Scoggins: Break with Sanford is bad timing for Gophers athletics

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 13, 2013 - 12:30 AM

The Gophers likely need a lead donor for their big facilities wish list, and the most obvious candidate is billionaire alum T. Denny Sanford. But that’s where things become murky.

Sanford, left, and  Krabbenhoft
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T. Denny Sanford, left, and Sanford Health CEO Kelby Krabbenhoft.

Photo: Carson Walker, Associated Press

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Norwood Teague’s two-week search for a new basketball coach consumed his time and forced him to put his “day job” on hiatus. Now that that’s concluded, the Gophers athletic director can return his focus to a big-ticket agenda that ultimately could define his administration.

Teague’s crusade to improve inadequate facilities has become his top priority again.

“We have tremendous needs right now,” he said.

Teague has grand visions for facility upgrades that will require some serious capital, possibly between $80 million and $125 million. In order to fulfill their wish list, the Gophers likely need a lead donor, and the most obvious candidate is billionaire alum T. Denny Sanford. But that’s where things become murky.

The proposed takeover of Fairview Health Services and the University of Minnesota Medical Center ended abruptly this week when Sanford Health withdrew from the talks after intense scrutiny by Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson. Sanford Health’s CEO, Kelby Krabbenhoft, said in a letter that Sanford Health felt “unwelcome[d] by some interested parties and key stakeholders of our proposed merger partner.”

University President Eric Kaler put a moratorium on all discussions of charitable gifts from Denny Sanford during merger talks, hoping to eliminate the appearance of a conflict of interest. Now that the merger talks have dissolved, it will be interesting to see when the athletic department resumes its courtship of Sanford.

This is a sensitive subject on campus because of the acrimonious manner in which the merger discussions ended and the clout that Denny Sanford carries, particularly as it relates to Gophers athletics. The athletic department referred all Sanford questions to central administration. A university spokesman said Friday that the situation is a “rapidly changing environment and the moratorium remains in place.”

It’s unclear how much, if any, damage control Teague must do to resolve any frustration or anger on Sanford’s part. Much like his predecessor Joel Maturi, Teague has spent considerable time cultivating a close relationship with Sanford since taking over as athletic director last summer.

The hospital merger talks put Teague in a difficult spot because his department needs Sanford’s financial support as it finalizes a facilities master plan, which could be released in a few months.

The much-discussed basketball practice facility is only one component on a lengthy to-do list. The Gophers also need a football-only practice facility, a renovated indoor facility for other sports, a new track and a revamped Bierman building that includes a larger academic center and nutrition area.

The crummy weather this week brought another reminder of their space crunch. On Wednesday, four teams squeezed inside the football practice facility at the same time. Luckily, the football team didn’t have a spring practice scheduled that day.

A basketball practice facility would cost around $20 million, which presumably could be raised without the need of a lead donor. But the Gophers’ support facilities lag behind their Big Ten rivals and need to be addressed en masse.

If the price tag approaches $100 million, the athletic department almost assuredly would need a significant donation to make that a reality.

“It’s important but it’s not a must,” Teague said, agreeing to speak only in general terms. “It’s a traditional model in college athletics to have a lead donor on most of your projects. That being the case, we could have a lead donor on a variety of different buildings.”

The facilities push comes against the backdrop of tough scrutiny from the Legislature over the school’s administrative costs. This is a delicate time for university officials to discuss expensive projects in the face of pointed criticism about overspending.

Teague’s fundraising message to fans remains unchanged: Facility improvements are a need, not a want.

“People seem to be understanding that we need to get there,” he said. “It’s a common element with all of our competitors.”

Teague has overhauled his fundraising department with the goal of expanding the donor base. It’s also no secret that winning spurs financial giving in college athletics. The Gophers need to become more successful in their two marquee sports.

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Sanford, left, and  Krabbenhoft