UGA donors worry about athletics’ ‘master plan’

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UGA donors worry about athletics’ ‘master plan’

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John Paul Van Wert/UGA Sports
The Sanford Stadium will undergo renovations before the 2017 college football season.

ATHENS – When it comes to the subject of football spending and facilities, Jon Stinchcomb is in a unique position. As a former Georgia player, he knows what the team needs and wants. As a current member of Georgia’s athletic board, he has a vote and a say in how and what money is spent.

Over the past month, Stinchbomb has cast a vote agreeing to a project that will cost the school and donors $63 million. He’s also had numerous conversations with friends and donors about what more needs to be done.

And what the plan is. And if there isn’t one, what it should be.

“Even for your big-money donors, it’s not: We don’t want to spend the money. It’s: Let’s make sure we’re spending it in the right places, and that it’s part of an over-arching, big picture approach that keeps us competitive,” Stinchcomb said. “And included in that is: Help me understand what we’re doing with the reserve (funds), and what’s our approach to that.

Based on conversations with several donors, most of whom did not want to be named, there is a concern over whether Georgia has an institution is spending enough to keep up in the SEC and national facilities arms race. But the overarching concern is whether there is a master plan, or whether the school simply playing whack-a-mole, moving deliberately from one project to the next.

“There’s a lot of frustration with the current administration and the athletic department and their use of capital, that has so enthusiastically been donated,” said Ryan Scates, a corporate attorney in Atlanta who as a student was on UGA’s athletic board during the 2012-13 school year. “UGA isn’t known for being a reactionary, second-rate institution. It’s one of the best schools in the South. So to see us get out-paced by Clemson, and Alabama and Auburn, in terms of (athletics facilities.) It’s not because we’re at a disadvantage because of resources.”

Georgia’s administration, with athletics director Greg McGarity as the point man, have defended themselves by pointing to what they are spending now in facilities:

• Three major projects since 2010 centered on football, totaling around $121 million. That began with a $31 million renovation to the Butts-Mehre building, then the $30.2 million just-completed indoor facility, and now $63 million committed to the Sanford Stadium renovation, which will build the team new locker rooms and a recruiting area. 

• Just over $21 million committed this year alone for other projects, including Stegeman Coliseum getting a long-awaited center-hanging scoreboard.

So it seems inarguable that spending has increased in recent years, and not just on facilities. (Football staff salaries went up significantly, for instance.)

But the concern is that the school was only playing catch-up with these latest projects, and that more work is needed: Georgia’s weight room (built in 2011) quickly became among the smallest in the SEC. Programs like Florida and South Carolina are putting together master plans to build new facilities. Tennessee, Arkansas and others have executed strong facilities plans the past few years.

The University of Georgia dedicated its new indoor athletic facility Feb. 14, 2017. John Paul Van Wert/UGA Sports

“This may not be in line with other sentiments. But the indoor facility, we were playing catch up,” said Stinchcomb, an offensive tackle at Georgia from 1998-2002, who went on to play in the NFL. “We were the last in our conference (building an indoor facility) with something that can be deemed a necessity. Not just recruiting, this isn’t for looks, this is functionality. My personal feel is we should never be in that situation again. The University of Georgia has too good of a fan base, too good of an athletic department and we’re in too good of a financial situation to be last in areas of need – not just want, but in need.

“That was catch-up. Now you look at the improvements for the stadium, some of those fall in line with where we were at with the indoor facility. We haven’t had a true locker room at Sanford Stadium, ever. It was an open room with no lockers. It was that way when I played there, when my brother (Matt) played there in the ‘90s. Those are not racing ahead and blazing new trails. That’s playing catch up.”

UGA officials have confirmed that the athletics department has just over $77 million in reserve funds, including about $45 million listed in the most recent treasurer’s book, and $32 million invested in the UGA foundation set aside for “general support” of athletics.

School officials defend that, saying there needs to be protection in case the seeming deluge of money stops. That’s also why the school is fundraising for the major projects: After donors answered the call for the indoor facility, the school is seeking $53 million from donors for the $63 million Sanford Stadium project.

So how will that go? Stinchcomb said fans want to give and they support the school. They just want a “clarification and understanding as they write these sizable checks” what previous donations have gone to and “how this fits in a much bigger picture.”

“When people ask me, because I’m a board member, the approach is not: We don’t want to give,” Stinchcomb said. “It’s, Help me understand where we are with the reserve, what our plan is with the reserve, and how that coincides with the raising for this project specifically of $53 million.”

The stadium project announcement set off many fans who were concerned about the state of the bathrooms and concourses at the stadium. McGarity attempted to answer that by “expediting” work on those in time for next season, at a cost of $950,000.

Scott Mooney, who now lives in Greenville, S.C., said he and his family have been season-ticket holders for five years. They had complained in the past about the concessions and bathrooms, and while the “expedited” work on the bathrooms was good to hear, his greater concern was the concessions area, which he found too bottled up.

Mooney said he worried that the administration takes the fans for granted, “given all the money that is pouring into UGA athletics.” He said he’s reconsidering his season-ticket purchase, especially given the (slight) increase in ticket prices and the required donation to secure them.

“And they are sitting on $30-million plus in rainy day funds? I just don’t get it,” Mooney said.
Scates, the former athletic board member, said he donates to the Hartman Fund and has season tickets. He said he and fellow donors he’s spoken to want to see a master plan develop, or they’ll reconsider their donating.

“UGA has no reason not to be the premier athletic department in the southeast. We have the donor support necessary, we have the population necessary in the state, we have the athletic talent in the state,” Scates said. “And it seems to be increasingly clear that the one thing we’re lacking is groundbreaking thinking.”

The desire, according to donors, is not to go willy-nilly into the arms race and waste money. And ultimately, according to Stinchcomb, everyone wants the same thing.

“What we want to do is put our football team in the best position to compete and provide the facilities and resources that they need to be champions,” Stinchcomb said.

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