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UMass has an eye on UConn playbook

University officials say investment in football, facilities has paid off in big way

The University of Connecticut packs in fans at its 40,000-seat stadium, built in 2003. The University of Connecticut packs in fans at its 40,000-seat stadium, built in 2003. (Steve Miller for The Boston Globe)
By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / October 24, 2010

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Second in a series of occasional articles examining challenges facing the University of Massachusetts.

EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — Halfway through the second quarter, Philip Austin still had not touched the crab cakes and shrimp cocktail laid out in his luxury box at Rentschler Field. Nor did he know the score of the football game being played 50 feet below. The president of the University of Connecticut was too busy working.

“I’m here to mingle,’’ Austin said, “to get people connected and excited and induce them to continue their generous support.’’

Austin, a stately figure with a shock of white hair, strode from box suite to box suite greeting successful alumni — and potential donors — on this crisp October afternoon. He made sure to shake the hand of Charles Zwick, a former RAND analyst and bank executive who graduated from UConn in 1950 and who was about to give $1 million to UConn’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Ten years after UConn moved to college football’s highest level, school officials say the considerable investment in athletics is paying off by introducing the school to potential applicants, fostering alumni loyalty, and improving legislative relations.

UConn’s success is being watched closely in Amherst, where the University of Massachusetts, seeking ways to bolster its reputation and finances, is wondering if a greater emphasis on sports — sure to be controversial on campus — could help.

“We have to realize our potential as the state’s flagship campus, and a part of that has to be improving athletics — be like what Ohio State is for Ohio and what the Madison campus is for Wisconsin,’’ UMass Amherst Chancellor Robert Holub said. “If we act more like a flagship, then the funding will come.’’

Different priorities
UMass Amherst has struggled for decades to climb into the top rank of public research universities. While the Amherst campus has become more selective as applications have risen and incoming classes have grown stronger, it still loses thousands of students each year who choose to pay nearly twice as much tuition to attend public universities in other states.

UMass officials, while noting that the university has begun drawing more out-of-state students, believe there are multiple factors at work as applicants decide where to go to school — academics, of course, but also perks such as amenity-rich dormitories, modern campus facilities, and big-time athletics.

UMass and UConn admit students of similar academic achievement and both lag behind the nations’ best state schools, such as Michigan and North Carolina. But over the past generation, the neighboring New England states have taken dramatically different approaches to funding and promoting their public universities, and the results are striking.

UConn has flourished thanks to the $1.1 billion the state of Connecticut has poured into new classrooms, labs, dorms, and other facilities at its flagship campus in Storrs in the past 15 years, with another billion in the pipeline. In the same period, UMass Amherst received only $145.3 million from the state for buildings, university officials said.

Between 1995 and 2007, UConn received, on average, $4,245 per student each year from its state for capital projects, while UMass Amherst received $325 per student, according to the most recent comparison produced by UMass. State funding for UMass’s operating budget has dropped over the past decade, while state funding for UConn has risen.

Even their football teams have gone down different roads. The UConn Huskies once competed with the UMass Minutemen in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision, but UConn decided to move up to the elite Football Bowl Subdivision, raising the team’s competitive standing, and with it, the school’s profile and fund-raising.

One result: over the past decade, UConn has seen a 70 percent rise in the number of undergraduates from Massachusetts, while the number of Connecticut students enrolled at UMass Amherst has fallen by 5.5 percent.

“Connecticut set a goal 20 years ago to turn the Storrs campus into the leading public university in New England,’’ said state Senator Stanley C. Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat and UMass Amherst alumnus. “They made a plan, they stuck with the plan, and it’s paying off. In head-to-head competition, Storrs looks better and better decade by decade, and we’re struggling.’’

Investing in pride
A clear example of Connecticut’s generous spending on its state university is its 40,000-seat football stadium — more than twice the size of the UMass arena — built in 2003 with $91 million in state funds. The new stadium in East Hartford, 25 miles from campus, gave the university a venue to showcase a renewed school spirit spawned by its upgraded football program.

On a recent Saturday, the stadium was teeming with Husky pride. Young men with “GO UCONN’’ painted on their bare chests jumped up and down at the front of the crowded student section on one end of the field. Others reached out their arms to high-five the school mascot, a white husky, as it stomped by.

The spectacle would have been unimaginable little more than a decade ago, said Zwick, the donor. At the time, UConn football barely drew 7,000 fans to its 16,000-seat stadium on campus and the program lost $2.5 million a year; Zwick was among those who doubted that investing in top-tier football was wise.

“Remember when you said you were going to go full blast with football, and I said, ’Are you sure?’ ’’ Zwick said, turning to Austin in the luxury box. “Well, you were right and I was wrong.’’

It took five years after the transition, but the program has become profitable, university officials said; today, football alone — with an annual budget four times that of UMass — makes a net profit of $3.5 million a year.

Two hours before the game, hordes of fans lined up in front of the stadium to greet the UConn football players as they stepped off their team buses in a tradition known as the “Husky Walk.’’ Band members led the way through the crowd. Cheerleaders with glittery eye shadow and white ribbons in their hair waved silver pom poms. The fans flanked the players, surging in for high fives and fist bumps.

Alan Marinaccio, a 1966 UConn graduate, pushed his 7-year-old grandson, Brendan Carney, to the front. “Good luck today, guys,’’ Marinaccio said as the child touched one of the player’s giant hands.

“It starts with the young ones,’’ said Marinaccio, whose grandson said he would like to attend UConn when he grows up “because it’s fun.’’

The attention that UConn has been able to generate through athletics has helped the university reengage alumni and attract top students from both Connecticut and out of state, Austin said. This football season, six of 12 games will be broadcast on national television.

“Clearly we all understand that the more UConn is on TV, the more we have a chance to put UConn in front of other people,’’ said Jeffrey Hathaway, UConn’s athletic director. “It’s beneficial to the entire university.’’

Private donations have soared to a three-year average of $40 million a year — up from about $8 million a year 15 years ago — due, in part, to the rising prominence of UConn athletics, school officials said.

In Hathaway’s office, decorated with Husky memorabilia, a framed photo shows two prominent boosters in the locker room after its football team beat Notre Dame in a nationally televised game last year. The donors have not only paid for UConn’s hockey arena and athletic-training complex, they have both given generously to the business school.

UConn had advantages when it sought to build up its football team: the school had a sizable fan base thanks to its men’s and women’s basketball teams — both perennial championship contenders — and the state has no professional sports teams to compete for fan attention.

UConn didn’t stop at football. Its Storrs campus had been so unattractive — with leaky ceilings and water fountains ripped out of dorm hallways — that admission directors would discourage applicants from visiting. But in 1995, the Connecticut Legislature passed a bill to fund a campus makeover in an effort to reduce the number of top students going out of state for college.

Within a decade of the bill’s passage, UConn tripled the number of high school valedictorians and salutatorians it enrolled. In the past 10 years, undergraduate enrollment at Storrs has soared nearly 30 percent to 17,000 students. Average SAT scores for entering freshmen rose from 1136 to 1221 — well above UMass’ average of 1167.

Even today the campus is abuzz with construction. A new social-sciences building is being erected near the 9-year-old business school building. The university recently broke ground on a humanities center.

“When people talk about Storrs, you’d think they were talking about Oz,’’ Rosenberg said. “Everybody is in awe of that campus, and they’re saying, ‘Why can’t Massachusetts have this?’ ’’

‘Poor-stepchild syndrome’
The UMass campus is also in desperate need of an overhaul, with many buildings unsuitable for contemporary science research and modern education, according to an assessment Holub wrote in 2009.

For years, appeals to the state for help were met with delays or denials, university officials said, until the Legislature passed a bond bill in 2008 to finance more than $500 million in construction and renovations at Amherst. But the recession has slowed even that effort by limiting the state’s ability to borrow.

“Historically I think that the UMass system has been underappreciated and undervalued by the state government and also by the citizens of Massachusetts,’’ said Massachusetts state Senator Steven C. Panagiotakos, a Lowell Democrat. Panagiotakos, who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said higher education is viewed as a form of discretionary spending in Massachusetts and is particularly hard hit when times are tough.

“A lot of the public systems in other states like Michigan or California have been the predominant higher-education choices,’’ he said. “That’s why they end up better supported than the University of Massachusetts. It really is the poor-stepchild syndrome.’’

UMass has pressed forward with the most urgent capital needs. Last year it opened a new science building and a recreation center; it is planning for a new academic building, two more science buildings, and new dorms. But increasing debt payments are straining the university’s operating budget.

“It does hurt us that the state has not made the kind of investments that Connecticut has made in UConn,’’ Holub said. “There is no doubt about it. In order to do state-of-the-art science and attract the kinds of students we want to attract, we need those facilities.’’

Risks vs. rewards
UMass fans watch football in a stadium built in 1965 that seats 17,000 but draws an average crowd of 13,500. On a recent Saturday in Amherst, the parking lots around UMass’s McGuirk Stadium were packed with maroon-clad students tailgating before a football game. They grilled hot dogs and burgers, drank beer, and crowd-surfed off the back of a pickup truck.

Shortly before kickoff, campus police walked through the throngs to shut down the tailgate and usher students into the stadium. Dozens, instead, headed back to campus.

Chris Kittredge led friends to his on-campus town house. Their plan for the afternoon? Watch top-level college football.

“I would rather watch the Michigan-Notre Dame game on TV than the UMass game in real life,’’ said Kittredge, a junior from Worcester.

In the stands, one girl ran up and down the aisle trying to get students to do the wave, with partial success. Many spectators streamed out at nightfall, after the band’s halftime show, even though UMass was winning. The university’s band, one of the finest ensembles in the country, is a major draw.

UMass has studied the possibility of big-time football for years, but has backed away repeatedly because of concerns about cost, university officials said. Now, as an NCAA moratorium barring teams from changing divisions is set to be lifted next August, UMass is once again contemplating the move.

“Many of the great publics have a first-class athletics program,’’ said Jack Wilson, president of the five-campus UMass system. “It would definitely help the profile of the institution and is something that we need to consider.’’

But investing in big-time football is not without risk.

A top-tier football program would require significant spending for a larger stadium and upgraded training facilities, as well as more money for athletic scholarships and coaching salaries. Moving up would also only be possible by invitation from a Football Bowl Subdivision conference like the Big East, in which UConn competes. In 2003, the last time the issue was officially studied, a consulting firm determined that elevating UMass football could cost $125 million over five years.

At the same time, numerous studies have shown that few athletic programs, even at the very highest levels, make money. Nor does increased spending on sports necessarily translate into more alumni giving and other intangibles, according to a study commissioned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

James Karam, vice chairman of the UMass board of trustees who had led the task force on elevating football, said UMass should focus on rebuilding its once-renowned basketball program to national prominence to generate the money for football.

“In this economic environment, I don’t see any governor or legislator willing to roll the dice on a $100 million bet on’’ the Football Bowl Subdivision, Karam said. “You hear alumni saying they’d love to do it, but when you do a survey on the checks people are willing to write to support it, they don’t match up.’’

And any spending on football — a program that currently spends $3 million more than it brings in each year at UMass — would have to compete with the university’s many other needs. UMass Amherst currently raises about $37 million a year in private donations and has a modest endowment of $181 million.

Holub said the school should raise $60 million a year to fund faculty chairs, research activities, scholarships, and other academic programs necessary to compete with the best universities.

Even without switching subdivisions, UMass Amherst has begun to boost its athletic profile. The Minutemen played the University of Michigan for the first time last month. Michigan is a football powerhouse, and UMass nearly toppled the host Wolverines in front of 110,000 fans.

Yesterday, UMass fell 39-13 to the University of New Hampshire in front of an announced crowd of 32,848 at Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots. The game is a new rivalry billed as the Colonial Clash and is designed to generate school spirit and draw more fans from the state’s eastern communities.

UMass has also recently signed a new cable television contract that will bring home games for all sports to more households in hopes of boosting the university’s statewide appeal.

“The more they can see us, the more they will get excited about us,’’ said John McCutcheon, athletic director for UMass Amherst. “You never know how it’s going to translate into prospective students. Perhaps it’s something that opens the door to taking a closer look at us.’’

Meanwhile, some UMass students are watching other schools with envy. At the Pita Pit in Amherst, some students recently gathered to watch the University of Iowa play Iowa State on television, instead of attending their own school’s football game across the street.

“I wish I went to a school like that,’’ said Ali Wagner, a kinesiology major from Abington, as she pointed to a shot of the rambunctious crowd, 70,500 strong, most of them dressed in gold. “That’s crazy!’’

“Definitely,’’ said her friend, Kerry Coughlin, from Quincy. “If UMass went for the real thing, we’d be there.’’

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.