$1.55 million athletics gift announced

Joe Lord

Head football coach Jack Harbaugh first told the news to those players who had stuck with the program longest — nineteen seniors.

He pulled them aside in a parking garage in Chattanooga, Tenn. The team was practicing there the day before the I-AA football championship.

Harbaugh told the players that an unnamed family was going to help finance a new building for Western athletics.

A $1.55 million donation, meant to begin financing a new Academic and Athletic Performance Center on campus, will be announced at 9 a.m. today in Diddle Arena.

The center will house a new weight room, locker room, training room, study area and computer labs, Athletics Director Wood Selig said. The football team offices will also move to the new facility.

The baseball team offices could move to the building, too, said Tom Hiles, vice president for Institutional Advancement.

Hiles said the center will focus on academic advising for athletes.

While the donor family’s identity will remain confidential for now, at some point the building will be named for a member of that family, Hiles said.

“That’s the plan,” he said.

A feasibility study will begin later this semester to decide where the building may be located and how it will appear, Hiles said. No date has been set for ground breaking.

The building could take as much as 40,000 square feet of space near Smith Stadium, Selig said.

The weight room alone is projected to have 10,000 square feet, he said. That would make it comparable in size to those of division I-A football programs. Selig added there are no plans to bump the football team up to the higher level.

Regardless, Harbaugh said the football team is in need of new facilities.

Their current home in Smith Stadium was designed for a smaller team and staff, he said. The locker room also has a recurring roof leak.

Selig alluded to another cause for the move.

“You walk in on any given day and it has the distinct odor of a soaking wet dog on a hot summer afternoon,” he said. “I mean, it absolutely stinks.”

It’s a problem Selig hopes to lose. He said the leftover offices in Smith Stadium will be used by athletics to ease a space shortage.

Western, he said, is converting its first national title season into a new facility.

President Gary Ransdell agreed. He said in recent years, the university has promised supporters results and distinction from its athletic programs.

“This national championship is an early delivery on those promises,” he said. “The family recognized that and made the decision to invest further in our academic and athletic performance.”

Selig credited the football team and coaching staff for attracting the donor to the university.

“We’re just very fortunate that Coach Harbaugh and his staff and our student athletes were able to put together a storybook season,” he said.

Selig said the center has three possible locations:

In the end zone of Feix Field nearest Big Red Way, which would be rerouted to make room for the new building.

In the end zone of the practice field across from the Preston Center on Big Red Way, next to Feix Field.

Along the sideline of Feix Field opposite the stands in Smith Stadium.

The site will be chosen after the feasibility study is complete.

Hiles’ office is in contact with a handful of possible donors who might contribute the rest of the funding for the center, he said. Naming rights for rooms in the building could also be sold.

“Keep in mind, we will still have about $4.5 million to raise,” Ransdell said.

The family’s donation brings Western’s capital campaign to $86.4 million, only a few million away from their $90 million, June 30 deadline.

Ransdell said the family has already given the entire amount to the university — an unusual step for large donations.

This isn’t the first time the donor family has given to Western. In 1998, they made more than a $3 million contribution to football scholarships, Hiles said.

A photo of this season’s seniors was taken after the announcement in the Chattanooga parking garage, Harbaugh said.

Some day the picture will hang on a wall in the center.

“It just reaffirms good things are going to happen when you stay positive, stay on course,” Harbaugh said.

Reach Joseph Lord at [email protected]