Two years ago, N.C. State’s Debbie Yow emailed the athletic director at the University of Kentucky and asked for a favor.
The Wolfpack athletic director had a plan to build a $15 million dormitory for basketball, and the school wanted to do it well, as Yow put it. Kentucky had built a $7.9 million dorm for its basketball players in 2012, equipped with personal chefs, a dining hall, flat screen televisions and other lavish amenities.
“Would you allow us to visit UK and learn more about how you guys have managed yours?” Yow wrote to Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart on June 15, 2015.
Yow visited Kentucky’s dormitory in September 2015, and the same year she visited Kansas’ $12 million dorm for basketball players, which has a barber shop, a half-court indoor gym, a media room and a rooftop lounge. N.C. State’s plan was to house its men’s and women’s basketball players in its own small, “boutique” dorm.
Among the proposed amenities in an early version of the plan was a theater room and a courtyard, documents obtained through a public records request show. The theater was eliminated in later versions of the plan, Yow said.
The dorm, called Case Commons, will join a growing athletic recruiting trend as colleges across the country seek new and clever ways to lure the best high school athletes. Building small dorms for athletes, many with luxury amenities, has become one of the latest ways to attract them.
Programs like Kansas and Kentucky, which have built these dorms, among other expensive facilities, have consistently landed the nation’s top recruits and have been fixtures in the “top-25” rankings, a goal Yow vowed to accomplish for the Wolfpack when she was hired in 2010.
But that hasn’t been the case for N.C. State, which has had to watch its rivals – Duke and North Carolina – win nine combined men’s national championships since its last title in 1983.
“It makes perfect sense,” said Charles Clotfelter, a Duke professor of public policy, economics and law, and author of the 2011 book, ‘Big-Time Sports in American Universities,’” of N.C. State’s desire to build Case Commons. “They want to win games within the rules. They don’t want to lose to Carolina every year.”
Duke and UNC are among schools that have been successful without luxury dorms. Spokesmen for both universities say they believe student-athletes are better served when spread out among the general student body.
Yow said she hoped housing basketball players in the new dorm could help recruiting by putting them in a central location and avoid a repeat of an NCAA violation in 2011, when an “agent-type” made contact with a men’s basketball player and gave a family member money.
Case Commons is expected to house 65 students, with nine single rooms and 13 doubles for non-athletes and 26 singles and two doubles for student-athletes at a per bed cost of about $154,000, nearly three times the average for other N.C. State dorms.
The plan for Case Commons was approved in August 2015. The total project – to be financed through private dollars raised by the athletic booster club – is estimated to cost $15 million, with $10 million of that going to construction. It is on hold for a year due partly to disagreements with its original contractor over how much it will cost to build, but is expected to be completed by August 2019.
Some of the more notable facilities built around the country in recent years:
▪ Louisville opened $4.5 million Billy Minardi Hall in 2003. It houses 38 students, nearly half men’s basketball players.
▪ Kentucky opened $7.9 million Wildcat Coal Lodge in 2012. It houses 32 students, nearly half men’s basketball players.
▪ Auburn opened $51 million South Donahue Hall in 2013. It houses 209 students, including nearly the entire football team.
▪ Kansas opened $12 million McCarthy Hall in 2014. It houses 34 students, nearly half men’s basketball players.
NCAA rules have specified since 1996 that these residence halls have to be occupied by at least 51 percent non-athletes in an effort to do away with special perks not available to other students. N.C. State’s dorm would have 54 percent non-athletes.
“They (N.C. State) are bending (the NCAA rule on number of athletes in a dorm) as much as possible and they are following the crowd,” said Nathan Tublitz, a biology professor at the University of Oregon, and former chair of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics. “Fancy dorms are the next step in recruiting 17-year-olds to a campus.”
Some of these dorms have landed in the middle of legal and NCAA issues.
At Kansas’ McCarthy Hall, one of the dorms Yow toured, police investigated an alleged rape of a 16-year-old girl at a party last year.
At Louisville, where N.C. State basketball coach Kevin Keatts was an assistant on coach Rick Pitino’s staff from 2011 to 2014, a scandal at its basketball dorm involving strippers and escorts to woo recruits resulted in NCAA sanctions that if upheld upon appeal would cost the school the 2013 national basketball championship. Keatts was not named by the NCAA in any of the violations and has said he took no part in the scandal, which took place between 2010 and 2014.
Serious problems are not limited to these kinds of facilities. This summer, five N.C. State freshman football players living in Wolf Village Apartments on campus were disciplined for throwing a party after three women alleged they were sexually assaulted there. The district attorney’s office has determined it would not file charges.
N.C. State chancellor Randy Woodson said Case Commons will not lead to the kinds of problems encountered in Louisville. He stressed that the facility would be available to all students and pointed to the fact that most of the students in the dorm would be non-athletes.
“They will have 24-7 security by the university, not by athletics,” Woodson said of the athletes living in the dorm. “So I have confidence that this residence hall, just like any other, would not be the subject of any activity like what has been described at Louisville, because it’s not a basketball dorm.”
Woodson said non-athletes can apply to live there, like at any other dorm on N.C. State’s campus, through University Housing. Students choose their top three preferences and are accepted on a first-come first-serve basis.
N.C. State recently implemented a requirement for all freshmen to live on campus, including athletes.
The idea to build a dorm for basketball players came before the alleged rape at Kansas happened, and before the scandal at Louisville came to light.
Yow said in an email the plan came about after a 2011 incident in which an “agent-type” provided $1,100 to a family member of former men’s basketball player C.J. Leslie.
“We reported it to the NCAA and made amends, formally disassociating from that individual,” Yow said. “That situation reinforced to me how challenging it is for us to best protect our student-athletes in off-campus housing. Case Commons will feature layers of security to help protect against unauthorized access by agents, runners, and others to our student-athletes.”
The majority of N.C. State’s men’s basketball players – except freshman players – are currently housed at College Inn, a 440-bed off-campus apartment building that was owned by the NCSU Student Aid Foundation, also known as the Wolfpack Club.
Yow said she sees a benefit in having the women’s basketball team living in the new facility.
“We are appropriately cautious and observant,” she said. “Our mix of student-athletes will be different, including both genders, reflecting the makeup of other residence halls on campus, and security has always been the primary objective of our project.”
‘Something special others would want’
The school’s top two officials initially had concerns about building a $15 million dorm for basketball players.
Woodson and the then-chief financial officer, Charles Leffler, sent emails back and forth in July 2015, saying that they thought it was hard to justify building such a small dorm for a small number of students. Both officials felt that there were other projects that held higher priority. But Woodson said Yow thought it was important for athletics, “particularly basketball.”
Tublitz, the former chair of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, said dorms are another step in the “two decades-long arms race in college sports,” and non-athletes end up subsidizing it.
He said the private money going to athletics for the dorm could instead go to academics to keep the cost of tuition down.
North Carolina has seen one of the highest increases in the country in tuition in recent years. In the past five years, in-state students at UNC-system schools saw a 26 percent spike in tuition and fees, according to The College Board.
“The more money they spend, the more money they need to make to recoup that expense,” Tublitz said. “And it keeps going on and on.”
On Feb. 11, a fan upset that N.C. State’s basketball team had lost by 30 points to Wake Forest at home sent Yow an email and offered her a few alternatives to building a dorm. One of those was to fire former coach Mark Gottfried and hire someone to replace him.
“Spend some money on a coach instead of another fancy building which ain’t getting it,” the fan wrote.
Yow responded 30 minutes later.
“We have issues to resolve, for sure,” Yow wrote. “Decouple that from Case Commons. Any time we can have something special others would want we should do that.”