the recession where there wasn’t a lot of building being done,” Barta said. “Then fast forward to a new influx of revenue, a lot of it related to television, and what you’re seeing is the results of that.
“I think if you look at the big picture, look at the broad spectrum of time, it’s not unusual. But if you live through it right now, it is pretty amazing.”
It’s not over, either. The second phase of Iowa’s $55 million football facility should be completed by next summer. Wisconsin has plans for an $86 million football performance center and has raised $19 million of $25 million goal.
Both schools tout the necessity to keep up with their neighbors. Ferentz referenced the program had fallen behind, partly because the school needed to address the stadium first, Barta said. But neither Iowa nor Wisconsin officials are demanding anything excessive, either.
“One thing is for sure: we have not talked about wood panel floors in our weight room,” Ferentz said. “We don’t have them in our garage at home, either. The work rooms are … we want it to look like a work room and feel like a work room. I think that is important. Players need to understand, ‘Hey, we’re here to get something accomplished.’”
Other schools have made plans to catch up. Northwestern labels its new $220 million athletics project “Game Changer.” Much of the new complex is geared toward football. The facilities will return the sport to the main Evanston campus and overlook Lake Michigan.
“We’ve seen great momentum with that in the recruiting process,” Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I don’t know how many teleconferences I’ve been on with our architect team. It’s kind of cool for me. I’ve only bought spec homes so I don’t really care what the urinal looks like, you know what I mean? I guess it’s important for recruiting.”
Minnesota Athletics Director Norwood Teague unveiled a plan for $190 million in improvements at the schools’ Board of Regents meeting in July. In his presentation Teague outlined the need for a facilities upgrade, writing “Most Big Ten competitors are far ahead in quality of these facilities.” Fundraising will last 6-8 years and the football portion includes an indoor practice facility, two outdoor football fields, offices, a weight room and training table. A new basketball facility and accompanying Olympic sports complex also are a part of the proposal.
“These are needs,” Teague told the Regents, who gave the athletics department permission to proceed.
“I told him he needed to get a shovel in the dirt before we started camp,” Kill said. “I know I’m very aggressive. I think he called me a pit bull. So I’ve been a pit bull since I’ve been there. But they need to get things going. Time is essential in life. We don’t need to waste any getting it done.”
Once Iowa, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Minnesota finish their projects, their Big Ten competitors and newcomers are on deck. Rutgers has a 3-year-old stadium. Maryland has spent $61 million on its stadium and practice facility in the last nine years.
So who’s next? It’s just a matter of time, Ferentz said.
“It just seems to be the nature of collegiate sports,” he said. “As long as there’s an appetite for it, I’m sure the money will keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”
BIG TEN BUILDING BOOM
A look at the price tags and dates of football stadium and facility renovations since 2001
Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium (1929)
$89 million stadium renovation (2006)
$55 million practice facility (2012-14)
Illinois’ Memorial Stadium (1923)
$121 million stadium renovation and practice facility (2008)
Indiana’s Memorial Stadium (1960)
$30.525 million stadium renovation and practice facility (2007-2009)
Michigan’s Michigan Stadium (1927)
$226 million stadium renovation (2010)
$26.1 million practice facility (2009)
Michigan State’s Spartan Stadium (1923)
$64 million stadium renovation (2005)
$34.5 million stadium renovation (2011-12)
$17 million practice facility ((2008)
Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium (2009)
$288.5 million new stadium (2009)
$190 million football/other sports improvements (approved)
Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium (1923)
$50 million stadium renovation and practice facility (2006)
$63.5 million stadium renovation (2013)
Northwestern’s Ryan Field (1926)
$220 million stadium/football/other sports improvements (approved)
Ohio State’s Ohio Stadium (1922)
$194 million stadium renovation (2001)
$19.5 million practice facility (2006)
Penn State’s Beaver Stadium (1960)
$93 million stadium renovation (2001)
$1.5 million practice facility (2012)
Purdue’s Ross-Ade Stadium (1924)
$70 million stadium renovation (2003)
Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium (1917)
$109.5 million stadium renovation (2005)
$86 million practice facility (approved)