Supporting the $190 million facilities improvement plan

If anyone can understand what the University of Minnesota athletics department is trying to achieve with its facilities improvement plan, it is a University of Wisconsin graduate over the age of 40. Winning the Rose Bowl in 1994 not only changed our football program, but also impacted admissions, donations and Wisconsin’s brand.

By the late 1980s, the school’s athletic program had a multimillion-dollar deficit, decaying facilities, a struggling football team and eroding fan support. University Chancellor Donna Shalala felt strongly that Wisconsin could complement its academic prowess with athletic excellence.

Athletic Director Pat Richter hired Barry Alvarez as football coach and gave him the support to build a winning program. Alvarez delivered the victories and the donations followed. Richter later hired Bo Ryan as basketball coach and created one of the more successful collegiate athletic departments in the country.

As a student, I experienced Wisconsin’s now-historic transformation firsthand. Concurrently, I had a front-row seat to my mother’s 25-year career leading the University of Minnesota Alumni Association. It was a testament to the power of people passionately working together towards common goals. The McNamara Alumni Center, Scholars Walk and TCF Bank Stadium wouldn’t be here without support from donors and volunteers.

Yes, I am a Badger who also roots for the Gophers. It’s my experience with both schools that drives my support of Norwood Teague’s vision for Minnesota.

Arguably, the primary form of mass media advertising by academic institutions is through athletics. With widespread television exposure and sizeable budgets, sports carry a huge responsibility to represent the best of a university because it is often the only connection someone might have to their alma mater.

As President Eric Kaler noted upon Teague’s hiring, “For many Minnesotans and our half-million alumni, Gopher Athletics and our facilities serve as a front door to the U. Norwood clearly understands that and is prepared to take Gopher athletics to greater success.”

Thankfully, Kaler and Teague are aligned in connecting college athletics to the academic and leadership development missions of the University.

At Teague’s facilities presentation to the Board of Regents, he noted that graduation rates are the highest they’ve ever been and that the University has also improved its Academic Progress Rate, which tracks eligibility and retention of college athletes.

As long as a university’s leadership team does not support a win-at-all-costs mentality, the marriage of athletics and academics need not be an adversarial one. It also doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive, and there are many successful examples across the country.

The “halo effect” from a winning athletic program — particularly football and basketball — can impact an entire university. That includes intangibles, such as school spirit, pride and loyalty, to measurable components like admissions, donations and national brand recognition. If you don’t care for Wisconsin, just ask the folks at Butler University, Virginia Commonwealth University and Kansas State University.

In putting an institution on the map, it shines a light in all directions: the University’s distinguished Nobel laureates, Lindsay Whalen, Honeycrisp apples, the world’s first interdisciplinary stem cell research institute, John Anderson’s baseball team and the marching band, to name just a few.

While students go to college to study and learn, much of that knowledge is from experiences outside the classroom. For many, athletics provide some of the most noteworthy memories. It’s also a big reason to come back to campus and stay engaged with the broader university.

Whether you’re a graduate of the 1960s, 1990s or 2013, the connection of what it means to be a Gopher is timeless.

The team in the University athletics department has shown that they aren’t afraid of dreaming big. As a Badger who loves the Gophers, I sure hope this one comes true.