Duke is all in.
Until recently the university exhibited a tacit – some would say healthy – ambivalence toward the athletic arms race consuming college programs in elite conferences. But visitors to Duke’s West Campus this past Saturday for the Blue Devils’ 2016 home football opener against N.C. Central saw an historic departure – an emphatic and enthusiastic embrace of the accouterments of big-time sports.
Supporters of Duke athletics have rushed to fund a vision that’s been almost a decade in reaching fruition, embodied in a 2008 blueprint modestly titled “Unrivaled Ambition: A Strategic Plan for Duke Athletics.” An athletic fundraising effort launched in 2012 sought a quarter of a billion dollars to realize the plan’s goals. Already it’s brought in a staggering $350 million, $100 million beyond its original target, with 11 months to go in the campaign.
That’s a long way from where things stood in 2011 when the most recent ACC expansion brought in Pittsburgh and Syracuse, followed by Notre Dame (more or less) and Louisville. Duke supported the fiscally-driven ’11 moves even as athletic director Kevin White fretted over college sports’ ever-increasing thirst for dollars.
“We’ve now grown so accustomed to finding ways almost at all costs to monetize college athletics, which kind of moves the needle from the educational core value, if you will, and moves it closer to the entertainment core value,” said White, who arrived from Notre Dame a month after the strategic plan was released. “There’s an awful lot of pressure to generate more revenue. The costs have escalated beyond anyone’s comprehension, I would think.”
A large financial cushion can go a long way toward lessening those pressures, preserving discretion in what a school will tolerate to generate income. That’s good news for Duke, where some think a half-billion dollars in contributions dedicated to athletic facilities, operations and endowments is now within reach. The university overall has raised $3.25 billion in six years, the original target for a “Duke Forward” fundraising campaign that ends in June 2017.
Meanwhile additional touches around the core of what White calls “the athletics precinct” of Duke’s campus, from paving stones replacing asphalt to a Nike store featuring Blue Devil garb, will be made throughout the next year. Those amendments figure to intensify what Mike Cragg, Duke’s Deputy Director of Athletics/Operations and project manager for its current construction spree, calls “the wow!” factor.
The major work is done, however. Everywhere you look, the landscape bristles with what White describes as new “hundred-year facilities,” including gussied-up versions of the program’s pre-World War II anchors, Wallace Wade Stadium and Cameron Indoor Stadium. The AD proudly notes the recently-added athletic structures look “Duke-like,” the architecture and materials consistent with the rest of campus.
Recall this has occurred at a private liberal arts school that, long before adopting the name of a family of tobacco magnates, banned football for a quarter-century as an “evil” pursuit, according to its president. The most obvious change is the 110,000-square-foot, five-story Blue Devil Tower atop the facility’s western stands, complete with private suites, catered food and alcohol, media spaces, and the school’s own in-house, ACC Network-ready TV studio.
Included in the Wade improvements were removal of the president’s box, a glorified lean-to on the stadium’s east side, and bathrooms and concession stands as old as the stadium. The president now commands a 96-seat, enclosed suite in the LEEDs-certified Tower, which replaced a facility that doubled as the home of Duke sports medicine. That enterprise now operates on a separate campus a short drive distant. The running track that long circled the Wade playing field was removed two years ago and relocated to its own site just up the hill, where it shares a smaller media and hospitality tower with soccer and lacrosse.
Keep in mind all this is happening at a university where a faculty group presented a spurned report in 1969 recommending the de-emphasis of athletics and possible withdrawal from the ACC. Years later Orin Starn, a Duke cultural anthropology professor, still sees “a university with a split personality” – what he calls “Sports Duke” and “Academic Duke.” With the school’s liberal arts programs enduring belt-tightening while athletics flourishes, he observes, “I would say if there’s been a struggle for Duke’s soul between sports and academics, sports has won.”
Spending on football
Certainly it’s grown. In virtually one gulp, Duke has added a quarter of a million square feet of new structures at its athletic core. That square footage doesn’t count numerous Olympic sport improvements, among them a new East Campus softball stadium for Duke’s 27th team. Thanks to the ongoing fundraising effort, many Olympic sports anticipate an infusion of scholarship support, presently a $21 million annual athletic department expense at $70,000 per head. Olympic athletes are already using their own 13,000-square-foot workout and training facility in the new Brooks Center across the plaza from Cameron.
A 30,000-square-foot addition to Cameron expanded the lobby and hospitality space, and administrative offices moved to Brooks after 75 years of coexistence with basketball. “It’s not an office building trying to be an athletic facility anymore,” Cragg says.
The key change, though, reflects realities beyond campus. Where once basketball drove TV revenues, particularly for the ACC, now the preponderance of income is derived from football. Top-notch facilities and support, matched by a quality coach such as David Cutcliffe, are seen as prerequisites to consistent relevance in a Power Five conference.
“We had to be a legitimate player in football,” Cragg says. “The previous model of Duke athletics probably didn’t work in the modern world by relying on one sport, being basketball. We’re unique in that – most schools are built around football.”
In fact, Duke was built around football, its teams nationally prominent from 1930 through the ACC’s early years. More recently the school became a laggard in football spending, its coaches’ salaries at the bottom of the ACC as the Blue Devils endured a run of 17 losing records in 18 seasons under four different men prior to Cutcliffe’s well-timed arrival in December 2007. The strategic plan adopted four months later succinctly targeted the need to “change the culture of the entire program” in football.
Duke had voted in vain with North Carolina in 2003 against league expansion that brought in Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech and enhanced the ACC’s football orientation. Soon afterward Duke was engulfed by a scandal involving a party-prone men’s lacrosse squad, an unethical prosecutor and a dissembling and disturbed young woman whose accusations were ultimately discredited. The mess riveted national attention in 2006 and 2007, much to Duke’s detriment.
Cragg says the painful episode drove the school to reappraise, spurring the formulation of its 38-page strategic plan in 2008. “We were at a low point here,” Cragg concedes. “I think it forced us, and I say that in a healthy way, it forced us to look at ourselves and our university to look at athletics.”
The plan parochially cited 1992 improvements to football facilities at UNC as precipitating “a tidal wave that swept across the ACC.” More germane, that same year Florida State, a football colossus, had joined the conference with the promise its presence would lift all boats. Instead FSU immediately dominated, finishing first for nine straight seasons with a combined 70-2 league record. That sparked a competitive spending spree that hasn’t abated since.