Derek Vidor, an All-State running back at Rogers High School, had narrowed his college choice to three Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference members: St. John's, St. Thomas and Augsburg. He opted for St. Thomas, at least partly because of the school's new athletic complex, which includes a football locker room the Gophers would be proud to call home.
"I thought, 'Wow, it doesn't get any better than this,' " Vidor said. "It's the nicest one I've ever seen. It was definitely a factor."
MIAC schools are part of NCAA Division III, which doesn't allow athletic scholarships. But that hasn't stopped conference members from pouring millions of dollars into athletic facilities in recent years.
The crown jewels are St. Thomas' new $52 million Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex and Macalester's $45 million Leonard Center, which opened three years ago. Both complexes have an arena for varsity sports such as basketball and volleyball plus a swimming pool, indoor track and a workout center to rival any health club.
Beyond the league's two newest facilities, there's also a $5 million football stadium at Gustavus Adolphus; a $12 million project at St. John's to expand and improve athletic facilities; a new locker room facility for football, soccer, baseball and track at Concordia (Moorhead); and a track and field/soccer complex at St. Mary's completed in 2009 and home to the 2010 conference track and field championships. And those are just the highlights of projects completed since 2007.
Within the past decade, almost every conference member has undertaken a major athletic building project. Carleton built an indoor athletic complex, Hamline has a renovated football stadium and workout center and Augsburg opened its Kennedy Center, with a wrestling training facility and fitness center, in 2006. St. Olaf's indoor track facility, completed in '02, helped persuade highly successful Gophers men's coach Phil Lundin to make the move to Northfield and head the Oles' track program.
"I think it's definitely a great positive," MIAC Executive Director Dan McKane said of the recent athletic improvements. "It creates a lot of excitement. It also does create a bit of an arms race, kind of like watching what your neighbors are doing, and feeling you have to keep up with the Joneses."
Attraction for all students
There is a notable difference between the facilities "arms race" between Division III and the mega-facilities that house Division I athletics. In D-III, the facilities, such as fitness centers and indoor tracks, are open to the entire student body and are seen as an enhancement to recruiting all students, not just top varsity athletes.
"Certainly, we knew a new building would help us recruit athletes, but we also knew it would help us recruit students," said Laurie Hamre, Macalester vice president of student affairs. "Our facilities prior to this were abysmal. We couldn't offer our students any activity for fitness."
St. Thomas officials say their new complex was built with the same intention, but the Tommies' new structure has created significantly more concern about keeping a level playing field within the conference. UST has all the bells and whistles, such as Jumbotron scoreboards and lavish locker rooms; Macalester built its facility without a football locker room, leaving the team's center underneath the football stadium.
Macalester has struggled to compete in most sports, so much so in football that the program left the MIAC to play an independent schedule eight years ago.
St. Thomas is a different story. The Tommies contend annually in almost every sport, and this past season captured the D-III national men's basketball championship, went undefeated in winning the MIAC football title and captured the league's all-sports title for both genders. Mark Dienhart, formerly the Gophers men's athletic director and now the St. Thomas executive vice president and chief administrative officer, said school officials are "extremely sensitive about how people perceive [the new athletic complex]. ... I'm pretty sure no one is saying Macalester is overemphasizing athletics."
When it comes to St. Thomas, many probably agree with legendary St. John's football coach John Gagliardi, a close friend of Dienhart who said, at least partly in jest: "That doggone Dienhart. ... He should have never left the University of Minnesota. He's in a key position, and he really stresses athletics."
Dienhart said winning athletic teams are, and should be, "a part of our culture," because it sends a message about St. Thomas' dedication to excellence on all fronts. Conference schools all share that philosophy, although some clearly put more emphasis, and dollars, into athletics.
St. John's athletic director Tom Stock said his school's current facilities upgrade are predicated at least in part on staying competitive in all sports. "We didn't need $52 million, because we started from a better base," Stock said. "But everyone in the league has to upgrade to maintain a competitive level."
St. Thomas is the largest MIAC school with about 5,500 undergrad students, and funds for the center came largely from a $60 million donation by Lee and Penny Anderson. That donation is part of a $500 million, seven-year campus fundraising drive that is now only $44 million shy of its goal with 18 months remaining.
Are Tommies too strong?
That sort of financial wherewithal, symbolized by the athletic center, is causing some concern among rival coaches.
Augsburg football coach Frank Haege said if he's recruiting against St. Thomas and facilities are the top priority for the youngster, the Tommies will almost certainly prevail. Bethel football coach Steve Johnson, whose team defeated St. Thomas in last year's NCAA playoffs, said he has already lost at least one top recruit to the Tommies because of facilities.
Both coaches say they have to sell prospective recruits on their school being the right fit, academically and socially as well as athletically.
"Certain kids come to Augsburg because it's in the heart of the city, with a lot of culture going on," Haege said. "They don't necessarily care if your fieldhouse is as big as somebody else's."
Said Johnson: "Each school has its niche. ... We don't recruit on facilities."
But the unanswered question is whether St. Thomas' glitzy new complex will attract an inordinate share of elite D-III athletes, and tip the level playing field. Bloomington Jefferson senior Marcus Alipate attracted interest from several D-I basketball programs, but chose St. Thomas.
He said his decision was based on numerous factors, including athletic facilities at St. Thomas that he said matched what he saw at the lower-level D-I programs he visited.
"They have Division I facilities at a Division III school," said Alipate, whose older brother, Moses, is a quarterback for the Gophers. "The technology, the workout areas and locker rooms. It's phenomenal."
For McKane, those words are reason to be wary about a level playing field.
"It's something on my mind," the executive director said. "There's no doubt that when you're recruiting the best kids, they want to compete in shiny new facilities. ... I do worry about the viability of budgets at some of our schools. I think other schools are definitely feeling pressure."