Forward Progress

Fresh off a national championship with the University of Alabama, Colorado State University’s new head football coach, Jim McElwain, thinks he can remake the hapless Rams. He’d better, because his bosses are counting on a newly energized football program to do a lot more for CSU than simply win games.

August 2012

It’s a mid-April evening, and the mood inside the small theater in CSU’s Lory Student Center is congenial and studious, as if a seminar on master gardening or how to install home solar panels is about to begin. More than 300 people—a noticeable majority with graying hair—sit in metal chairs with legal pads and pens at the ready. But this isn’t a lecture; it’s a pep rally. The presenter is Dr. B. David Ridpath, associate professor of sports administration at Ohio University and an expert in issues surrounding intercollegiate athletics. The CSU grad has been asked to speak in Fort Collins by a new organization called Save Our Stadium Hughes (SOSHughes).

Although CSU president Tony Frank and AD Jack Graham—along with McElwain and another recently formed group dubbed Be Bold CSU—believe a strong football program is a smart investment in the university’s future, not everyone in Fort Collins is convinced. In tight economic times, when faculty and staff haven’t received raises in four years, academic programs are incurring cutbacks, and students are facing tuition increases, many see the hearty financial support of athletics as a questionable—and demoralizing—decision. But the biggest point of contention is not the money that has already been spent; it’s the money CSU’s athletic director would like to dole out to replace the aging, off-campus Hughes Stadium with a new on-campus football arena.

Nestled into the foothills four miles from CSU’s campus, Hughes Stadium opened in 1968 as a quaint little field in a bucolic setting. But times have passed it by. In April, Alex Callos, a columnist for bleacherreport.com, ranked all 124 stadiums in Division I football; the venue that SOSHughes is so desperately trying to rescue came in at 119.

Along with Graham, CSU football supporters are proposing a replacement for Hughes that would be built between Pitkin and Lake streets, just blocks from Old Town, and hold approximately 42,000 fans—still minuscule compared to the 100,000-seat behemoths common to the Big Ten, SEC, and Big 12. The new stadium’s $250 million price tag has some folks—including students leery of potential associated fees—balking. Others have different objections: Fort Collins residents fear the hoopla surrounding Saturday football games will create problems with parking, vandalism, and public safety, promote public intoxication, and leave the historic center of town a trashy mess come Sunday mornings. Some of CSU’s environmental types see the new structure as a waste of precious resources. Others worry that the city’s stunning views of the foothills will be obstructed.

Ridpath understands the objections, but they play second string, in his opinion, to what a serious investment in big-time college athletics could mean for his alma mater. “I went to school here, I love Fort Collins, I’m a loyal fan of CSU football,” Ridpath says. “But this is an issue that will change the culture of CSU forever.” It’s about more than bricks and mortar. He argues that entering the semishady “business” of high-revenue college sports will be detrimental to a university that should be perfectly happy staying the way it is: above the sports fray, out of the TV spotlight, and focused primarily on students as academicians. “We are not and will not ever be Ohio State University,” Ridpath says, referring to the school that Jack Graham has cited as a model for CSU. “We should not strive to be OSU. We have to be satisfied with being Colorado State.”

The Hughes issue is the latest chapter in the ongoing—and heated—national debate about the role of athletics on American college campuses. Abysmal graduation rates; athletes being paid by boosters or agents; rampant NCAA violations for improper tutoring practices; illicit contact with high school recruits; workouts that don’t follow the rules—these scandals have become part of the daily college sports discourse. It’s gotten so bad that this past May, New York University hosted a debate on the subject with author Malcolm Gladwell, sportswriter Jason Whitlock, former NFL defensive end Tim Green, and Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger of Friday Night Lights fame, who argued that football is “antithetical to the academic experience” and should be flat-out banned from college campuses.

Although Ridpath wouldn’t go quite that far, he disagrees with Frank and Graham that CSU needs to be a Top 25 mainstay. He’s more proud of CSU’s other rankings—those that say the school maintains above-average student-athlete graduation rates and is one of only 17 Division I football programs that has never had a major NCAA violation. Ridpath openly, and often snarkily, disagrees with the potential benefits Graham is promoting: that a new stadium will increase attendance and engender team spirit and tradition; that new facilities will attract better personnel and potentially help CSU shop itself to more esteemed conferences; that an on-campus stadium would benefit Fort Collins businesses; and that all these things could ultimately increase private donations to the university, a serious boon in times characterized by dwindling funding for higher education. “There simply isn’t any research that I’ve found that backs up the ROI Graham is touting,” Ridpath says.

The arguments of both sides are difficult to prove. What has worked at one school has bombed at the next. Although investing in a new on-campus stadium hasn’t increased attendance or fervor at Rutgers, it did exactly that at the University of Central Florida. As Texas Christian University’s strategically planned improvement in its football program has played out, its student applications have increased. The same, however, cannot be said of Marshall University, which went all in to achieve football prominence in the 1990s but didn’t enjoy more than a temporary bump in applications and enrollment.

Perhaps the best analogy to CSU’s situation is that of Boise State University. Be Bold CSU, the alumni-heavy group that supports a new stadium, has been touting the Idaho school’s accomplishments. “Five years of good football made all the difference for that university,” Be Bold’s Joel Cantalamessa says. Investing in a brilliant head coach and supporting its football program have done wonders for Boise State’s national image. BSU president Dr. Bob Kustra has said this success explains, anecdotally at least, why many new faculty members have come to Boise State, and is a causal factor in the university’s ascent from a Division I-AA school to Division I-A in the Western Athletic Conference to a BCS bowl winner and national title contender that recently joined the BCS-qualifying Big East Conference. (Historically, six conferences automatically qualify their champions for a BCS bowl game, which can score a school a multimillion-dollar payday. A four-team playoff will alter this structure in 2014.) BSU’s Big East move could bring an estimated $4 million to $6 million each year in TV money to the college, along with additional national exposure.

Ridpath says successes like Boise State’s are exceptions for the most part, and playing big-time football is a game most universities can’t win. He publicly asks Dr. Tony Frank to make the right decision for CSU—a decision Frank has said he’ll deliver this fall after reviewing the stadium advisory committee’s findings. On this night, the crowd at Lory clearly agrees with Ridpath. They are so hearty in their support that SOSHughes’ Bob Vangermeersch closes the meeting by reminding the audience of the group’s possible campaign to place an initiative on November’s ballot. In a move that would never fly in Tuscaloosa—or Baton Rouge or Athens, Georgia, or even in Boise—SOSHughes’ proposal would prohibit the city of Fort Collins from spending money on any infrastructure a new stadium might require.