There were a lot of questions about the future of Beaver Stadium on Penn State's Coaches Caravan two weeks ago.
And a few answers as well.
What emerged was a clearer picture of where Beaver Stadium fits in Penn State's Facilities Master Plan, released in March.
It's clear that nothing major will be done to the stadium over the next five years. After that? Less clear. There's no certainty about what will happen. And who knows who will even be at PSU to see any Beaver Stadium renovations come to fruition?
Those questions, sans definitive answers, comprise part of a six-pack of stadium renovation issues raised along the seven-stop caravan. They include:
1. The Cost of Maintaining Status Quo
Phase I of the Master Plan will run five years, beginning in 2018-2019, according to both athletic director Sandy Barbour and her aide-de-camp, athletics COO Phil Esten. That phase does not include anything major for the 57-year-old stadium last renovated in 2001 — other than basic upkeep that costs more than $1 million a year.
"It's old and it's massive square footage," Barbour said of Beaver Stadium while caravaning. "Even in a fairly new stadium, you'd be putting seven figures into upkeep annually. So that's where we have to be really smart, given that the renovation is pending...what things we do and what things we don't do. We're putting significant resources into it, but so is everyone else" with their stadiums.
A few days later at the final stop of the caravan, Esten said that over the next five years don't expect any big changes to the stadium — which was built in 1960 for $1.6 million, with much of the steel coming from Beaver Field after being trucked across campus from near Rec Hall.
"With any facility that is that large, in order for it to continue to operate, you have some depreciation and you need to invest in the facility," said Esten, who as an associate athletic director was a key player in the building and funding of the University of Minnesota's $300 million, 52,525-seat TCF Bank Stadium in 2009.
"With a stadium like Beaver Stadium, it's probably a little bit more than if it were a newer stadium. Other than from things from a depreciation standpoint, there may be some (new) things from a graphic standpoint. Other than that, we're looking at the five-year plans."
2. The Two Major Issues
Any major work on Beaver Stadium won't begin until Phase II, five years down the pike. "The Beaver Stadium renovation is such a huge project that it's unreasonable on two levels for us to fast track in the next five years," Barbour said.
"One is from the design, planning, research end — and we've done some of that, talking to our fans, (asking) 'What do you want and to what degree are you willing to invest in it?' ... Concessions, restrooms, ingress, egress, technology. I know our media facilities are not the best. All of that needs to be addressed.
"...Finally, related to that, what's the funding plan? The number is going to be a big one. We don't know what it's going to be. It's going to be a relatively large one. We're probably going to have to say, 'No, we're not going to do that. What's the next step back from that?' We're going to have to have a plan."
3. Renovation: How Big — Or Small?
This is not Barbour's first stadium renovation rodeo. While athletic director at Cal, she oversaw the rebuilding and renovation of California Memorial Stadium, completed in 2012. It was complicated by the fact the stadium was orginally erected on a fault line and therefore had to meet mandated earthquake safety regulations. The project, which included a $153 million student athletic center (along the lines, in some ways, of such a center in Phase I of Penn State's master plan) drew a good bit of criticism after it resulted in a debt of $443 million.
Thus, she is likely to tread especially lightly before taking on and finding the financing for another $443 million (or more) project — without first looking both ways, crossing all the t's and dotting all the i's, measuring twice and cutting once, and checking all of her work. And Esten's work. As well as Franklin's work on the field, beyond a single season of rejuvenation.
Meaning the size, scope and cost of a renovation could be truncated if Penn State opts for a smaller renovation than along the lines of the all-in, half-billion dollar total renovation that Texas A&M did of its Kyle Stadium, completed in 2015.
Based on Barbour's caravan comments — the aforementioned "What's the next step back from that?" — don't be surprised if Penn State thinks smaller than a massive re-do, especially when a quick survery of the Big Ten reveals a spate of projects that have been smaller than the Texas-sized Kyle Field project.
Recent makeovers of football stadiums across the Big Ten have run the gamut, beginning with the $42 million renovation Ohio State has planned for The Horseshoe, slated for completion in 2020. Other recent stadium projects in the conference include: Memorial Stadium, University of Nebraska, $63.5 million (completed in 2013); Memorial Stadium, University of Illinois, $132 million (by 2020); and Michigan Stadium, University of Michigan, $226 million (2010). Wisconsin's latest master plan includes a renovation of Camp Randall Stadium, which could range from $39.6 million to $150 million. Plus, there's the new $300 million TCF Bank Stadium, which Esten had a hand in.
Penn State's most recent renovation of Beaver Stadium was completed in 2001, at cost of $93 million, and included the addition of 12,000 seats (4,000 at the club level) and 60 suites.
4. It's for the Fans, Not The Football Players
Penn State's players aren't clamoring for any big changes in Beaver Stadium. The stadium as it currently stands is a big selling point when they first walk out of the south end tunnel as recruits. And a big #107k homefield advantage once they finally step onto the field as bona fide Nittany Lions.
Which is a good thing, as far as Barbour is concerned. Because when the master plan was planned, the athlete experience was priority No. 1 — for all 31 of Penn State's varsity sports.
"We have to look at everything," Barbour pointed out when talking about all of Penn State's athletic facilities and programs. "What provides a competitive advantage for us, what really doesn't? What isn't really value-added? What address student-athletes needs, creating those conditions for success, helping to prepare for a lifetime of impact? If it doesn't add to that, we're probably not going to do it."
She acknowledges that football is different.
"Beaver Stadium is the one project out of all of those that is almost exclusively about the fan experience," she said. "Student-athletes do very little in Beaver Stadium. That is really about a back on my seat or an opportunity to purchase membership to a club. We've seen the renderings of the BBQ suites in the pro forma. I think there's been a lot of excitement and acceptance about it. A lot of people like the look of the renderings. Some don't. Some like the current look, the skinless look, if you will, of the stadium. I understand that."
5. Last Man Standing
Based on the timeline outlined above, it could 2023 or so until Penn State even begins any major renovations at Beaver Stadium.
That's if the Populous architectural plans are done and the financial game plan is accounted for at that point. Even with a "go" on the stadium project by that time, add another three or four years to completely renovate Beaver Stadium section by section, off-season by off-season (although the project could be of a much smaller scale), and it could be 2026 or later when it all is said and redone.
If that's the case, and the "new" and renewed Beaver Stadium is completed nine years hence, Franklin could be last man of the current PSU top brass standing — and the first one running out of the tunnel of the made-over stadium.
2019 is a big year for Penn State leadership. Current contracts are up in two years for university president Eric Barron (June 30, 2019), Barbour (Aug. 31, 2019) and Franklin (Dec. 31, 2019). Chairman of the Board of Trustees Ira Lubert, who has a business and industry seat on the board, will likely be succeeded by vice chair Mark Dambly before then. The terms of Esten's contract are not public. But no make mistake, Esten is a key player in all of this as well. He is also the deputy director of athletics and is the senior administrator directly responsible for football (and thus, Franklin's direct supervisor).
Although talk of a contract renewal/extension for Franklin has lingered for months — facilities and staff support have something to do with that — we can figure that it will get done. He has 11-3 and Rose Bowl leverage, although on the flip-side Barbour and Penn State can only go so high. Penn State athletics is not flush with cash after several years of sanction struggles; it was only $2.89 million to the good in 2015-16.
So, figure Franklin, Barbour and Barron will be extended beyond 2019. (Barbour's on a roll; Penn State teams have won nine Big Ten titles this school year, and PSU is currently No. 5 in the Director's Cup.) Each of the three will get paid handsomely at the end of his/her first contract. Barbour gets a $100,000 retention bonus on the final day of her agreement; Franklin currently is slated to get a $750,000 bonus if he's employed by PSU on Dec. 31, 2019; and Barron will get a $1 million payment at the end of his contract.
But this isn't about the money. It's about who will be around in 2026, if any renovations are complete by then. Barron will be 75 by then; Barbour will be 69; and Franklin will be the baby of the group, at 54. If he stays at Penn State until then, 2026 will be his 13th season as the Nittany Lions' head coach. By that point, both Lubert and Dambly would both be chairs emeritus. And Esten, who was a finalist for the Minnesota A.D. job in the not-so-distant past, could be long gone to run his own show.
So, even if both Barbour and Barron get three- and/or five-year extensions and then retire, it could still be up to CJF to be the lead dog for at least a portion of the homestretch of any extensive Beaver Stadium extension. And certainly, with fundraising and program visioning, his role would be quite big and quite a bit sooner. The checks that will be needed to do the first renovations in Beaver Stadium in what will be for the first time in two decades could be five, 10, 20 times the size of those needed to improve what Franklin calls the flow of Lasch Building.
Ultimately, though, the future of the stadium could be in Franklin's hands much more than it is now. At least when it comes to leading the band and paying the piper. It would be the ultimate in CEO work for a man who takes the up-most pride in developing people and programs and dreams.
6. What Franklin Says. And Doesn't
The Penn State head coach hasn't been shy about make public pronouncements and private requests for money to continue the Lasch renovations or other program upgrades and expenditures. But for right now, Franklin has consistently deflected any questions about what he would like to see done with Beaver Stadium now and into the future. At least publicly.
When I asked him about the stadium's future one fine caravan morning in Hazleton, he waved it off.
"That not really a conversation for me," he said flatly. "I'm not really kind of involved in the Beaver Stadium project."
But, I followed up, what would you like to see happen with Beaver Stadium?
"What I do know is that there are issues there that I have heard from people, with the bathrooms, with the different things that we're able to offer with the stadium — food, bathrooms, just different things that people expect now in a modern stadium," Franklin replied.
"We have issues with technology, issues with being able to use the stadium year-round because of pipes freezing and things like that, the way the stadium was built. So there's a lot of issues. But it's probably not best for me to kind of discuss those things because I have not taken a deep dive into them and I don't like to have opinions on things I haven't really been involved with or done research on.
"At this time I'm not prepared to do that."