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Blue-White Game Countdown / 29 Days: Lasch Symbolizes Big Costs to Revitalize Penn State Football

By Mike Poorman

Editor’s note: This is the first of a daily series counting down to Penn State’s Blue-White Game April 18.

It was early into 2014 and James Franklin’s tenure at Penn State. Scaffolding enveloped a good part of the multi-story exterior of Lasch Building.

Actually, it was a bad part. Lots of  ’em, actually.

“Are they renovating already?” a visitor asked one of the workman 15 feet off the ground.

“Nope,” the workman replied. “It’s leaking. Whenever it rains.”

As it happened, it was drizzling that very day. Clear plastic tarps caught some of the water, but not all of it. Lasch, opened as the gleaming hub of Penn State football in 1998 with a price tag of about $14 million, had seen better days in a number of ways.

As the raindrops splattered across Lasch’s big windows, you had to figure that the football buildings in Eugene ($68 million), Knoxville ($45 million), Fayetteville ($28), Boise ($22 million), Starkville ($20 million), College Station ($16 million), Boca Raton ($16 million), Tuscaloosa ($9 million) and East Lansing ($5.5 million) were not taking on rain.

At those prices, they better be, as the dollar figures listed above are for the construction or the renovation of on-campus football buildings over the past three years, practice fields not included. (And that doesn’t include the $62 million ticketed for Clemson by 2017.)

Talk about metaphors. The home of Penn State football was literally coming apart at the seams.

When Paterno Reigned

When Joe Paterno became athletic director in 1980, Penn State’s annual athletic budget was $8 million a year. Thirty-five years later, that $8 mil would last about 26 days. Paterno was frugal, always spending Penn State’s money like it was own. One assistant coach famously slept in his car on recruiting trips to save money. Salaries were at the low end of major college football. Penn State’s assistant coaches sold grades and grit, not glamour, on the recruiting trail.

And Nittany Lion football made money. By the JoeBuckets full.

In Paterno’s last full season as head coach (fiscal year 2010-11), PSU football pulled in over $72.5 million in gross revenue against expenses of only $19.5 million. That resulted in net income – profit – of $53 million. For one year. That’s 75 cents on every dollar. And remember, this was in a year when Penn State football was 7-6.

By the time by the Bill O’Brien arrived, in several ways the Penn State football program – and not just Lasch — was leaking. For two years, O’Brien kept his finger in the dike, absorbing incredible pressure. But dam it, Bill The Rebuilder wanted to be a football coach. An architect? Yes – of a football program, an offense and a quarterback. A plumber, a PR guy, a patient consensus builder? No.

One of the first things O’Brien did was oversee a complete makeover of the Penn State weight room. He wanted to change the set-up in Holuba Hall – from two side-by-side practice fields to a single long one – but there was no money to be found. In two years, football revenue dropped by $15 million and profit fell by $20 million. Don’t blame OB; not his fault. Not too longer after that, O’Brien cut his losses and left town. (Given the size of his NFL contract, they were more like gains, not losses.)

Enter James Franklin. Who, after an evaluation of Penn State’s program and facilities, determined Nittany Lion football was losing the arms race. Badly. We can debate the merits of whether college athletics should be in the habit of renovating a $300 million stadium or building football complexes for $50 million funded by the likes of Phil Knight and Boone Pickens. (Or $100 million ice arenas funded by the likes of Terry Pegula.)

I’ll take the side that says “no.” But this is where Penn State and big-time college sports are at, so let’s deal in reality.

At A Loss

When you take the $5.8 million compensation Penn State got from the Houston Texans for O’Brien and add a debt load of $8.7 million, Penn State athletics easily lost $5 to $6 million last fiscal year (2013-2014). Take away the $62 million generated by football and Penn State athletics lost almost $36 million last year. Overall costs keep getting higher and higher. It’s impossible not to, what with the addition of annual cost of attendance checks of over $4,000 ready to go to each scholarship athlete and nutrition “stations” that have added over $1 million to Penn State’s budget.

Along with the Big Ten Network and the conference, football pays the bills. And as CEO of a $110 million corporation, PSU athletics director Sandy Barbour knows that. The surest way for football to make money is to win. And you do that with players, coaching and scheduling. Most of all, as Tom Bradley used to tell me while channeling Paterno, “You win with Jimmys and Joes, not X’s and O’s.”

Jimmy and Joe want more than a scholarship these days. They want, and get, football complexes that have barber shops, waterfalls, ventilated lockers, mixed martial arts centers, Brazilian wood floors, anti-gravity treadmills and 5-foot wide HDTVs, steam baths and all kinds of recharging stations — for their phones and for themselves.

Which brings us back to Lasch.

Mo’ Money

On Thursday, the Penn State Board of Trustees approved $2.3 million to be spent on football-related improvements that include the creation of a nutrition bar adjacent to the football weight room, a video projection system, new lighting and audio in the team auditorium. That’s in addition to the $12 million it OK’d in January for other Lasch improvements – for extensive expansion and renovations to the locker room, equipment room and recruiting lounges.

Many of those enhancements were fought for by O’Brien. But they were won by Franklin.

It’s a different kind of victory, perhaps the kind truly necessary if Penn State wants to be ranked No. 1 again any time soon. It’s been awhile. The Nittany Lions were last ranked No. 1 in October 1997 – that was 18 seasons ago, and literally not in the lifetime of current freshmen standouts like Grant Haley, Marcus Allen and Chris Godwin.

Over the past five seasons (2010-14), the Nittany Lions have been 38-25; that’s a winning percentage of 60.3%, with fives losses a year. Every year. In the Big Ten, they’ve been worse, going 22-18, for a winning percentage of 55%.

In a division with Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan, that’s not going to cut it. So while $14.3 million may sound like a lot to spend on spiffing up Lasch, if you’re going to keep up with the Florida Atlantics of the world (owners of that new $16 million football center in Boca Raton), it’s the corner in which Penn State – no longer a power on the field – has to paint itself out of.

Franklin, more than anyone else, recognizes that getting out is not an easy task. He outlined that in detail earlier this week.

“For us to get this program back where everybody wants it to be, it’s going to take the players,” Franklin said, evangelizing a bit, as he is wont to do. “It’s going to take the coaches, administration, alumni, former players, community, it’s going to take the fans. That’s the way to differentiate ourselves. And I believe that.”

And believe that it’s also going to take money. Mo money.

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