Giger: Can PSU pull off its master plan?

Commentary

Ambition is a wonderful thing. To be the best, it takes courage to try new things, to take risks, to think big and never settle for the status quo.

Thinking outside the box and trying something different are how you become great.

If you can pull it off.

Penn State is attempting to do something great over the next 20 years with its facilities master plan, which includes what looks like a gorgeous renovation of Beaver Stadium, a tremendous athletics hub called the Center of Excellence, a new Natatorium and numerous other improvements.

If Penn State can pull all this off, it will be a grand slam in just about every way (except for men’s basketball, which I’ll get to later).

But there’s no getting around the fact that accomplishing all of the goals is a very big if.

Perhaps the most important thing athletic director Sandy Barbour said during Monday’s facilities presentation was this: “We’ll ultimately build what we can afford.”

With a price tag that could reach $1 billion or more for everything planned, the facilities project represents not only an incredibly daunting fundraising challenge, but also a dangerous financial risk that needs to be meticulously thought out so it doesn’t hinder the athletics department in the future.

On the same day PSU revealed its facilities plan, Tim Curley and Gary Schultz pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor child endangerment charge from the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The AP story on that pointed out Penn State’s costs for the scandal are approaching a quarter of a billion dollars.

Given everything the school has been through, it’s hard not to wonder if it’s still too early for PSU to be going out and trying to solicit the massive amount of money necessary for the facilities plan.

Are people ready to give at the kind of level that it will take to dent the costs? Barbour and her colleagues will find out soon enough.

And if they’re not, is Penn State willing to finance a gigantic portion of the costs, which again, is a dangerous financial risk?

What I frankly don’t get about PSU’s plan at this point is how much the school is kicking the Beaver Stadium renovations down the road, while in the meantime planning to spend a bunch of money on things that will not make money in return (not directly anyway).

The school hopes to raise $120 million over the next five years for the Center of Excellence, Natatorium, tennis facility, soccer field and new indoor practice facility.

Those things will all be really cool, I’m sure, but the belief here is that if that kind of money can be raised relatively quickly, then it needs to go to the most important and pressing part of PSU athletics.

That’s football. By 100 miles.

With all due respect to tennis and soccer and swimming, those sports don’t make money. They don’t pay the bills. They don’t generate much interest.

Why should the first $120 million be spent on those things?

Yes, I’ll be an elitist college sports fan here, but football and basketball deserve priority every time, in every situation.

As it stands, the major renovation work on Beaver Stadium won’t begin for at least six years. So if you’re cramming yourself into the stadium with small seats and antiquated facilities on fall Saturdays, you won’t see major improvements for at least that long.

And how much longer? After raising $120 million for the initial projects, PSU probably will have to be well on its way to doubling that total before it can start the Beaver Stadium work. That could take eight or 10 years, then another three or four to finish the project, putting us closer to 2030.

That’s so far down the road that it’s really tough to even get excited about what Beaver Stadium ultimately will look like.

Why not strike now while the iron is hot, coming off a great season and Rose Bowl berth, and raise money that will go directly into the stadium? I’m far from a fundraising expert, but it would stand to reason that if you want to hit people up for football money, now is the time, not five years from now.

OK, now for basketball. It continues to be clear that Penn State is not committed to having the best men’s program that it can have. What else is new?

Yes, the school plans to build a new basketball practice facility, which will be a welcome and needed addition. But when? Not for at least six years, and probably not for at least 10 because football fundraising likely will take up most of the next phase.

Some upgrades, of which there are no specifics, are planned for the Bryce Jordan Center. But when? Again, probably not for 10 years or more.

So, men’s basketball can just carry on playing in a lousy basketball arena for the next decade, with no hope of helping improve the game environment. But hey, the school hasn’t shown it’s fully committed to men’s basketball for six decades, so what’s another one at this point?

Basketball rant over (or at least to be continued down the road).

Barbour is an extremely intelligent person, and so is her right-hand man, deputy AD Phil Esten. They will be overseeing these planned facilities upgrades, or at least they will be for as long as they remain at Penn State.

Esten will have opportunities in the coming years to be AD at a major program somewhere. Barbour said Monday she’s committed to being at PSU for a long time, but she’s very well thought of in the industry, so she could have other lucrative job offers come her way.

If Barbour and Esten were to leave at some point, who’s to say that their successors will be as keen on this whole facilities project as they are?

These are all just things to consider about the facilities plan, which at this point is still in the infancy stage. It is being called an “aspirational plan” by PSU officials, and hopefully they can pull off everything they’re aspiring to accomplish.

Only time, and money, will tell.

Regardless, it’s a shame the school won’t be spending the money on Beaver Stadium any time soon.

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM.

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