Gophers football team says, ‘If we build it …’

Tim Klobuchar

Gophers football recruits from outside Minnesota, who have the misfortune of visiting the school during the winter, tend to have one reaction when they first step off the plane: brrr.
Elk River native Zach VeVea knows the state’s weather all too well, so the highly recruited tight end was able to excuse that when he was picking a school. VeVea’s rude awakening came when he toured the Gibson-NagurskiFootball Complex, which stirred up a different negative reaction: blah.
“It really did bother me,” VeVea said. “They’re just not up to par.”
In the mad dash to stay competitive with each other, every Big Ten school has built or renovated a football-only facility since the construction of Gibson-Nagurski (see graphic). So now, Gibson-Nagurski lags behind nearly every other Big Ten football facility. University officials and coaches have known this for years, but couldn’t do anything about it because of a $2 million operating deficit in the University men’s athletics department.
The department has been out of the red for two years now, and along with new head coach Glen Mason, is planning about $4 million of renovations to the complex. Men’s athletics director Mark Dienhart said the University will start a fund-raising effort and hope most of the money will come from private funds. The rest would come out of the department’s budget.
The complex is still relatively young, functional and attractive to recruits who haven’t seen many other Division I facilities.
“They looked good,” said Akeem Akinwale, an offensive lineman who didn’t visit any other Big Ten schools.
But well-traveled recruits like VeVea have seen the newer, bigger and fancier buildings in the Big Ten. From the hot whirlpool at Wisconsin to the barely-above-freezing pool at Iowa, other conference schools have Minnesota beat in terms of perks.
“That’s a big drawback at the U,” VeVea said. “The facilities just don’t compare to other Big Ten schools.”
Nothing has been finalized yet, but some improvements that are likely to be made include new carpeting and equipment in coaching offices, new lighting, improved locker rooms, and moving the weight room, which would allow for meeting rooms for each position on offense and defense.
The most expensive changes would be the installation of air conditioning in the locker rooms, and the building of a glass entrance, which would house a Gophers football hall of fame.
“There’s a commitment that’s been made to get this stuff done,” Dienhart said. “I don’t know exactly how everything will play out, but what we will do is make these improvements, and we will do them over a short period of time.”
If it seems like Minnesota is taking a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses approach to football facilities, that’s because they are. Virtually every other Big Ten team has more impressive facilities than Minnesota, which is a big recruiting edge. Dienhart and Mason feel that, in order to win, the school has to narrow that gap.
Take the hall of fame idea. Dienhart said the displaying of Heisman trophies and national championship trophies will remind recruits of Gophers football tradition. But Minnesota wouldn’t exactly be the first school to build such a structure.
“It’s the same thing a couple of other schools in the Big Ten are doing right now,” Dienhart said. “So what we’re trying to do is keep pace with that.”
Mason tried to convince VeVea of the Gophers’ willingness to keep up with other schools when he was recruiting him over Christmas break. After VeVea expressed his disappointment with Minnesota’s facilities, Mason asked him what improvements could be made.
“He asked my advice,” VeVea said. “That really impressed me.”
Mason also arranged for VeVea to have a meeting with Dienhart and associate men’s athletics director Jeff Schemmel, saying VeVea should also tell them what he thinks could be done to improve the facilities. VeVea eventually gave a verbal commitment to the Gophers.
Both Dienhart and VeVea mentioned the weather as one hindrance to recruiting. Another is the Gophers recent tradition of football futility. The weather and the past can’t be changed, but the facilities can. That’s why Mason thinks this issue is so important to recruiting, and eventually, winning.
“You want to have a visible showing of total commitment to having the best program you can possibly have,” Mason said. “It’s one thing to say you’ve got the best facilities. It’s another thing for the people you’re recruiting to say, ‘They’ve got the best facilities.'”