Auburn Interim President Dr. Ed Richardson, Athletic Director David Housel, head football coach Tommy Tuberville, head men's basketball coach Cliff Ellis and head soccer coach Karen Richter took the microphone to say thank you for the donation at a press conference at the football complex on Tuesday. Next door, construction was taking place for the new, two-story, 32,434-square foot facility that is being built on top of the football team's weight room complex. The donation is the largest ever made the to the athletic department, AU officials said.
The new facility, which will cost $6.4 million, is expected to be ready in August for the start of the 2004-2005 academic year. Richardson said he believes the center will be a real boost to the university's athletes in all sports.
"For the last 10 or 15 years you have heard a great deal about athletes who don't complete their studies," Richardson said. "I am really pleased to say that Auburn has done an excellent job in that regard. We are now prepared to make a commitment that will move those graduation rates up even higher. It will say to parents, when your son or daughter comes to Auburn as a student-athlete there is going to be a commitment there to make sure that even though practices are long and the competition is difficult you are going to be able to assure with reasonable expectations that your son or daughter will graduate with their degree from Auburn.
"We all know although we have great athletes, very few of them actually make their living that way so that college degree is going to be critical," Richardson added.
The new academic center is being placed on top of the weight room adjacent to the football complex.
Lowder, a 1964 graduate of Auburn and the chief executive officer of Colonial Bancgroup, Inc., and his wife made the donation through Lowder Family Foundation, which is managed by their daughter and son, Catherine Lowder Struble and Bryan Cotney.
Housel said the new academic facility will be a major boost to the athletic program and to current and future student-athletes. "On behalf of Auburn and the athletic department, it is my great pleasure to say a heartfelt thank you for this gift and, more importantly, for your love, and, even more importantly, for your commitment down through the years," Housel said at Tuesday's ceremony.
Virgil Starks, who is in charge of the student-athlete support services academic program, said, "This is a very, very emotional moment for me because it is a true indication that Auburn cares about its development of its athletes. Jordan-Hare Stadium tells you that Auburn really cares about football. Plainsman Park tells you that Auburn really cares about baseball. The Student Athlete Development Center can also say that Auburn is very serious about the development of academic and personal excellence in its athletes
Bobby Lowder attended the press conference, but did not speak. He issued a statement concerning his family's gift. "Almost everyone associated with Auburn recognizes that student-athletes and their fans make up an important part of the Auburn experience. In today's competitive world, however, athletic ability alone is not enough. It is important that each student-athlete have access to the best educational experience Auburn can provide, and Charlotte and I thought that this facility would go a long way toward ensuring that result. We very much appreciate Catherine and Bryan joining with us in the cause."
The new center will have 40 four-person study rooms, four eight-person study rooms, a study lounge, a library resources lounge, a 25-station computer lab, two 50-seat classrooms, an academic excellence recognition area and offices for Starks and his staff of 40 full-time and part-time counselors.
Women's track and field shotputter and discus thrower Stacey Martin spoke at the press conference and said, "Auburn has already been committed to student-athletes and putting them in the best position to be successful on the field, in the classroom or in the community. This shows that commitment to that once again."
For the past academic year, AU reported a 62 percent graduation rate for its athletes, which is at the six-year national average. The university says that its own study shows that 86 percent of athletes who complete their eligibility at AU leave the university with a degree.
Basketball coach Ellis said it is a "great day for Auburn University" and noted that Lowder told him 10 years ago when he took over the AU men's basketball coaching job that the graduation rate of basketball players needed to improve. "We have made tremendous strides, but we have got to do more," said Ellis, who said that there have been 30 basketball players graduate since he arrived at AU. "This is a wonderful, wonderful commitment. It is a wonderful gift."
Richter, Auburn's women's soccer coach, also spoke at the ceremony and said that she sees the new center as a major boost for recruiting athletes for her and other programs. "The commitment we have to our student-athletes is invaluable in the recruiting process."
Tuberville said he agreed with Richter, and added, "All of our athletes are going to be touched by this building. Mr. Lowder and I sat down a few years ago about the need to graduate our players, athletes and win championships. This is a major step. This year we were able to graduate 68 percent of our seniors in football. Our goal is 100 percent. That is almost impossible, but we have got the staff here in academics to do that and the facility. This facility is going to be outstanding."
With the NCAA adopting more stringent rules concerning athletes making progress on completing their degrees in order to be eligible to compete, it is more important than ever that they receive the best support possible, Tuberville said. "We desperately need this, especially with the new academic eligibility requirements coming up. I think it is going to be an asset to recruiting. I think it is going to be an asset to all of the athletes who come here. It is going to help them earn their degrees and that is what they are here for."
Auburn's most successful coach sent a statement from Athens, Ga., where his men's and women's swimming teams are getting ready for this week's SEC championships. Auburn is the defending champion for both the men and women and is the defending national championship team for men and women. AU is also ranked No. 1 in the nation currently in men's and women's swimming.
"A first-rate academic building was the single largest need of the Auburn athletic department and this gift allows us to meet that need," Marsh said. "This building will directly impact student-athletes lives and aid in a successful transition from college to the professional world. It will help provide a first-rate learning experience which will allow our athletes the ability to maximize their study time. The center will be a source of pride to Auburn University. We thank the Lowders for making this center possible."
Construction on the project began in January. Starks said that he can't wait to move into the new facility after working at overcroweded offices at Sewell Hall.
"One of the greatest predictors of success for student-athletes, and students in general, is time on task," he said. "Our ability to create a variety of learning environments, and offer a variety of programming simultaneously, will allow us to increase students' time on task. To have programs and services in place is one thing, but also having the physical environment in place to support those is just as important."