Part One: A transcript from an interview with the Star Tribune’s Dennis Brackin and Lou Nanne, chairman of the University of Minnesota’s $190 million athletics fundraising campaign:
Q: Pretend I’m a potential donor. Tell me why this project is important and why I should contribute.
A: I think that everybody has looked at the University of Minnesota and just considered the people that donate to the University of Minnesota are alumni and the university is only involved with the alumni. Realistically speaking the University of Minnesota is the engine that drives the state. Its tentacles reach everybody. There’s nothing else, no corporation, foundation or endowment that can reach everybody like the University of Minnesota.
The University of Minnesota might have a great cancer discovery but not everybody is going to have cancer so it doesn’t hit everybody, but the different departments of the university in some way or the other benefit the whole state. The University of Minnesota is the only research institution we have in the whole state, and we have to start looking at it as the jewel of the state — not just for the alumni. For too long people have taken it for granted and I think that has to change. It’s a transformative institution and we have to do something transformative here to make things better for everybody.
Q: So you’re not just focused on the usual suspects, the alumni? You’re trying to expand the donor base?
A: That’s the first thing I said to my committee: Too often everybody just thinks of, ‘What can we get the alumni to contribute to get this done?’ and I said, ‘The University of Minnesota affects everybody in the state.’ I don’t care if you went to Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Robert Morris, North Dakota State, whatever it is. If you’re living in the state of Minnesota you’re benefiting from the University of Minnesota in some way or the other along the term of your life. I just think we should all be proud of it. It’s just like the Minnesota Vikings, the Twins, the North Stars, the Wild now, the Wolves, every time we have athletic success here many people revel in it. Can you imagine 50,000 people coming here when the Detroit series [in 1987] was won by the Twins and the first time in the World Series, you have 50,000 people just to see them come home? That’s what athletics does. It creates emotions and it touches a lot of people. So you have all the different athletic things that we have here, sports that we have here, that makes it a better place for students to come. If you have better students then you have better faculty, you get better educated people, you get better output from the total university and it makes the whole state benefit from it.
Q: I would imagine it’s easy to get a list of potential alumni donors, but how do you find the people you’re talking about top expand it? How do you know where to go?
A: That’s a great question and that’s why we have the leadership council we have because there are people from different walks of life that all have different circles of friends and business involvement and they lead us to these other potential donors and that’s what we need. We need friends of every walk of life. We need friends that know people and corporations that are potential donors for the University of Minnesota, and with their input and our people at the University of Minnesota, hopefully we’re going to be successful.
Q: Tell me about the leadership council. How is this fundraising organization set-up?
A: Well we have an executive committee which is we have 12-14 on the executive committee and we’re just targeting one or two other people there. Then our leadership group is about 45. So the 12-14 will meet every two months and the leadership council will meet every three months. Then we bring people up to date, we ask them for their ideas, their direction, their knowledge, their contacts, and we go from there.
Q: And you’re the guy at the top of the pyramid?
A: I’m the chairman.
Q: How did you decide to take this job?
A: I didn’t decide, I wasn’t looking to decide on this. The president and the athletic director came to meet with me and told me about the project and asked if I’d be involved. I said, ‘Definitely. I’d certainly love to be on your committee.’ They said, ‘No you have to be the chairman.’ I said, ‘No I want to be in the committee and help.’ And they said, ‘No, we want you as chairman.’ So it wasn’t my first choice but I guess I just got to the point, and this is the most important thing that I think about and that I tell people that are on my committee, I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve said, ‘Enough.’ My grandfather used to have a word where I used to screw around and get in trouble or do things I shouldn’t be doing, he’d say, ‘Basta.’ B-A-S-T-A. That’s the Italian word for enough. Enough. I thought of that when they asked me. I said, ‘You know I’ve had enough.’ I’ve had enough of hearing that the University of Minnesota can’t compete. I’ve had enough of hearing the University of Minnesota can’t recruit. I’ve had enough of hearing all these reasons why other places are going to succeed and we can’t. I guess I’m just fed up with it. I’m frustrated by it. I’m upset about hearing that. I think more than anything I just, maybe it’s my competitive side, more than anything I’ve gone around, had the good fortune to follow the Gopher football team, and I’ve gone to these other places in the Big Ten, and I see these other places in the Big Ten and I say, ‘Why can they do it, and why can’t we?’ There’s no reason why we can’t. That’s where I got myself into this deal.
Q: Where do you think Minnesota ranks in athletic facilities in the Big Ten?
A: Jim Delaney was just in town and met with my leadership council and he told us we’re last, which we knew. I’m not making it up. All you have to do is just travel over there and you see it’s just a joke. It’s ridiculous.
Q: So you’ve personally seen that? Last in the Big Ten?
A: Of course I’ve seen it. I’m embarrassed by it, I’m embarrassed by the fact that we have so much going on in the state of Minnesota and we have great facilities for professional sports — which I love, I’m happy for that — but at the same time I see our students go and study in the hallways of Bierman, they don’t have enough room in the study hall, they’re eating on card tables and training tables, compared to the plush places these other schools have got, I see Northwestern raising $200 million for better facilities now.
I see Texas A&M have Johnny Manziel one year and they raise $550 million. I say, ‘What is this? We’re the state of Minnesota. This is our jewel.’
Q: So how did this happen? It didn’t happen overnight.
A: It was complacency. For too long, too often, we just take things as they are and no one really focused on the fact that we were falling behind. We just took things for granted and people don’t’ really realize when you’re successful in athletics you raise more money for academics. It’s not only you need less for the state, the state contributes to the state of Minnesota and we get a trickledown effect and that’s been cut way back,. But it’s not only that we raise money for, if you look at the money raised by successful athletic teams at their university you see a direct correlation in the increase in donations for the whole university. It’s mind boggling what happens.
Q: But there are going to be people that touch on your main point that we’ve competed in non-rev sports for years and in a lot of sports the key is the coach, not facilities. Why do we need it now?
A: Non-rev sports, first of all non-rev sports are not going to drive the university. They’re not going to be able to exist if this continues. People cut sports, Wisconsin cut baseball. Non-rev sports are always in jeopardy of being cut as things get tighter and tighter. We want to get to the position where we maintain what we’ve got in non-rev sports and continue to compete. But that’s not what drives, you can talk about competing in non-rev sports, that’s why they are, non-rev sports it doesn’t generate any income, unfortunately. Football, I’m a hockey guy but I’m not an idiot, I love hockey but I know football is the most important athletic team at the University of Minnesota. The more successful they are the more successful we are.
Q: Would that be your philosophy? It has to be the revenue [sports] that are the priority?
A: Yeah it is. Well that’s exactly, that’s what allows these other sports to exist. There’s no doubt about it. And it’s football more than basketball and more than hockey.
Q: So is the priority getting football what they need first?
A: Well no, that’s not just the priority, that’s part of the whole picture. The priority is upgrading all the facilities for everybody, but we’re talking not just football practice field, we’re talking places where these kids can study, where these players can have training tables, where they can eat, that’s for everybody. It’s just this is the overall plan that has never been addressed and it’s time to address it.
Q: And this plan does that?
A: Yes this plan does that.
Q: What if I’m a wrestling guy and I hear what you’re saying about football but what’s important for me is getting that locker room for wrestling, or getting the new track. How do I know that is going to get done?
A: Well you can earmark your money for a specific sport.
Q: You can?
A: Yeah you can, we can do that, but you have to raise enough to get the project done. But this is the problem we’ve had and there has been too much thinking of — I’m a hockey guy, but the money I’m donating now is not for hockey. Hockey needs to upgrade its dressing room, it’s over 20 years old, it’s still a great arena but you tore down the Metrodome, it was  years old, you have to improve things, but I know the overall plan addresses everything so I contribute to the overall plan.
Q: So you would encourage people to do that?
A: Yeah because we’re not trying to piecemeal this and say that we’re only going to get this done and not this. This plan is for everybody.
Q: What if you only get to $120 million? Then is it only just for football, basketball, hockey?
A: You know if you have a goal and you don’t reach it, I don’t think you quit. You keep trying to get there. There’s an overall plan. One of the earliest things in this was the facilities to study and have training table, that’s for everybody. But I’m not going into this thinking what if we only get there, this is the kind of thing we’ve had too long, ‘What if we can only do this?’ I’m not sitting here to do only this. I’m sitting here to get this thing done.
Q: What’s your timeframe?
A: There is no timeframe. We’re just going to keep working. It’s not like the movie goes at 6 o’clock and a new show starts.
Q: You and Teague must have some timeframes in mind — where you’d like to be in a year, in two years.
A: No. I want to get it done tomorrow, can you help me? That’s it. I mean this is something we want to get going and get started and get done. I think it’s like a train rolling down the track. The faster we get something started and going, the more momentum we get, the more people we get on board, the more likely we are to succeed.
Q: You don’t have to have the whole $190 million before you start the priority list?
Q: You can break ground on some projects if, say, you get $50 million and then keep raising funds?
A: Right, yeah.