Friday's announcement of a $155 million training facility for student-athletes at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln was, by design, meant to capitalize on a national spotlight shining on Husker football this weekend.
It's also the capstone of a re-imagining of UNL's infrastructure, $525 million of public and private investment in new construction and renovations to academic and athletic facilities.
"I can't find a time in the 150-year history of the institution where this level of investment has been made in the university," said Chancellor Ronnie Green.
All eyes, including those of a handful of state senators, including Appropriations Committee Chairman John Stinner, and Lincoln Sens. Kate Bolz, Adam Morfeld, Patty Pansing Brooks and Suzanne Geist, and most members of the NU Board of Regents, were on the sleek, digital walkthrough of the proposed new facility Friday.
But during his remarks to a crowd of boosters, athletic department staff, and students, fans and the curious who wondered over for the event, Green made sure to point out the investments UNL has made in other areas.
Two weeks ago, UNL announced Kiewit Hall, an $85 million College of Engineering building that will be privately funded, led by a $20 million donation from international construction firm Kiewit Corp., which is based in Omaha.
Together with a $75 million renovation to the engineering college's existing facilities, including $70 million in public resources, Green said the announcement's timing was coordinated to demonstrate UNL wants to be as competitive in academics as it does in athletics.
Announcing a key investment in academics may have helped stave off the criticism heard at several other schools that have entered the athletic facility arms race in recent years.
Schools such as Louisiana State University, which opened a $28 million football locker room earlier this year, experienced blowback from instructors, who said the money could have been better spent elsewhere.
UNL faculty said they understand the profile football helps give the university and that they appreciate the approach administrators, regents and fundraisers have taken in trying to further all sides of the university's enterprise.
Because the athletic department is self-supporting and draws no state or taxpayer support, David Woodman, a professor of practice in the School of Biological Sciences, said "there is no downside."
In fact, the academic mission would probably benefit from football, he added.
You have free articles remaining.
As one of the few athletic departments in the country that turns a profit every year, Husker Athletics transfers millions back into the academic side of the university, Green said, including scholarships for nonstudent-athletes.
The ability of football to quickly attract large sums of private money is something to be excited about, and perhaps a little envious of, said Patrick Dussault, a professor of chemistry.
"On the academic side, we certainly understand the advantage of having excellent facilities in order to be competitive," Dussault wrote in an email.
Dussault cited investments in the College of Engineering, renovations to the fourth floor of Morrill Hall, upgrades to the East Campus Union, and the opening of the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts as demonstrating UNL's push to keep its academic, research and outreach missions at the forefront.
He also said $3.4 million in ongoing renovations to several laboratories are necessary to keep the Department of Chemistry's 50-year-old home in Hamilton Hall going.
"It can be a struggle to identify funding to address these infrastructure needs," Dussault said, "and I am happy that Athletics has found the funds to address a project critical to their mission."
There have been other recent investments across UNL's aging academic infrastructure, too. Mabel Lee Hall, where the College of Education and Human Sciences is headquartered, is undergoing a $46 million renovation.
UNL opened a Veterinary Diagnostic Center a few years ago on East Campus, as well as a new Student Health Center and home for the UNMC College of Nursing's Lincoln division and a new law clinic at the College of Law.
It's also planning a remodel of the C.Y. Thompson Library on East Campus, and a $5 million Gnotobiotic Mouse Vivarium to further research into the gut microbiome.
And, just a short walk from where the new athletic training complex will open in 2022, the College of Business now operates in a towering, privately-financed $84 million building.
While competing for a Big Ten title in football is important, Dave Billesbach, a professor of biological systems engineering, said he hopes the people of Nebraska recognize UNL "has a long way to go to compete academically" with its conference counterparts.
"It would be truly sad if we slipped into the world where 'we want a university that our football team can be proud of' is the norm," he added.
Green said both the College of Engineering project and the new athletic facility — what he called one of the largest projects ever undertaken at UNL — will go before regents together in October.