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ASU following lead of Pac-12 foes, hoping facility upgrades yield success

With an expansive $256 million project to makeover Sun Devil Stadium ongoing, Arizona State is hoping to follow the lead of Pac-12 counterparts who have experienced improved results on the football field after completing significant renovations.

What does a program need to keep up with the Joneses of the college football world?

Or in Arizona State head coach Todd Graham's case, what must the Sun Devils build to keep up with the Leaches, the Petersens and the MacIntryes? 

Based on the current renovation project ongoing in Tempe, it's a state-of-the-art Student-Athlete Facility and a refurbished Sun Devil Stadium with a total project price tag of $268 million that shouldn't just level the playing field for ASU, but should help push the bar even higher in the Pac-12 facilities arms race.

Over the past seven years, 10 of the 12 schools in the Pac-12 conference have either renovated their football stadiums or upgraded their football facilities, as each program has committed at least $40 million to make sure that it's not falling behind the rest of the pack.

When ASU and UCLA unveil new Student-Athlete Facilities this fall, all 12 universities will have completed significant construction projects or redevelopments in the last seven years introduced to either put their programs at the forefront of the college football world, or allow their programs to compete on even grounds with the rest of the schools around the conference.

Though every project has been different in scope, the Sun Devils are one of four programs in the conference who have committed over $150 million to their upgrades, joining the likes of Cal, Colorado and Washington.

At the beginning of March, Graham and the Sun Devils invited local media members on a tour of ASU's new Student-Athlete Facility, which is still under construction and set to open this July. The construction of the Student-Athlete Facility was a late addition to ASU's stadium renovation projects, but is the type of structure that nearly every school around the conference has prioritized in the last several years.

For the schools who spent less than $100 million on facility upgrades, nearly all of their resources were devoted to creating state-of-the-art football facilities that allow their programs to capitalize on the latest technology and innovations while creating a comfortable, expansive building designed to entice players to spend more of their free time around the program.

Since 2012 when USC opened its $70 million McKay Center for student-athletes, six other Pac-12 schools have unveiled new facilities ranging from the low-budget (it's all relative) $21 million complex Stanford opened in 2013 to the high-end $74 million Lowell-Stevens Facility the Arizona Wildcats christened in 2013, though that expenditure included a complete overhaul of the north end of Arizona Stadium. 

From the time administrators and coaches symbolically stick shovels in the earth to break ground on these projects, to the day they're back to cut down a ribbon and open the doors, the programs use these projects as selling points to recruits. 

Since 2000, all 65 power conference programs have started stadium renovation projects, built new facilities, or performed some sort of upgrade on existing structures geared toward attracting higher-quality players and in turn, producing better on-the-field results.

With every power conference program involved, the pressure to build the most cutting-edge facilities in college football has turned into an arms race, and ASU's $268 million endeavor ranks among the 10 largest financial commitments any university has made to improving its football facilities within the last two decades.

When Graham offered local media a tour of the Sun Devils' new Student-Athlete Facility in early March, he called the project a "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity and a "game-changer." 

While the project will undoubtedly provide ASU with one of the most modern, innovative complexes in the college football world, how often are programs able to capitalize on the momentum created by such renovations and upgrades? SunDevilSource took a comprehensive look at the impact of modern facilities around the Pac-12 and around the country to gauge the type of results ASU can hope to produce.

Cutting-edge or up to par?

When ASU opens its Student-Athlete Facility and UCLA opens its new Wasserman Football Center later this year, every Pac-12 school will have constructed a new complex that gives its football program more dedicated space and technology to utilize within the last decade.

For some schools like Oregon and Washington State, the opportunity to build new facilities offered the programs the chance to separate themselves from the rest of the conference, and jump out in front of other teams in the arms race by committing resources to cutting-edge ventures.

After the Ducks opened a $68 million complex in 2013, the 145,000 square foot building included 64 55-inch televisions, a two-story meeting room that overlooked Autzen Stadium and a weight room complete with Brazilian hardwood flooring. The facility was unlike any other in the west, but by 2014, Washington State took aim at the Ducks.

In 2014, Washington State unveiled a $61 million, five-story, 88,000 square foot Cougar Football Complex complete with an 11,000-square foot weight room, a 160-seat auditorium and a Cougar Hall of Fame and trophy room. 

Following the completion of the complex, head coach Mike Leach appeared on The Bald-Faced Truth show on 102.9 FM in Oregon and said, "We have the best facilities in the conference -- better than Oregon."

Cougars' athletic director Bill Moos echoed his sentiments, telling the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “Now, we take a backseat to nobody. We’ve got a focus, and there’s no reason why we can’t be in the position to be in the hunt every year in a tough, tough conference.”

With the designation becoming clearer between the haves and have-nots in the Pac-12, even Colorado and Oregon State, a pair of programs that hadn't made serious progress on the football field in more than a decade felt they needed to spend to compete.

In 2015, the Buffaloes moved into the $156 million Champions Center that Colorado athletic director Rick George said would be "transformational" for the program. 

Part of the Buffaloes' facility upgrades included the installation of a 110,000-square foot practice center complete with a solar-paneled roof, making it the only "self-sustaining indoor facility in the country." 

"I think people will look at it and see that we’re investing in our program," George told The Denver Post. "Football is important to us. And from a recruiting standpoint, in this day and age, they like to have new things — and it’s going to be as good as anyone in the country.”

In the seven years prior to Colorado opening its Champions Center, the Buffaloes hadn't won more than five games in a single season, but that didn't stop the university from building new facilities in hopes of turning the program into a powerhouse. 

As for Oregon State, the Beavers didn't have the same budget to work with as other teams throughout the conference, but the university still committed $42 million to constructing the Valley Football Center, which opened in 2016. 

"Moving from there to the other locker room (in Gill) and then back into the new facility is part of (the players) understanding that they're very, very lucky to be in the spot that they're in, to say the least," Beavers' head coach Gary Andersen told Oregonlive.com. "And No. 2, they understand that there's an obligation and there's expectations when they walk into that new facility to be a very good football team on and off the field.

This August, UCLA anticipates opening its Wasserman Football Center, a $65 million facility multi-level complex that has exceeded its fundraising goals. 

With ASU's Student-Athlete Facility set to open this summer, the Bruins and the Sun Devils will be the final two schools introducing state-of-the-art football facilities for their players. The biggest question facing these programs now is whether the facilities they construct will continue to push the bar higher in the Pac-12, or if they simply allow ASU and UCLA to compete on a level playing field with other programs around the conference?

Even though Arizona finished its $74 million project in 2013, when the Wildcats hired new athletic director Dan Heeke in late February, the former Central Michigan athletic director told The Arizona Daily Star that keeping the program's football facilities up to date is of chief concern.

“I think facilities are critically important across the board for any of our programs. Certainly, football is no exception,” Heeke said. “We want to take a look at all the different things that are necessary. To prioritize those things and then start to move forward. But we need to look competitively at what will help the program. Day to day how will we help win on Saturday, but also how we’ll help in recruiting.”

Less than five years after the Wildcats opened the doors to their new facility, the pressure is on for Heeke to make sure that Arizona isn't slipping behind.

Whether Heeke feels that pressure because of Colorado's expansive renovations, head coach Rich Rodriguez's desire for an indoor practice facility or the new digs ASU and UCLA are set to move into remains uncertain, but a number of contributing factors could be triggering his desire to make sure the Wildcats keep pace.

Over the course of the last decade, the arms race in college football has escalated to the point where spending on facilities has practically spiraled out of control (just ask Cal). Now, if a university isn't working to provide its football program with cutting-edge technology and advanced facilities, it faces the arduous task of figuring out other ways to stay relevant and remain on par with its peers. 

The measurable impact 

Since the start of the 2009 season, eight programs outside of ASU in college football have devoted more than $100 million to facilities projects designed to help their programs compete at the highest level of the sport.

The highest-spending programs range in prestige from Florida State, which committed $250 million to facilities upgrades that include a new locker room, a new dorm for football players and a new indoor practice facility, to Cal and Colorado, which have both struggled to keep pace in the Pac-12 in recent years. 

While the programs that have committed the most money to upgrades and renovations haven't necessarily watched their programs flourish, the schools in the $100 million or above bracket have experienced better overall results following the completion of their projects than their counterparts.

Of the four power conference programs that have enjoyed a three-win per season bump since the completion of their construction projects, three hail from the group of schools that spent over $100 million on upgrades. Washington, Colorado and Baylor all spent at least $150 million on facility upgrades, and each program has watched its win total climb substantially in the years following construction.

However, for every successful facility upgrade, there's a near-equivalent chance that a program will fail to see marked improvements on the field, as the majority of power conference schools either improved their win totals on average by less than one win per season or regressed in the win column in the five years immediately following the completion of their most recent construction projects. 

While a school like Washington State spent $61 million to create modern football facility that Leach claims is the best in the conference, a school like Cal spent $321 million, more than any other power conference program, to completely overhaul its stadium and athletics facilities. 

The difference in results? Washington State averaged 3.2 wins per season in the five years prior to erecting its new facility and after its construction, the Cougars have averaged seven wins per year. As for Cal, the Bears averaged 7.8 wins per season from 2006-2010, but after completing its $321 million project in 2011, the Bears averaged just 4.4 wins per season over the next five years. 

Even though Cal spent $260 million more on its project, the Cougars have experienced a resurgence in the Pac-12 while the Bears have crumbled. To make matters worse, as the Bears faded in the final years under Jeff Tedford and continued their decline under Sonny Dykes, according to The San Francisco Chronicle, by 2013 Cal carried a $445 million debt for its renovation project that never panned out like it was supposed to.

Back in 2011, when the Bears reopened the renovated confines at Memorial Stadium, then-athletic director Sandy Barbour said, “We’ve gone from arguably the worst conditions for Division 1 football to among the best,” to Berkeleyside.com. Even if the Barbour's statement rang true on the day the project came to a close, Cal finished the project before securing the necessary donations to finance the undertaking and is now saddled with an immense amount of debt.

The difference in post-project results between Cal and Washington State underscores the importance of having a strong administration, excellent staffing and a willingness to sink money into the program and pay coaches and assistant coaches competitive salaries. 

Cal's inability to raise sufficient funds for its over-the-top project has placed the Bears' entire athletic department in a dire position. According to The San Jose Mercury News, Cal's athletic department is losing $20 million per year and is set to make interest-only payments of approximately $18 million each year on its debt until 2032. At that time, the principal kicks in, and annual payments will reach $30 million before eventually climbing to almost $40 million per year. 

The Bears' massive debt issues are compounded by the athletic department's decreasing revenue and increasing expenses, which are concerning signs for a university looking to climb out the red. 

To help finance ASU's $268 million project and ensure the Sun Devils don't experience the same turmoil the Bears have encountered, the university created a 330-acre Athletics District that should help the athletic department increase its revenue on an annual basis. The Athletics District is a unique advantage for ASU in the world of college athletics, and ASU anticipates it will help generate tens of millions of dollars in the coming decades. Still, to make the project a possibility in the first place, the Sun Devils needed to generate a substantial amount of revenue via fundraising and other means. 

According to The Arizona Republic, the Sun Devils generated over $94.8 million in revenue in 2016, a $10 million increase over the $84 million ASU took in during the 2015 fiscal year. The $84 million intake represented a more than 100 percent growth in revenue over a 10-year period, as the Sun Devils generated just $41 million in 2005, according to USA Today's NCAA financial database. After bringing in between $50 and $60 million annually from 2006-2012, the Sun Devils began to see their revenue total spike in 2014, before breaking the athletic department record with the $94.6 million haul in 2016.

The growth in revenue has allowed ASU to keep pace with other athletic departments around the Pac-12, which have also seen significant increases in revenue in recent years.

Prior to 2011, Washington had never generated more than $65 million in a fiscal year, and by 2015, the Huskies had brought in over $100 million in revenue in back-to-back years. In the past decade, UCLA held about a $5-$10 million annual edge over ASU in revenue, as the Bruins consistently generated between $60-$67 million per year between 2007-2011. Since 2011, the Bruins have experienced a significant uptick in revenue, bringing in over $96 million in 2015. 

Plenty of other Pac-12 schools have successfully generated more revenue than every before over the past five-to-seven years, and ASU is hoping its Athletic District will set it apart and give the university an opportunity to generate funds no other school in the conference has at its disposal. 

Though impressive fundraising efforts have led to sparkling new facilities and stadium renovations that benefitted teams like Washington, Washington State and Baylor, upgrades haven't proven to be a consistent, clear-cut way to reach the top of the college football world.

Of the 41 power conference programs that completed facility projects or renovations on football facilities between 2000 and 2016, only 18 programs boosted their average win total from the five seasons prior to the project's completion by at least 0.5 games per year in the five seasons following the project's completion. 

Meanwhile, nine programs experienced no statistically significant change in their wins and losses following the completion of facility projects, and 13 programs regressed in the period immediately following the successful completion of their projects.

Though no program experienced quite the drop off that Cal did, prominent programs like LSU, Oregon and Texas all experienced a drop off of an average of two wins per season in the seasons immediately following their most recent renovation projects. 

While the arms race continues to escalate, the data SunDevilSource accumulated and analyzed revealed there's no predictive success in on-field results associated with facility overhauls. 

Still, year after year, as new facilities open, athletic directors and coaches not only preach the importance of offering players the best resources available, they highlight the difference a new facility makes in attracting higher-profile recruits to campus. 

The key in college football, of course, is lining a roster with as many blue-chip-caliber prospects as possible, and building cutting-edge facilities is viewed as a driving force in the talent acquisition process.

However, in the Pac-12, even the programs that have improved their results after building new facilities or renovating old ones have not improved their recruiting profiles.

Of the 10 Pac-12 programs that have improved their facilities in the last seven years, only three programs --Stanford, Washington and Arizona-- have increased their average standing in Scout's annual recruiting rankings.

The Wildcats experienced the greatest jump of any program, climbing from an average annual ranking of 46 between 2009-2013 to an average annual ranking of 38 between 2014-2016. Stanford, meanwhile, improved its average ranking by a total of five slots, moving from an average ranking of 25 to an average ranking of 20, while Washington improved its ranking from 27 before construction on Husky Stadium was complete to 26 after the renovations were finished.

So while Washington, Washington State and Colorado have experienced significant on-field improvements over the last two-to-three seasons, perhaps it has less to do with new facilities and the capability to attract higher-profile recruits than it does with having good coaching and strong quarterback play.

Just as new facilities and facility upgrades haven't become predictive of success on the field, they aren't predictive of success on the recruiting trail, either.

Though USC's new McKay Center hasn't helped the Trojans necessarily attract higher-profile recruits, perhaps it's the stability second-year head coach Clay Helton and dynamic starting quarterback Sam Darnold that will make the Trojans the favorite in the Pac-12 next season.

While Colorado won 10 games a season after opening its new Champions Center, the Buffaloes didn't bring in a class loaded with impact freshmen that made the difference right away. In fact, a program that has lost at least eight games in five of the last seven seasons and has traditionally ranked in the mid to high 50s in Scout's annual recruiting rankings actually landed the nation's No. 65 signing class in 2016. Perhaps the Buffaloes' rise to the top of the Pac-12 South had more to do with Mike MacIntyre and quarterback Sefo Liufau than it did with the $156 million Champions Center.

Did Washington's $280 million renovation of Husky Stadium help the program reach the College Football Playoff? Certainly, fan interest was at an all-time high in Seattle this season, but it's much more likely head coach Chris Petersen's long-standing relationship with star quarterback Jake Browning during his recruitment played a larger role in the program landing a game-changing signal-caller than the new stadium did. 

By spending over $150 million on its upgrades, Colorado has the indoor facility it needs to keep its players in better condition, the technology to entice players to watch more film, and the space necessary to making the Champions Center a home away from home for its football players. But what the Buffaloes don't have is the capacity to win eight-to-10 games on an annual basis, and that won't change until the program starts landing more blue-chip talent.

What can ASU expect from its new Student-Athlete Facility and its $268 million stadium renovation project? The Sun Devils likely won't lose recruits to programs like Utah, Arizona and Colorado over concerns about facilities, but it's not as if the new facility will allow ASU to win over recruits looking at USC, UCLA and Stanford, as those programs also have -- or will soon have -- nice facilities. 

Essentially, the Sun Devils spent the money because they generated the revenue necessary to finance a state-of-the-art project, and ASU's administration realized it couldn't afford to be the only Pac-12 school without a modern student-athlete complex and a refurbished stadium.

But to compete consistently, it's going to take more than just a new facility. Since 2000, every power conference program has upgraded its facilities in some form or another, and as Heeke indicated in his early statements after his hiring as Arizona's athletic director, the arms race isn't slowing down anytime soon.

Though modern technology and a new facility can help ASU limit the advantages other programs have, regardless of how innovative the Sun Devils' new facility proves to be, there's always a new project in the works, and there's always a program that's going to push the limits even further. So while ASU can now keep up with the Joneses, or the Leaches, the Petersens and the MacIntyres, it's going to take more than a new facility to keep up with the Heltons and the Moras on the recruiting trail. 


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