Cal's New Stadium? Don't Hold Your Breath
by Glenn Dickey
Nov 10, 2005

A COMBINED Memorial Stadium/Haas Business School plan was unveiled at a newsconference at the business school today, but as a veteran of the stadium wars, I can tell you there was more smoke-and-mirrors than substance. There were some pretty architectural drawings and positive statements by speakers, but there was precious little hard information to back up those statements.

Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour, for instance, said that each day they were getting closer to the stated goal of $60 million in donations from major donors before soliciting a broader base, but she refused to give a definite figure on donations. Some close to the program think the figure would not be much more than half of the goal.

When asked whether the remodeled stadium would have permanent lights, Barbour said yes, but added that they would use new technology to limit the light spillover and it would be “win-win for everybody.” Good luck on selling that to the residents near the stadium who complain at every public forum available whenever a night game is played at the stadium.

A figure of $120-125 million was mentioned for the first phase of the operation, the athlete “high performance center,” but chancellor Robert Birgeneau refused to estimate how much higher the entire project would go. “As you know, once you mention a figure, it’s set in stone,” he said.

Birgenau had said earlier in his presentation that there had been some discussion of building an entirely new stadium, “but all you have to do is stand in the press box and look out at the hills and that setting, and you realize it has to remain where it is.” When asked how the cost of building a new stadium compared with retrofitting and re-designing the old one, though, Birgenau refused to say.

The one part of the project that is a certain go is the business school addition. Though fundraising has not yet begun, the Haas school has many graduates who are CEOs, and some, like Donald Fisher, who are wealthy. They will make sure that project is funded.

The athletic part of the program, and the earthquake retrofitting, appears to be much more problematical. It’s not even certain how many seats there will be, though Barbour insisted there would be “at least” 60,000.

The first part of the project will be the “high performance center,” because football coach Jeff Tedford, who spoke at the news conference, has long tied improvement of facilities to his tenure at Cal.

Tedford has toned down his public comments on the subject, probably because he felt he would get the improvements he has sought, but when he was asked about it at Tuesday’s lunch, he said again that facilities played a role in prep stars making their decision. “I’m not sure any of them make a decision strictly on that basis,” he said, “but it is a factor.”

The top athletes all want to play in the NFL, and they try to put themselves in a good position to do that. That means going to a school whose team is winning while playing in a top level conference. Having facilities that allow athletes to work out and maximize their physical potential is very important. The competition among schools for the best facilities is like the arms race, and Cal is far behind in the Pac-10 in that race.

Even that part of the plan won’t be started until December, 2006, because the fundraising hasn’t gone as well as hoped, because there’s still some resentment of Barbour among big donors.

WHEN STEVE GLADSTONE announced that he was resigning as athletic director, many of us assumed Mark Stephens would succeed him. Stephens seemed a perfect fit: He had been a football player at Cal, he had a solid academic record, with a graduate degree, he had shown his administrative ability at the Santa Anita race track.

As an assistant to Gladstone, he had handled the financial end and gotten a very muddled department in order. That was vital because former chancellor Robert Berdahl had to commit money from his personal fund to balance the athletic department books, and he was not about to do that without knowing where the money was going. All he’d gotten from Gladstone’s predecessor, John Kasse, were breezy declarations that everything was going along fine, though that was clearly not the case.

Stephens had also worked with the major donors, who liked him. I’ve heard differing versions of why he was passed over, but I believe the primary reason was that Birgenau wanted somebody in the job who would be beholden to him, not the major donors.

Now, Cal is paying the price because many of those donors will not contribute to the stadium project. Stanford got its stadium project funded with a huge boost from John Arrillaga. There are Cal alums who could match his contribution, but so far, none have.

I don’t blame Barbour for this. What was she going to do – turn down the job? In fact, I think she’s done well as athletic director. She is a tireless worker, she’s at numerous Cal events, she’s front-and-center in public forums. The women’s basketball coach she hired, Joanne Boyle, has a great resume, so there’s hope that program can be revived.

I’ve talked to some male boosters who were originally skeptical because of her gender, but she’s won them over.But, apparently, not the big donors yet. Stephens has left the athletic department but the anger over his rejection is still present.

I WISH I could be more optimistic about this plan. Certainly, it needs to be done. I agree with Birgenau that retrofitting and re-designing Memorial Stadium is the way to go. I’d love to see that new stadium.

But, I’m still blowing the smoke out of my eyes.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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