The University of Minnesota has roughly $40 million committed to its ambitious $190 million project that would reshape Gophers athletics, Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague announced Wednesday.
Land O’Lakes, Inc. and the Land O’Lakes Foundation have taken the first big step in the fundraising charge by contributing $21,037,500 to the athletics facilities master plan. The university celebrated its new partnership with the corporate giant on Wednesday afternoon on the campus’ Northrop Mall.
Administration, faculty, students, student-athletes and Land O’Lakes staff enjoyed snacks provided by Land O’Lakes’ food companies while university president Eric Kaler and Land O’Lakes president and CEO Christopher Policinski welcomed a new era of collaboration.
“It’s a great shot in the arm, something that we’re thrilled about,” Teague said. “We’ve really found a company that shares the values that we share and cares about athletes’ success. … We have such a robust corporate climate and to get them involved is great and we’re in discussion with others [corporations]. The response there has been greater than I thought it would be.”
Teague said the additional pledged $19 million is from individual donors, most of whom contributed their monies to a specific project. The combined $40 million accounts for more than a fifth of the complete goal and was reached much sooner than the fundraising board expected.
Fundraising chairman Lou Nanne, a former Gophers hockey star and North Stars executive, and Teague said the aggressive campaign for donors didn’t start until the beginning of the summer.
“We’re at $40 million right now and that will probably change this week,” Teague said. “I’m really pleased to be at that point at this moment.
“Fundraising is a different process. It’s not something you sprint at, you want to operate at a good pace, but not too quick.”
Policinski said the corporation reviewed the needs of the athletic department’s master plan and resonated most with the vision for the Center for Excellence. Kaler said the $15 million, 60,000-square-foot building will be the centerpiece of Gophers athletics for years to come. Approximately $6 million of the pledge will provide support for activities in the Center for Excellence, including the Student-Athlete Leadership Development Center and the Gopher Connect Program (which helps match student-athletes with Minnesota companies for jobs and training opportunities), and to various intercollegiate athletic sponsorships and events.
The $25 million will be given to the university between 2015 and 2024.
This is one of the first agreements ever between the university and a business partner to have a broad range of support for student-athletes and academic programs. Nearly $4 million of the pledge will be spread among the Carlson School of Management, the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, and the College of Science and Engineering, with a small portion going to university-wide initiatives.
A Gophers football jersey with “Land O’Lakes” and “No. 1” printed on the back was one of the tokens Kaler and Policinski exchanged to honor the partnership on Wednesday.
“It’s something that is so badly needed at the university,” Nanne said. “And it’s a start for us in the corporate giving and we’ve got a lot of corporations in this town we want to get involved. … I think when they look at the leadership Land O’Lakes is providing and the commitment they’ve made, they’re going to decide we should be helping out there, too.”
The design phase of the Center for Excellence will begin at the end of the month with no date set for construction. Teague said the extensive design process will require extra time and attention before breaking ground can be considered. Tuesday’s news release said the Center for Excellence is anticipated to open in the fall of 2016.
Gophers football coach Jerry Kill has been advocating for a December groundbreaking on the proposed new football facility.
The announcement of a new athletics centerpiece positions the Gophers as a new contender in the Big Ten arms race for the best facilities and best recruits.
The Center for Excellence joins the handful of projects currently underway throughout conference, highlighted by Northwestern’s, Iowa’s and Michigan’s multimillion dollar investments. Northwestern is reportedly spending $220-plus million on a new lakefront athletics facility. In 2012, ESPN rated Northwestern’s football facilities as the worst in the Big Ten. The Gophers were ranked ninth.
“We need to be very thankful, that’s the way I look at it. It’s great to have them step up for a great cause for the academic center. We really appreciate it. And hopefully that gets the ball rolling and continues,” Kill said. “But they got us started, and that’s a great thing.”
The Center for Excellence will serve all Gophers athletics and function as a hub of sorts providing the need for an academic center and training and dining table. Teague referred to it as one of the “four prongs” of the facilities initiative that just happened to drop first.
Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino said it’s a great step in the right direction and praised the resources that will be made available to the student-athletes.
New women’s basketball coach Marlene Stollings heard in great detail about the future facility plans during her interview process and is confident the upgrades will separate Gophers athletics from competition starting with their focus on studies, nutrition and leadership.
“This is a historic day for athletes on our campus with a gift of this caliber,” Stollings said. “It puts us on an even playing field [in the Big Ten] and in some areas puts us ahead of the pack, even.”
Women’s hockey coach Brad Frost said the Land O’Lakes gift has set the stage for other big donors to come forward. Volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon is in accord with Kaler and Policinski, believing this partnership could represent a new era in the university’s relationship with some of the larger corporations in the area. Eighteen Minnesota companies made this year’s Fortune 500 list.
“This particular piece [in the facilities project] — academics, leadership development, auxiliary services in sports medicine — those are the things that are huge and provide a valuable edge,” McCutcheon said. “It’s a huge step for us in cementing our position as one of the top public institutions in the country and from an athletic standpoint, in terms of recruiting and facilities, we’re getting a little closer to a more level playing field with some of the other institutions.”