Like most extraordinary salesmen, Norwood Teague has a knack for the appropriate tenor and cadence of communication. When you ask him what his priorities are as the director of athletics for the University of Minnesota, his response is as organized and succinct as a PowerPoint presentation, but the bullet points are coated in the honey of his native North Carolina drawl, and appealingly scuffed by the genuine passion he brings to the endeavor.
“One, you have to set the vision for what direction you want to go. And you have to sell and articulate that vision, not just to outside stakeholders but internally as well. Secondly, you have to hire great people, especially coaches. If you do that, you’re headed in a great direction.”
Teague pauses a beat, but what comes next isn’t an afterthought. “And then you have to raise money. You have to raise money and you have to build a constituent base behind you, to help it financially.”
Hired in April 2012 to replace Joel Maturi, Teague wasted no time setting and selling his vision. His first words in his first interview after the hire, with Mike Grimm of the Gopher Radio Network, were “The sky’s the limit”—his description of the prospects of Gopher athletics. Less than two minutes later, explaining why he was such a good fit for Minnesota, he stated frankly, “I learned early on that the U really needed a fundraiser. That’s where I grew up in college athletics.”
The days are long gone when administration can be the primary duty of an athletic director at an NCAA Division I university. Today, an AD must negotiate the multibillion-dollar contradiction of motivations that comprise college sports. It is a playing field chalked out by federal gender equity laws and grade-point eligibility on one side, and the lucrative cultural mania of March Madness and the FCS football championship on the other. Meanwhile, the competitive recruitment of talented teenagers and wealthy “stakeholders” is relentless, ridiculous, and absolutely necessary, if you want to keep your job.
Make no small plans
On July 10, one year and 22 days after he took over, Norwood Teague appeared at the monthly meeting of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents. Nearly two hours into the agenda, Teague delivered a 15-minute presentation on the innocuous-sounding subject of the facilities assessment plan for Gopher athletics. When he was finished, Teague had mapped out the first phase of what is to become the “athletic district” on the U of M campus. It will be a comprehensive overhaul, with a physical scale and financial weight foreign to any plans his predecessors have offered in the long history of the land grant institution.
Specifically, over the next six to eight years, Teague wants to construct a new academic center and “training table” dining area for student-athletes, along with a football complex, women’s gymnastics practice facility, Olympic indoor-sport practice building, men’s and women’s basketball practice building, and wrestling training facility. Total cost is estimated at $190 million, all to be raised from private sources. That sum is more than double Teague’s 2014 operating budget of $84.5 million, and it is more than twice the size of the $86 million in private monies tapped to complete TCF Bank Stadium just five years ago.
Longtime followers of Gopher sports were shocked. On the Sunday-night dinosaur cave known as The Sports Show, hosted by WCCO’s Mike Max, local sports media oracle Sid Hartman fumed, “I think whoever advised them to ask for that kind of money made a bad mistake. It scared the boosters right away. Ask for $50 million or $60 million.” Patrick Reusse chimed in that Teague and company would “be better off going over there and trying to get the Legislature to pay for half of it, just like they did the football stadium.” Max finished: “I just don’t know who you tap.”
But Teague does not believe in half-measures, in the conservative play that carries an easily obtainable price tag. During his first year on the job, he restaffed key positions, importing people who share his aggressive optimism. He brought with him from Virginia Commonwealth University Assistant Athletic Director of Marketing Corrie Sears, who had previously worked as director of marketing at the University of Nebraska. (Many elements of the U facilities plan borrow from Nebraska’s.) Teague’s new media relations pro, Chris Werle, has been a vice president for global communications at Estée Lauder and helped launch the X-Box Games division while working for Microsoft.
Most notably, Teague hired David Benedict to be his executive associate athletic director and unofficial right-hand man, jobs Benedict held under Teague at VCU.
Benedict believes in the turbo power of positive thinking. He acknowledges there is “a healthy dose of skepticism” among the Gopher fan base, and that “some think our facilities plan is too ambitious. I don’t think it is too ambitious at all.
“Maybe it is because I am coming from an outsider’s perspective, but I look across the river at downtown and I know we have over 20 Fortune 500 companies. We have the most successful privately held company in Cargill. We are just trying to achieve the same level of success as those folks across the river, and I don’t see why we and our fan base shouldn’t expect that level of achievement. What is different about the university than Cargill or Best Buy or Target or General Mills?”
Benedict hammers home the pep talk with a particularly bold claim. “Frankly, I don’t think there is another Big 10 school that has the community in its backyard that we do. Therefore, I’m not sure why any other Big 10 institution can achieve more than we can.”
Behind the numbers
Current reality presents a formidable rebuttal to Benedict. The funding and construction of TCF Bank Stadium was a magnificent achievement for the Gopher program—the first college football facility that seats at least 50,000 completed in more than 50 years in this country. But that’s still less than half the capacity of the home stadiums used by Big 10 rivals at Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State.
Yes, the Twin Cities possess a vibrant array of corporations unmatched in the environs of any other Big 10 school, with the likely exception of Northwestern, near Chicago. But a bustling metropolis also means more places for donors to spend their money. A Gopher game in one of the three major revenue-producing sports (football, men’s basketball, and men’s hockey) may not even be the lead item on the local sports page. Contrast that to Ohio State; according to U of M athletic department Chief Financial Officer Tom McGinnis, who worked there for many years, “you don’t schedule anything against an Ohio State football game, whether they are at home or on the road. You don’t get married, you don’t do anything. And when Ohio State plays at home, the people in that stadium would make the fifth-largest city in the state.”
This disparity goes straight to the bottom line. Ohio State has the largest 2013 athletic budget in the Big 10, at $142 million, compared to Minnesota, which is slightly below the middle tier, at $84.5 million. Part of that is because Ohio State carries 36 sports programs, the most of any athletic department in the Big 10, while Minnesota is tied for fourth, with 25. But the success of sports at Ohio State generates enough income that the athletic department helps fund other areas of the university, a rarity among colleges nationwide. The situation in Minnesota, where the central administration will allocate approximately $7 million dollars to athletics in 2014, is far more common.
Teague’s critics believe a grandiose, marketing-driven approach is discordant with the state’s heartland modesty, if not the shibboleth of passive-aggressive “Minnesota Nice.” But even if they are accurate, the prevailing trends in Division I college athletics are not going to be curbed by steadfast adherence to a parochial culture. Across the country, as university athletic departments vie for streams of money from media outlets, sponsorships, seating licenses, and other booster-oriented revenues, they have to employ more corporate methods to succeed. This is especially true in the Big 10, where Commissioner Jim Delany has put the conference ahead of the curve, establishing its own television network and successfully courting new member schools based on the size of their media markets rather than their location.
For the most part, the conference is sharing this newfound largesse equally among its members. The assumption is that less-successful member schools will leverage the money to beef up their programs and improve the overall caliber of athletic competition.
Consequently, the challenge facing the Teague regime is not whether his approach is culturally appropriate for Minnesota; it is whether he can cajole and otherwise bend the prevailing culture enough to help the Gophers keep pace in this high-powered environment.
The vicious cycle of defeat
Of course, the teams playing in marquee college sports have to win and entertain audiences enough to justify those seating fees, television contracts, hot-dog prices, and three-figure logo apparel. Since these top-performing college athletes aren’t paid a salary, they must be compensated in ways that go beyond the standard tuition-free scholarship. Hence the facilities arms race.
“TCF [Bank Stadium operates] seven days a year, with football [games]. This facilities plan is where our football players will live, on a daily basis,” Teague says. “So that is tremendous as far as recruiting is concerned because they see this is where I’m going to live and work out every day, this is where I’ll eat a lot of my meals, and this is where I’ll study.”
It’s where the recruiting rubber meets the road. “The coaches and the [highly recruited] student-athletes are looking for the level of commitment provided to the sport that will help ensure their success, and the bricks and mortar demonstrates the commitment,” says Mark Dienhart, the U’s men’s athletic director from 1995-2000 and the current director and CEO of the Richard M. Schultz Family Foundation.
“If you are a renowned biochemical researcher, you are not going to go to a college that doesn’t have quality bio labs and first-rate colleagues in your field who will improve your research,” Dienhart continues. “There is an analogous situation in athletics. These kids are looking for high-caliber coaches and teammates. They know what they want to see, and the facilities are a part of that.
“I’m in sympathy with Norwood’s position [in making such a large proposal], because if you decide it’s not worth it, it is unilateral disarmament. You can take the high road and not play the game, but not a lot of 18-year-old kids and their parents are going to take that high road with you.”
Teague is facing steep challenges. The common wisdom is that athletic success begets booster enthusiasm, which begets donations. The football team hasn’t been to the Rose Bowl since 1961. The once-in-a-lifetime chance to leverage the revenue and enthusiasm of a new on-campus stadium was squandered by the tall-talking incompetence of former Coach Tim Brewster, who promised the moon but couldn’t beat South Dakota State, and finished 6-21 in the Big 10. And while the men’s basketball and hockey teams have enjoyed intermittent success, they underperformed relative to the exalted reputation of recently deposed hoops Coach Tubby Smith and the storied tradition of Gopher hockey. More to the point, the tremendous effort required to finish the financing of TCF Bank Stadium may have exhausted some of the U’s traditional funders.
“To get to $190 million, they are going to have to identify people who they haven’t historically gotten [to contribute],” says Dave Mona, a longtime radio color analyst for Gopher sports, recently retired as a public relations specialist at Weber Shandwick, who had his first sports byline in the University of Minnesota Daily during that Rose Bowl year of 1961. “Some people said, ‘I’ll give for the stadium,’ but more or less implied it was a one-time thing. The low-hanging fruit was tapped for that, and before that, attempts to raise money for Gopher athletics produced some pretty low numbers.
“But Teague and his people have done it elsewhere,” Mona adds. “I went to an event about fundraising the other day and I’ve got to tell you it was pretty sophisticated stuff, in terms of things like trusts for high-capability donors. And Dave Benedict more than held his own, asking questions with some real depth and knowledge. I get the feeling they are doing massive amounts of research to know where people [alumni and others interested in the program] are, beyond just this geographical area. They ‘get’ fundraising.”
Friends with money
Teague’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2014 calls for a nearly 40 percent increase for fundraising, to nearly $3.5 million (most going to complete fund-raising for the new Siebert Field ballpark). This is not money earmarked for the $190 million facilities campaign, and in fact almost necessarily competes with it.
But as the athletics CFO McGinnis explains, “You can only raise ticket prices so much. And we have our contracts in place with a lot of marketing and sponsorships, so you can’t really go back and tweak those. So your development operation”— fundraising—“can be your opportunity to generate additional funds.”
In a recent column, Sid Hartman claimed that there haven’t been a lot of checks written to the program since Teague became AD. But the slow initial pace has impressed Randy Handel, the associate athletic director for development and a promoted holdover from the Maturi regime. “It’s very important that Norwood didn’t come in just asking for money on day one or day two or day three. He is spending an incredible amount of energy going out and engaging people, beginning lasting, trusting relationships that are going to benefit us long term. It speaks volumes to me—I’m excited—that he has a long-term plan and that he is engaging the goals of that plan on a daily basis. And he has the whole department involved.”
Executive Associate AD Benedict implies high-end donors are a priority. “At least over the next couple of years, my focus and Norwood’s will be engaging those folks who can really make a difference in the type of campaign we just laid out. Those deeply committed relationships don’t happen overnight and they don’t happen by unintended consequence.”
Or, as Teague said to Mike Grimm in his first interview: “I not only want to fundraise, I want to friend-raise. ” The U understands that inside access can be a powerful draw for potential donors. According to Handel, this can range from a brief one-on-one session to bringing someone along on a road trip.
When you are “friend-raising” fat cats, it is nice for the university president to have your back. Ultimately, an institution’s approach toward athletics starts at the top. President Mark Yudof, and before him, presidents Nils Hasselmo and Kenneth Keller, were not that interested in a robust athletic department and so U sports languished. Meaningful progress occurred only after President Bob Bruininks succeeded Yudof in 2002. His steadfast support helped Maturi merge separate men’s and women’s athletic departments, and secure public and private funding for TCF Bank stadium.
Don’t blame Tubby:
Whatever his demeanor and/or his team’s performance on the court, the Tubby Smith era was a success for the bottom line. U men’s basketball substantially increased its profitability every year from 2010-12 despite going without a long-promised practice facility.
President Eric Kaler has been similarly aggressive, and influential, in a tenure that began in June 2011. He requested a comprehensive facilities plan as one of the first orders of business for his new AD. At the regents meeting in July, he heartily endorsed the facilities plan and praised the energetic Teague. The goal, he says, is “to be competitive in the Big 10, and that means sometimes we are going to win a championship. We are not going to cheat or take shortcuts, but otherwise I want to do what it takes to win . . . I understand that means we need a fundraiser as athletic director.”
The unanimous opinion about Norwood Teague is that if he fails, it will be on his terms. And failure is a real possibility. Even if Teague defies skeptics and raises facilities money in a timely fashion, that still puts the Gophers near the middle of the pack in the college arms race. This has always been a Vikings town, and they will soon have a new stadium with more amenities than TCF Bank Stadium. Plus, the unique configuration of Williams Arena makes it nearly impossible to add the kind of flexible luxury seating that is the current trend.
Corny like a fox?
Like most extraordinary salesmen, there is a bit of a corny side to Norwood Teague. You can’t tell if it is genuine or just a plausibly genuine gimmick. In response to a question about Williams Arena, he squeezed lemons into lemonade. “It is a classic and so much part of the fiber of this state. One of my greatest thrills was walking in there the first time because I have watched it on TV my entire life,” he says, shaking his head in wonder at the memory.
The corny side of Teague currently holds a trump card, which he announced at a regents meeting. Last year, Minnesota produced the second-most academic all-Big 10 student athletes in the conference. All 25 of Minnesota’s athletic programs had a spring grade point average of 3.0 or higher.
“We’ve got a great story to tell and we can’t hold back in telling these stories,” Teague told the regents. “I promise you we will put an amazing foot forward.”
Britt Robson is a longtime Twin Cities journalist. His last TCB byline was a profile of Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor in October 2012. Continue reading to access statistics about U of M athletics.
This article is reprinted in partnership with Twin Cities Business.