Transcript from interview with Star Tribune’s Dennis Brackin and Lou Nanne, chairman of the University of Minnesota’s $190 million athletics fundraising campaign:
STAR TRIBUNE: Pretend I’m a potential donor. Tell me why this project is important and why I should contribute.
Nanne: 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.
STAR TRIBUNE: So you’re not just focused on the usual suspects, the alumni? You’re trying to expand the donor base?
Nanne: 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.
STAR TRIBUNE: 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?
Nanne: 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.
STAR TRIBUNE: Tell me about the leadership council. How is this fundraising organization set-up?
Nanne: 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.
STAR TRIBUNE: And you’re the guy at the top of the pyramid?
Nanne: I’m the chairman.
STAR TRIBUNE: How did you decide to take this job?
Nanne: 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.
STAR TRIBUNE: Where do you think Minnesota ranks in athletic facilities in the Big Ten?
Nanne: 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.
STAR TRIBUNE: So you’ve personally seen that? Last in the Big Ten?
Nanne: 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.’
STAR TRIBUNE: So how did this happen? It didn’t happen overnight.
Nanne: 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.
STAR TRIBUNE: 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?
Nanne: 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.
STAR TRIBUNE: Would that be your philosophy? It has to be the revenue [sports] that are the priority?
Nanne: 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.
STAR TRIBUNE: So is the priority getting football what they need first?
Nanne: 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.
STAR TRIBUNE: And this plan does that?
Nanne: Yes this plan does that.
STAR TRIBUNE: 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?
Nanne: Well you can earmark your money for a specific sport.
STAR TRIBUNE: You can?
Nanne: 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.
STAR TRIBUNE: So you would encourage people to do that?
Nanne: 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.
STAR TRIBUNE: What if you only get to $120 million? Then is it only just for football, basketball, hockey?
Nanne: 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.
STAR TRIBUNE: What’s your timeframe?
Nanne: 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.
STAR TRIBUNE: You and Teague must have some timeframes in mind — where you’d like to be in a year, in two years.
Nanne: 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.
STAR TRIBUNE: You don’t have to have the whole $190 million before you start the priority list?
STAR TRIBUNE: You can break ground on some projects if, say, you get $50 million and then keep raising funds?
Nanne: Right, yeah.
STAR TRIBUNE: You touched on hockey locker rooms and that touches on the arms race idea in college sports, you have to keep up with Michigan, you have to keep up with Wisconsin, so people are going to say, ‘Why does every sport need the best locker room?’
Nanne: First of all it’s not that we need the best. Secondly, do you buy a house and not paint it after 10 years or whatever? Do you not refurbish your home? I don’t know about you, but I know I do. And I know most people, if they have the wherewithal to do it, they improve their homes after they’ve been living in it 15-20-30 years. I don’t know that you just build a house and never put another dollar into it. That’s something I’ve never seen. I’m sure it happens someplace but I think if you have the opportunity, I would like to think you try to improve it and not let it fall behind.
STAR TRIBUNE: There are prominent people who say that money is out of control in major college athletics, and will be the death of major sports. What’s your reaction to that?
Nanne: Well first of all I have to tell you one thing, they have been saying that for 20, 40 years, it doesn’t change. Everything goes up. When I first came here to school at Minnesota I think chocolate bars were five cents, they’re not five cents anymore. They said, ‘How can you charge that much for a chocolate bar?’ Well they’re probably $1.50 now or $2 depending on what you’re buying, and we still buy it. You don’t compete in the league and not give your athletes the opportunity to win. That doesn’t mean, and we are never going to be at the top of the spectrum for facilities and you know coaching salaries, etcetera. We’re not going to be at the top, we know that. We don’t have 100,000 seat stadiums like Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, so we’re never going to have as much revenue, but there’s no reason for us to be at the bottom, and we’re at the bottom.
STAR TRIBUNE: Do you worry about major college athletics, where football coaches Iike Nick Saban make over $5 million?
Nanne: But they take in $150million, be realistic. Why do a lot of salesman make more than the president of a company? Because they bring in business. Does the president quit? Look at a radio station, why do the broadcasters make more than the president of the company? Why do the anchor people make so much money in television? That’s what drives the revenue. You want to be in the game, you pay the price. We know that that’s, I mean when you say, we’re not putting it on is this as important as this? It has nothing to do with importance it has to do with revenues coming in. The more revenues we take in in sports and athletics the more we have an opportunity get better faculty, better students, the more way have to benefit the state of Minnesota from the output of the University of Minnesota. You ask a question that drives me nuts. Why does Saban make more than Obama? More than the President of the United States?
STAR TRIBUNE: Why does he?
Nanne: Because that’s the way it is in today’s world. That’s what it is. Now is Obama unhappy that Saban makes more? I don’t know, you better ask him.
STAR TRIBUNE: Do you run into people who say why aren’t you raising money for academics?
Nanne: Athletic success raises money for academics. The people have to start correlating that. They don’t focus on it but that’s a fact. That’s a fact that hasn’t been publicized or out there enough that people understand. That’s a fact and no one will dispute that. Anyone in any successful university where they’re raising money and have successful athletic teams won’t deny that it brings in more money for academics.
STAR TRIBUNE: Has it been a tough sell to raise money at a time when parents and kids are paying more and more tuition every year
Nanne: People who are going to make the significant contributions can afford to go to school. Where it’s a tough sell for their kids and them to make payments, they can help in a little way but hopefully their kids go to school there and help in a big way. We have many people in the state who benefit from being in the state that never went to the University of Minnesota that should be involved in this process. We have many. Why do some of us contribute to charities that don’t effect, like say to pick one, multiple sclerosis. My family doesn’t have multiple sclerosis but I want to see them succeed. Why do we do that? Because we like to see progress made. We want to see a cure, we want to see success. Minnesota is one of the most charitable states when it comes to individuals and it’s because we care about things, which we should. And this is something that I feel, the University of Minnesota, that everybody in the state should care about. Now they can’t all help in the same proportion and some are not able to help and it’s understandable, but many are able to help that haven’t. We hope to get that group.
STAR TRIBUNE: How is it that in this state, with so many big corporations, raising money, at least athletically, has always been difficult?
Nanne: That’s the question that I think we’re trying to address, because I don’t think, I really don’t think that the ‘ask’ has been there. It’s like me, I never got involved in the University of Minnesota until the year 2000; I graduated in 1963. Someone came over and said, ‘Louie we’d like you to be part of it, we’d like you to donate.’ I said, ‘Fine.’ And I got involved. They asked, ‘Why are you doing it now?’ I said, ‘Nobody asked me.’
STAR TRIBUNE: And there wasn’t ever a solid fundraising plan?
Nanne: That’s right. I don’t think there was a full-scale plan to get people involved. You look around and we have tremendous colleges and universities in the state and many of them have done exceedingly well in fundraising and that’s a great thing. Now it’s our turn to do this. It’s something that I really believe should be done, can be done, and will be done. That’s what we’re going to work at.
STAR TRIBUNE: At some point you need the big contributions from three or four people.
Nanne: We have plans, we have ideas. You know we have people who want to get involved. I met with somebody last week and they said, ‘I can help this much and I know my other people can help this much.’ I’m excited. There are people that right now, I have had people come up to me and say, ‘It’s about time, count me in.’ So I’m counting them in and it is time.
STAR TRIBUNE: Are you optimistic of finding a major donor.
Nanne: I am but I wish you wouldn’t say major donor. We’re not looking for a major donor. We’re looking for $190 million, however we get it, not because of a major donor or donors. It’s a plan we’ve got because we think we can get that in place. We have a plan to get there and it’s going to be all of us. We don’t need a couple of top [donors] to be successful but obviously it would make it easier. People think you need a couple of top, no. It’s like anything else. You bite an apple one bite at a time and pretty soon you finish it.
STAR TRIBUNE: The football program needs it now though, to recruit.
Nanne: The football team isn’t stopping playing football because we don’t’ have it right now. We have plans to get the stuff but that’s all part of the whole plan.
STAR TRIBUNE: Yeah but you don’t want 10 years down the road to build the training tables?
Nanne: You shouldn’t be thinking 10 years down the road. I’m not thinking 10 years down the road.
STAR TRIBUNE: But how soon can you do the training tables and stuff like that?
Nanne: I can’t give you a timeframe on that. Maybe if some of your stocks hit we can do it next week. I’m not giving you a timeframe. … You’re looking at this like a season, like the season starts we have an 80 game schedule and it’s over. This is not the same deal.
STAR TRIBUNE: $190 is ambitious. Is it realistic?
Nanne: Oh yes, are you kidding me? Of course. I mean $190 million, what did they do in the academic, raise $1.2 billion? These schools are raising billions. Northwestern raised $200 million[ for athletics], why can’t we raise $190? There you go with that small thinking again. This is what’s happened. This is exactly what’s happened.
STAR TRIBUNE: No because I’ve always been shocked being here that the University hasn’t raised the kind of money it needs. That surprises me, in this market.
Nanne: It surprises me, too. Especially when we sit here with a very successful, philanthropic populous with many major Fortune 500 companies, this should not happen. This should not happen.
STAR TRIBUNE: Shouldn’t’ have fallen this far behind?
A: No, should not happen. I sit across here looking out my window and say, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Please. I go to that little town in Ann Arbor and I see everything they got and I say, ‘What the hell is going on here?’
STAR TRIBUNE: Or West Lafayette, or Iowa City or Champagne, Illinois.
Nanne: You know what happened, I personally think and I think it’s a big benefit to have professional sport teams here because it helps you in recruiting, if I’m an athlete I want to come watch these things,. But I think that the focus got away from the university when those pro sport teams came here. I think the focus came away and we never got it turned back to us. Now it’s time to turn it back. The university is not going anywhere. Other teams can always threaten to leave, we’re not going anywhere. We aren’t going anywhere.
STAR TRIBUNE: How many hours a week are you putting into this?
Nanne: I don’t even think about it.
STAR TRIBUNE: A lot?
Nanne: It all depends. If I have writers from the Tribune coming over, then a long time. I mean that’s not even a question I concern myself with. I’ve always had the good fortunate of being able to do a lot of things. I’m a Gemini and I guess I’m a Gemini because I have restless energy and I can’t do one thing.
STAR TRIBUNE: Are you satisfied where you are right now? What has the start been like?
Nanne: Very encouraging because of the willingness of people to want to help. I’m really blown away. I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘Can I be on your committee?’ Which you just don’t expect. I’m excited that people want this thing to work. I’m excited that people think it can work. I’m excited that people think it should work and I guess I’m seeing the same feeling when you talk about it, that they’re tired and had enough of the stuff that we can’t compete. We’re Minnesota, when Minnesota does well people revel in it all across the world, people rejoice in it. People who lived in Minnesota, they take pride in it. I’m excited in the fact that people now finally realize we have to do something here to make this thing better.
STAR TRIBUNE: Do you specific events planned to raise money?
Nanne: You’re not going to get what you need, I’ve had people call about putting on golf tournaments. I said, ‘Thank you,’ and we’ll do it if you want to run it I’ll do it and make a contribution, that’s fine. But you don’t get to $190 million by just fundraising events. You get to $190 million by people and corporations deciding, ‘I want to make this thing better for the state of Minnesota.’
STAR TRIBUNE: What’s your basic mode of raising money?
Nanne: You see these things I have on? They’re called shoes and it’s a lot of walking and talking.
STAR TRIBUNE: No big ballroom speeches, just one-on-one and talking and the meetings?
Nanne: Yeah and we have a really, really engaged group that wants to see this thing work. I think as I talk to people around the state that I’m finding a lot of people want to see this work and I’m encouraged. I don’t think people have really stopped to think about it and why is it important, why can’t we get this done, why haven’t we done it and why shouldn’t it be done now? I think that really when you look and ask why, it has never been addressed or challenged and now it is. I commend Norwood Teague and Kaler for having the vision they’ve got. If you let things go over a long period of time you’re challenge is always greater. We have to get back on track and start becoming the university we can be. This is something that is, to me, important to everybody in the state. As long as you live here it’s going to have some importance to you. Even if you leave and you have family here I think it is going to have importance to you. I know a lot of people have moved out of the state and I’m going to try to get them, too. They benefited from the state.
STAR TRIBUNE: When did you start this?
Nanne: Three weeks ago.
STAR TRIBUNE: That’s all?
Nanne: Yeah I haven’t even been at the meetings yet. We had one meeting before Christmas just to welcome everybody, get some thoughts, have Delaney speak to everybody to bring us up to date with where we are in relation to other universities. He said, very frankly, two teams have not made it in 20-some years, us I think and Indiana, to the Rose Bowl, and they’re at the bottom of the pack in facilities and you’re at the bottom of the pack.
STAR TRIBUNE: More than 20 years for Minnesota — the 1962 Rose Bowl.
Nanne: For us yeah [it’s been that long]… but I don’t know about Indiana. You can just sit there and let things wallow and spiral out of control and not want to do anything about it or you can pull yourself up by the bootstraps and go. We’re encouraged by [football coach Jerry] Kill and [men’s basketball coach Richard] Pitino and their enthusiasm coming in here. We’re encouraged by the kind of response anytime we win a big game and people see the excitement. We know there is a feeling out there, but it’d the latent feelings that people have had that have to be aroused. I think the awareness is the thing we have to sell, of how important the university is to everybody in the state of Minnesota and how this is a big part of making the university more successful, more recognizable and more attractable for athletes to come here, and that means professors and students. It all works hand in hand, like a quilt.
STAR TRIBUNE: You were on Joel’s [former Athletic Director Joel Maturi] executive committee. Did you ever talk about facilities like this?
STAR TRIBUNE: Do you blame Joel?
Nanne: No, I mean Joel did a lot. He had to put two departments together and make them workable and get the focus going. Joel was successful in what he did. He was very involved in the stadium, so that was a good part of the vision, first 50,000 seat stadium in the country in 50 years for college. That was part of it. Now we need an overall look at things.
STAR TRIBUNE: Do you bring people through Bierman to show them the state of things?
Nanne: Not yet, if they want to see them, definitely. I’m not going to name names and the hockey rink [Mariucci] is beautiful, but does the arena affect people? I know two people that went to North Dakota — not going to say who — that were coming here the following week for visits, different times, signed on the spot at North Dakota because of the rink there. Now just put that in football or basketball or other sports. We are at a disadvantage and we have world class coaches. Our wrestling coach, our volleyball coach, baseball coach, football, basketball, hockey, track, our coaches are world class. We have an unbelievable staff and we have to help them win. They are doing their part. We have to do our part.
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