USC football gets big upgrade
COLUMBIA -- When fans arrive at Williams-Brice Stadium for the University of South Carolina's football home opener on Sept. 8, they will notice two of the most drastic changes in USC's recent push to upgrade its athletic facilities.
USC will debut a larger video board inside the stadium and a tailgating area across the street, where a farmer's market was once located. Athletic director Eric Hyman said both projects should be done in time for the opener.
The video board costs $6.5 million and the tailgating area $30.5 million, though $15 million of that was for purchasing the 52 acres of land, said Kevin O'Connell, USC's executive associate athletic director, who oversees facilities construction and improvements.
In the nearly seven years since Hyman's arrival in Columbia, USC has dedicated -- through money already spent or planned spending -- $154,263,713 to building new sports facilities or improving current ones.
This is all part of the arms race in college sports, as schools attempt to attract better recruits, win more games and make more money -- three things that are very much related, especially in the Southeastern Conference, which USC joined in 1991.
"The SEC is good news, bad news," Hyman said. "The good news is it's the best league in the country. The bad news is it's the best league in the country.
"And you better stay up. And I don't think we had really done our part. This is a brutal league. If you really want to be sincerely committed to the league, you've got to do
some things to position yourself appropriately."
Since the early 1980s, Hyman has conducted exit interviews with the athletes in his department. He asks them why they chose one school over another. One of the top four answers is almost always facilities, Hyman said.
Shortly after Hyman came to USC in the summer of 2005, he had a conversation, with Board of Trustees member Mike Mungo about the school's sports facilities.
Mungo was the board's vice chairman when USC joined the SEC. Hyman said Mungo told him that when USC joined the league, the board made a commitment to upgrade the facilities, but didn't follow through.
"Quite frankly, we haven't done our part," Hyman recalled Mungo saying to him.
Hyman could tell. He had looked at USC's facilities upon his arrival from Texas Christian University and "was a little bit astonished" about their poor quality, he recalled.
Mungo, who died in 2010, wanted to see the upgrades accomplished and told Hyman he would support that goal. Now, Mungo is getting his wish.
Of course, shiny stadiums and plush locker rooms alone don't win games. Athletic directors hiring sharp coaches is just as important, if not more so.
"If facilities were just the answer, Army and Navy would be undefeated every year," Hyman said. "But facilities are a very important part of the decision-making process (for recruits)."
College sports in 2012 are a big-money business, and keeping up with facilities requires big money. USC's new baseball stadium, which debuted in 2009, cost $39.8 million. The Dodie Academic Center, which opened in February 2010, cost $12.6 million.
Rice Athletic Center will open next to Dodie this spring and house athletic department administrators and coaches for nonrevenue sports, such as soccer. Its price tag: $11.7 million.
Athletic directors expect a return on these investments. When the baseball park, Carolina Stadium, was constructed, Hyman said he told coach Ray Tanner, "It's Omaha or bust," referring to the site of the College World Series. The Gamecocks won the World Series in 2010 and 2011.
"I said that tongue-in-cheek, but the point is that you do support the coaches, and the expectations change," Hyman said. "That doesn't mean you're going to be national champion every year. That doesn't mean that at all. But it does mean it enhances your chances for success."
USC's athletic department is self-sustaining and receives no taxpayer money, Hyman emphasized. Facilities projects are funded with money the department earns, donations from boosters and loans. Hyman said he never wants the department to rely on more than $130 million in borrowed money at a time. He said the department is currently at $128 million.
As with almost all college athletic departments, most of USC's sports revenue comes from football. The Gamecocks' football program made a profit of $35.4 million in 2009-10 and was the nation's 11th-most-profitable college football team, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
In 2008, USC established a Yearly Equitable Seating program for home football games, which charges season-ticket holders a fee on top of their actual ticket cost.
"All those dollars have gone in for facilities," Hyman said.
Fans will see a return, of sorts, on those fees this fall, with the video board and tailgating area.
The board will measure 36 feet high and 124 feet wide -- the third-largest in the SEC. The current board at Williams-Brice Stadium measures 20-by-29.
There is a small chance the board won't be ready for the opener, in which case USC has made arrangements for a temporary board. Hyman said the new video board is "really important to the fans, probably the most important thing."
Tailgating matters greatly to fans, too, and USC's new tailgating area will be more than just a grass field with about 3,000 parking spaces.
Hyman got ideas for the area's design during football road trips, when he saw the Keeneland Race Course parking area in Lexington, Ky., and The Grove, the renowned tree-lined tailgating area at the University of Mississippi.
USC's tailgating zone will include a 10-by-10 area at the back of most parking spots where fans can set up a tent to tailgate under. The VIP parking spots come with two electric hookups and one cable television jack, for fans who want to bring their TVs and watch other games while tailgating.
The tailgating area will include a tree every 40 feet, providing valuable shade from the September sun; four permanent restroom buildings; and a 100-foot-wide pathway where the team, band and cheerleaders will walk as they enter the stadium.
"I just think the functionality of it and the beauty of it is something that's really going to set it apart nationally," O'Connell said.
Still more plans
While 2012 is a big year for USC to follow through on its facilities commitment from more than 20 years ago, its work won't be done when the year is.
A new $8 million softball stadium is scheduled to be completed in 2013. Hyman wants to build a $14 million indoor football practice facility at the rear of the tailgating area. (USC's current on-campus indoor facility -- located farther away from the stadium than the tailgating area -- is just "OK," Hyman said.)
There are plans for a new basketball practice facility, football practice fields next to the proposed indoor facility and upgrades to the track and soccer practice fields.
On the wall of Hyman's office is an artist's rendering of a plaza area around the outside edges of Williams-Brice Stadium, which he hopes will transform it from an "industrial look" with 500 parking spaces to something that resembles a "college campus stadium," with about 100 spaces.
"In the league that we're in," O'Connell said, "if you're not constantly updating, renovating and building new, you're falling behind."
A look at the cost of the University of South Carolina's major athletics facilities projects from 2008 to present, with completion dates or projected completion dates:
Facility, Cost and Completion date
Carolina Stadium (baseball) $39.8 million Jan. 2009
Farmer's Market tailgating area $30.5 million Aug. 2012
Athletics Village infrastructure (utilities) $16.6 million Dec. 2013
Dodie Academic Center $12.6 million Feb. 2010
Rice Athletics Center $11.7 million May 2012
Softball stadium $8 million Feb. 2013
Athletics Village parking garage $7 million July 2011
Football stadium video board $6.5 million Aug. 2012
Carolina Tennis Center $4.5 million Jan. 2012
Football stadium suites $3.7 million Aug. 2010
Football stadium training room $2.2 million Oct. 2008