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VOL. 46 | NO. 3 | Friday, January 21, 2022

MTSU’s $100M athletics gamble

Boosters ante up to keep program relevant with big changes looming over college athletics

By Tom Wood

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Quiz time: Which catchphrase best describes Middle Tennessee State University’s recently announced $100 million project to upgrade its athletics facilities?

A. Keeping up with the Joneses.

B. Domino effect.

C. Staying relevant

D. All of the above

The correct answer is D.

MTSU’s massive renovation of current facilities and the addition of state-of-the-art buildings comes at an unprecedented time of change in college athletics – from conference-jumping to transfer portals to the players’ name/image/licensing (NIL) opportunities – and serves as an example of what schools of MTSU’s size face when they want to keep up with the major powers.

The sweeping project is planned for three phases:

• Already in the design phase is the $66 million construction of the Student Athlete Performance Center, adjacent to 30,000-seat Floyd Stadium, which will serve as offices and hub for the school’s football program. It is scheduled to be completed for the 2024 season.

“It’s a game-changer for our football program and really, the entire athletic department. It’s long overdue,” Blue Raiders football coach Rick Stockstill says.

“They haven’t moved any dirt yet, so we’re in the architectural stage of putting the plan on paper. I’m hopeful that this spring we can start moving some dirt and get this thing going.”

The Student Athlete Performance Center will be located on the site of the current weight and game day rooms and it will house training, strength and conditioning, and equipment centers, as well as the team’s locker and meeting rooms.

• Phase two is a refurbishment of the iconic Murphy Center, which turns 50 years old in December. Plans call for a new entrance and atrium and ticket office plus a skills center for the men’s and women’s basketball teams and a full-length court to be constructed.

A climate-controlled, multi-purpose indoor practice facility for all 17 of MTSU’s sports programs is included in phase two of the Build Blue Campaign.

-- Rednerings Provided By Mtsu Athletics

• The third phase includes a multipurpose indoor practice facility for all 17 of the school’s teams plus a hotel to be built as part of the athletics campus.

So, why is MTSU doing this? And why now?

College sports attendance is trending downward, and has been since before COVID-19, even at the NCAA’s highest level. In 2019, college football attendance hit a 24-year low, NCAA numbers reveal. Division I Football Bowl Subdivision schools, which include MTSU and Southeastern Conference schools such as Tennessee and Alabama, averaged 41,477 per game that year, the lowest since 1996.

MTSU has often struggled to satisfy the 15,000-per-game threshold – suspended by the NCAA due to COVID – to remain in college football’s highest division, averaging 12,351 for its five 2021 home games. It has never filled all 30,788 seats in Floyd Stadium since the facility expanded to that capacity in 1998.

College athletics is competing with more games on TV, video games, video streaming and a wide variety of other entertainment options keeping fans out of the stands.

And the sport’s largest conferences – the SEC, Big 10, Pac 12, Big 12 and ACC – could soon split from the NCAA and create a top tier of college football that would likely further pull fans and revenue from schools MTSU’s size.

Yet the changing face of college sports seems to be the catalyst for MTSU’s massive facility upgrade. In the world of realignment, MTSU has to make itself attractive to possible suitors.

MTSU, along with rival Western Kentucky, recently nixed offers to leave Conference USA for the Mid-American Conference. Several other schools have bolted Conference USA for other affiliations, and new members have been added in the wake of a changing collegiate landscape.

MTSU's FBS-era home football attendance

• 2021: 12,351
• 2020:  5,833
• 2019: 14,253
• 2018: 15,577
• 2017: 15,620
• 2016: 17,243
• 2015: 17,210
• 2014: 17,408
• 2013: 18,715
• 2012: 17,738
• 2011: 18,407
• 2010: 19,024
• 2009: 20,517
• 2008: 20,227
• 2007: 18,530
• 2006: 22,037
• 2005: 14,526
• 2004: 12,950
• 2003: 11,021
• 2002: 11,163
• 2001: 18,456

Sources: NCAA, MTSU

“The importance of enhanced facilities became clear to me during the shifts in the national collegiate landscape prompted by the realignment of athletic conferences,” MTSU president Sidney McPhee said in November when the Build Blue Now campaign was announced.

“The decision we made to remain with Conference USA aligns squarely with our desire to bring about meaningful change in our athletics campus.”

Conference affiliation is tenuous

While MTSU says it’s committed to Conference USA, there’s no certainty of how long that marriage will last. Athletics director Chris Massaro, Stockstill and others all acknowledge enhanced facilities will make MTSU more attractive to more prestigious conferences.

“I think that it improves your chances for a lot of things – No. 1, to better your overall program. If you have better results in your football and basketball programs, that only helps you become more attractive to fans and potential conference suitors, as well,” Massaro says.

“They’re a visible sign of a thriving program, our facilities. I think that leagues and fans and people want to be associated with that.

“And so, yes, these (upgrades) have that in mind – to improve our positioning in the FBS game. There’s 130 schools that we want to be highly competitive with, and we want our facilities to vault us past many of those schools and put us in a better position to recruit and to win games and championships and improve either our standing within Conference USA or with another conference.”

Stockstill takes it a step further.

The new indoor practice facility is seen at left, connected to the new football center.

“You’re exactly right. When you look at it, probably the most important thing with all this recent movement from one conference to different conferences is they wanted schools that showed a commitment to their athletic programs from a facility standpoint,” Stockstill says.

“Now, in a year or so, we’ll have that facility structure. And when realignment happens again – because it will happen again – I think we’re gonna need a prime position to have choices. If we want those choices. But … everything is moving.

“You’ve got to have a commitment to your athletic teams from a facilities standpoint, from a financial standpoint, and just so conferences know that you know they’re selecting a team that has that infrastructure to be successful long-term.”

Chip Walters, the “Voice of the Blue Raiders,” and Jim Simpson, the now-retired director of the Varsity Club, which oversees the school’s sports Hall of Fame, offer perspective of how far MTSU has come from its Ohio Valley Conference roots to the present.

“When conference realignment, the (next) waves of that come along, that’s a major part of what those conferences are looking for,” Walters says. “And if you look at what the (American Athletic Conference) did, and the schools they brought in, a lot of those have new football facilities, things like that.”

The AAC in October added Charlotte, FAU, North Texas, Rice, UAB and UTSA, all coming from Conference USA. That happened after Cincinnati, Houston and UCF left the AAC to join the Big 12.

“So, when you look at what are the important parts of having a successful program and what is appealing to the best student-athletes out there, facilities is right near the top of the list,” Walters adds.

Simpson credits Murphy Center with being the catalyst to everything happening today. Named for former football coach and athletic director Charles “Bubber” Murphy, the arena opened Dec. 11, 1972, with a 69-57 loss to Vanderbilt.

Phase two of the plan includes refurbishing Murphy Center, which turns 50 years old in December, to include a new ticket office and atrium.

“It never entered our mind back in the 1970s when all that first came to light,” Simpson says. “College athletics has just morphed into something that nobody had any idea would ever do. But MTSU rode the waves along with it.

“And now, with a 30,000-seat stadium and new facilities coming on hand – and where all the other sports are, facility-wise, in really good shape. So no, I never expected anything like this, but I’m sure excited to see what’s going to happen in the future.”

BRAA fundraising campaign

As is the case of any project of this magnitude, it’s all about the fundraising. Talk is cheap. Facilities aren’t.

MTSU’s fundraising has been through joint private and public campaigns spearheaded by Massaro, the board of trustees and the Blue Raider Athletics Association.

The $66 million for the Student-Athlete Performance Center has already been secured through private donations, and the ongoing public campaign seeking $15 million already has raised almost $10.7 million.

“This is the biggest athletic announcement in our lifetime, and we have the money and we’re fixing to start,” Steve Smith, chairman of the board of trustees and a 2004 inductee into the MTSU Hall of Fame, said during the November kickoff.

“This isn’t some dream. This is a dream come true. And sometimes dreams do come true,” added the chairman of Haury & Smith Contractors.

Two months later, Massaro, Stockstill and others associated with the project are still riding the momentum of the November announcement.

“Our fundraising has been very good from a solicitation point of view,” Massaro notes. “From a cash perspective, we’re in really good shape with the amount of cash that we have in hand.

MTSU Athletic Director Chris Massaro greets supporters at the announcement of the project.

-- Photos By Mtsu Athletics

“Now that the new year has started, we’re kind of going to start running wide-open in terms of our solicitation for other donors to get involved with the project. So those are the two main tracks that are happening right now and both are progressing very well.”

Stockstill and his wife Sarah have announced they are contributing $500,000 to the campaign.

“I’m the leader of this football program, and my wife and I, we just felt that we needed to be in the forefront,” he says. “We needed to step out there. I wanted to step out there.

“If we’re going to ask people to donate to this project, they needed to see that the leader is doing it also. I’m just not out there asking, you know. I’m putting actions where my mouth is.”

That donation, Stockstill adds, is a nod to the athletes who have gone through his program.

“I’m so appreciative and thankful for all the former players that have come through here and what they’ve sacrificed and what they’ve given to this program – and not having the greatest facilities,” Stockstill acknowledges.

“I wanted to do it for them to them, show how much I love them, how much I respect and appreciate them and everything they did. So it was kind of, you know, twofold. And that’s why we did it.”

Walter Chitwood, president of the BRAA, emphasizes this is a privately funded project.

“The beautiful thing about all of this upgrade and everything is that there’s not one cent of taxpayer money doing this,” the Murfreesboro dentist points out. “All of this is private investing, and donors, really. So, that’s what makes it even extra special.”

Andy Womack, a former state senator and past president of the BRAA, is spearheading the day-to-day fundraising campaign along with Drew Shea, MTSU’s director of sports medicine and athletics trainer.

Phase three also includes a hotel to be built adjacent to Murphy Center.

“We’ve been working with individuals that we knew would be receptive to (making) larger donations like you do normally in a silent phase,” Womack says. “We were able to come up with about 65% to 70% of our goal during that silent phase.

“Now we’re in a more mass solicitation program.”

Lee DeLeon was recently hired as deputy AD/external affairs. Shea says he expects other fundraising positions to be filled by the first week of February.

“We’ve been out, between Andy and I, we’ve been out soliciting people, talking to different people. We have team leaders that we rely on to help us facilitate other people that may want to give to the campaign,” Shea says.

“We’re well on our way. Our goal of $15 million is well in reach. But we need help. We need the community. We need MTSU’s former alumni (and) athletes, those fans that have been around MTSU for so long. … I’m very pleased, but I know there’s a lot more work to do. But we’re after it every day.”

Walters serves as one the team leaders that Shea mentions.

“Blue Raider Nation seems to respond really well when we have this type of – whether it’s a fundraiser or whatever – and I’ve got a great group of folks who have helped out with my team,” says Walters, who also is a Murfreesboro Realtor.

“We all came in and have made our contributions, and we want to show that we’re doing it ourselves. We’re not just asking, we’re part of it. And I hope that other people will join that and do their part.

“We’re not asking everybody to do it all; we just want everybody to do a part and it’ll help the entire process, the more people we can get involved in it. And it gives a piece of ownership, too – something to be proud of when this is all completed – for all of those who get involved.”

All about the students

The Blue Raider Athletic Association is in the midst of a $15 million public fundraising campaign to support facilities upgrades. To donate, go to www.buildbluenow.com or text BuildBlue to 71777.

Smith and Chitwood like to point out MTSU’s academic successes. And they agree that’s just one of many reasons behind the facilities upgrade.

In December, it was announced that MTSU’s NCAA Graduation Success Rate had equaled its school record of 93%, marking the eighth consecutive year MTSU has either equaled or set a new school record.

“Out of all the public universities and colleges in the United States, Middle Tennessee State is ranked No. 1 on graduating athletes,” Chitwood points out. “So, the more athletes that we get coming to our university and the quality of athletes that we desire, we’re better able to help them prepare for life by having them graduate. So, it’s just a win-win situation all the way down the line. And I couldn’t be more excited.”

At the November campaign launch, Smith lauded that graduation rate, saying, “We graduate more – a higher percentage of our student athletes – than any other school. And if we don’t, we’re not doing what we’re supposed to do. We’re here to educate athletes and people. So I’m most proud of that.”

Stockstill says athletics and academics go hand in hand where facilities are concerned.

“It’s long overdue. Our players are excited, our coaches are excited and the community is excited,” Stockstill says. “It’s going to help us in recruiting so much. It’s going to be able to attract the transfer portal and everything. Now we can say we’ve got as good a facilities as anybody.

“People don’t realize how far behind we were until you get out there and you start looking and competing against everybody else and you see what they have. So I’m extremely excited about it. It’s gonna be a great benefit for our players. They deserve that with what they’ve done and continue to do.

“And that’s why I’m so excited to see what the future holds when we have. Because we’ve been going into a gunfight with a knife, and we’ve been behind so many people from a facilities standpoint, it makes me excited about what the future holds.”

Beyond football facilities

MTSU has been upgrading facilities for a few years now – notably, the baseball and softball parks and the $1 million golf facility at The Grove, 30 miles west of campus in College Grove. There was also the Dean A. Hayes Track and Soccer Stadium, named after the internationally recognized track coach who recently died at age 84.

“The track and soccer stadium, which is named in Coach Hayes’ honor, is second to none,” Simpson says. “They have dressing rooms in there and concession stands, restrooms in the concourse. That’s a fabulous facility and that’s where we’re going to have our Dean Hayes Celebration of Life in late May or early June.”

Another key component of MTSU’s athletics campus is a $4.8 million outdoor tennis complex. It will be built on the same site as the existing courts and construction is expected to begin this summer with a 2023 grand opening.

The project is being funded by gifts from former players, the Murfreesboro tennis community and funds set aside a from the road improvement project of the Middle Tennessee Boulevard.

The Blue Raiders play indoor matches at Adams Tennis Complex on Old Fort Parkway.

Walters says the new and improved facilities “could be a game-changer (that) will really help Middle catch up to some of their contemporaries and peers out there. So it’s very, very important.

“It’s very exciting of how it can really change the face of athletics and the athletic facilities as we know it,” he adds. “There’s going to be obviously a major piece that involves Floyd Stadium.

“And then after that, some major renovations – in particular ingress and egress to the Murphy Center. That’s been needed for a while, and that’s very exciting, especially with the 50th anniversary of Murphy Center coming up in December of 2022.”

The attendance issue

Will upgrades boost attendance? School officials say there’s every reason to think so, especially if MTSU aligns itself with a higher profile conference than CUSA.

Floyd Stadium was renovated in 1998, with seating capacity expanded to 30,788. The first game, a thrilling 28-27 victory against Tennessee State, drew more than 27,814 fans, still the fourth-largest crowd at Floyd Stadium.

The stadium’s largest crowd ever was 30,502 in a 49-21 loss to Georgia Tech in 2011.

Last year, due to the COVID outbreak, the NCAA announced a two-year moratorium of its rules that call for schools to average 15,000 in order to participate in Division I football.

MTSU averaged 12,351 in 2021 for five home games.

“I think it’s been stagnant for a few years. It reached another level, but then it stopped again, right?” Womack says. “But I think with these improvements – with these enhancements – we’re giving the public a new look at us.

“I think that when we complete this, I have no doubt that we’re going to see an impact on attendance at events.”

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