Big Red Business: The new arms race
One of the crown jewels of Nebraska athletics is getting shinier-- thanks to a facilities facelift and a hoped-for achievement of an important milestone this fall.
You can’t see the Dick and Peg Herman Family Student Life Complex from field level in Memorial Stadium nor is the facility a household name for fans. But, day in and day out, it is one of most heavily utilized areas of Nebraska’s athletic department, and a key tool in the hotly competitive recruiting battleground.
The student life complex, home to the athletic department’s academic support services, has enriched the lives of thousands of athletes since it opened in 2010.
This year, more than 600 student-athletes from 22 men’s and women’s sports will spend time in the complex each day during the season and throughout the school year for tutoring, counseling, and other academic needs. The complex also houses the Lewis Training Table and Life Skills program.
Tucked in the west side of Memorial Stadium on the ground level, the academic support center is about to undergo a $1.3 million makeover that will eliminate a no-longer-needed computer room and add study rooms and new furniture, said Dennis Leblanc, the executive associate athletic director for academics.
Nothing lavish, Leblanc said in an interview with HuskerOnline about the project, which is scheduled to be completed by August 2019. Rather, the upgrade is designed to be “functional,” to make better use of space and to keep up with changing needs of student-athletes, he said.
“We’ve always stayed with the philosophy of being nice but be effective,” said Leblanc regarding the student life complex. More important, he added, is “being able to show our report card.”
And what a report card it is. Nebraska has been the long-established leader in academic honors, which includes 333 Academic All-Americans - the most of any school in the country.
A new benchmark should come this fall: The overall graduation rate among Nebraska student-athletes in all sports is expected to hit 90 percent, Leblanc said. That’s above the NCAA national average of 87 percent for Division I schools, and among the best in the Big Ten conference.
Northwestern has the highest student-athlete graduation rate in the conference, with 97 percent, based on fall 2017 data. The other schools at 90 percent and above are Minnesota, Iowa, Penn State, and Michigan.
“We’ve gone from 86 percent to 88 to 89, and now (hopefully) 90, and we’re looking to drive that up higher over the next couple of years,” Leblanc said.
And no doubt about it, Leblanc said, recruits and their parents hear those numbers.
Academic support facilities -- along with athlete training tables -- are the trendy new weapons in the arms race in college athletics.
More schools are either adding lavish academic facilities or expanding existing ones solely for athletes. The roster includes Penn State, LSU, Northwestern, Iowa, Oregon and Louisville.
According to the various news accounts, all 100-plus major college athletic programs boast some sort of formal academic support structure.
At what cost?
While current numbers are hard to find, a decade-old report published in the New York Times noted that Division I programs spend more than $150 million a year on these services. Undoubtedly, that multiplier effect has grown significantly.
Athletic programs use academic facilities to recruit along with strength and conditioning, coaches, and win-loss records.
Without study support programs, administrators contend, athletes’ grades can slip, risking scholarships and threatening their time to compete in games.
“One of the fastest growing areas in most athletics departments across the country, from a facilities and personnel perspective, is in the academics or student services areas,” said Bob Vecchione, executive director of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics.
“Athletics administrators have historically prioritized student-athlete welfare and now the prospective student-athletes themselves are becoming acutely aware of the value added academic component and the need to compete in the classroom in order to prepare for that all-important next chapter in their life.”
That next chapter? It’s called “life after athletics,” said Vecchione.
In the Big Ten conference, Northwestern, Penn State and Iowa have recently poured money into new or existing student-athlete facilities that include academic centers.
Northwestern recently dedicated its $270 million Ryan Fieldhouse and Walters Athletic Center complex on the shores of Lake Michigan. Iowa spent $6.3 million to upgrade its Gerdin Athletic Learning Center, which is equipped with learning spaces for athletes, tutorial labs, and computer labs.
Penn State opened its Morgan Academic Support Center for Student-Athletes in 2016 in a renovated ice arena. The facility, built to benefit about 800 athletes, consolidated four academic sites across the Happy Valley campus and is equipped with computer labs, meeting rooms, classrooms and other necessities.
Michigan could be next. According to Leblanc, athletic department officials recently toured Nebraska’s facilities in the west stadium to get a sense of what could be included on their campus.
'Not like Texas'
Leblanc is watching all the spending, but does not seem envious of all the dollars pouring into rivals’ building coffers.
Nebraska, which began providing academic support specifically for athletes decades ago, moved into the Dick and Peg Herman complex in 2010. About 31,000 square feet of what used to be weight room space is devoted to academic support.
“We’re not like a Texas where everything has to be the biggest, the newest and the brightest,” Leblanc said. “We aim to be more efficient and effective.”
The Herman student life complex is situated between the Lewis Training Table dining facility and the football locker room. Leblanc has a 50-yard line view of athletes’ comings and goings from his glass-enclosed office.
“You can only dodge me for awhile,” he quipped.
Leblanc said the overall layout and design of the support services in the west stadium are conveniently geared to athletes so they can get to study rooms, locker rooms, the weight room and dining facilities “within a minute, which is important when you have athletes on tight schedules.”
The revamping of the academics area includes taking out the computer lab, which is not needed anymore because the athletic department provides Apple MacBooks to all scholarship and walk-on student-athletes. Some office space is being rearranged along with more study areas, and the multipurpose room -- where larger group meetings are held -- will have more elbow room.
The Lewis Training Table -- the heart of the nutrition program -- is receiving $575,000 in upgrades with new carpeting and furniture. But the bigger story there is the recent hiring of Dave Ellis as director of performance nutrition.
Expect more changes and upgrades in the nutrition program, based on Ellis’ comments recently to HuskerOnline’s Sean Callahan.
The ultimate goal
Nebraska will spend about $1.7 million this year on academic services, said Leblanc. That’s up from $1.2 million in 2011-2012.
Leblanc works with 14 full-time staff members, and a 15th position will be added this year. In addition, from 70 to 90 individuals work in the department’s tutorial program, including graduate students, retired teachers, business professionals, and undergraduates.
The department’s number one goal, said Leblanc, is helping student-athletes graduate. That includes helping athletes “figure out what they’re good at” outside of the stadium, the arena, or ball field.
To Leblanc, hitting the 90 percent target is more significant than boosting the average overall student-athlete grade point average from 3.098 in 2010 to this past spring’s 3.240.
Leblanc and his staff developed a strategy on how to reach 90 percent. Among other things, the plans involved:
*Providing proactive academic support, including tutoring, mentoring, learning specialists, monitoring academic progress and coordinating with campus resources and advising departments.
*Involving coaches in academic “support plans” for student-athletes.
*Providing full scholarships to athletes after they’ve exhausted playing eligibility requirements.
*Focusing on athletes in their fifth or sixth years of enrollment to monitor graduation status.
*Communicating with professional athletes who have exhausted eligibility but have not graduated to try to develop plans to graduate within six years.
*Educating coaches about “graduation success rate” formulas for student-athletes and how various situations will impact that rate.
The NCAA touts that graduation is the “ultimate goal of the college experience.” Toward that end, the association has closely monitored student-athlete graduation rates for more than two decades.
All colleges and universities are required by the NCAA and federal laws to report student graduation rates, and those with sports programs must separate out student-athlete statistics.
If there is a magic number, it’s 87 percent, which represents the national average graduation rate among athletes at Division I schools. Nebraska is ahead of the curve.
“When you combine our graduation rate and some of our other numbers,” Leblanc said, “what’s happening at Nebraska is working.”
Steve Rosen covers the business of sports for HuskerOnline.com. Questions, comments, story ideas? Reach Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org.