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April 16, 2013

Improving facilities builds recruiting, too

MORE: Rivals Camp Series presented by Under Armour

Dallas Jackson is the National Columnist for Rivals.com. Email him your comments or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.

Recruiting has become an arms race based on improved facilities. No longer will a new coat of paint in the hallway do -- unless that hallway leads to a brand new, multimillion-dollar weight room.

In a recent study commissioned by Advent and conducted by Galain, college football players were asked which factors played a role in their decision to commit to a program. The quality of facilities finished fourth and was just fractions of a point behind academic reputation, parents/guardian perception about the school and relationships with assistant coaches.

Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin is guiding the program through a $75 million expansion and renovation to Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field. The project will expand the stadium by nearly 6,300 seats to 61,337, and it will add field-level premium areas and ADA-compliant seating. Its new facade will better integrate the facility with the rest of campus.

Sticklin said that while the improvement is as much about building pride in the program for fans it is closely tied to recruiting players.

"It is a message to prospective student-athletes," he said. "At the end of the day, it is an arms race and you have to have a certain level of facility to show what is important to you.

"People don't buy 70-inch televisions because enjoying entertainment isn't important to them, and that is the same message we have to send. Football is important; you can come to Mississippi State, play in the SEC and have facilities that are as nice as anywhere else in the conference."

The program could benefit greatly if the goal of improved recruiting is met.

Following the class of 2003, Mississippi State has failed to finish inside the top 10 in the SEC in recruiting. It has only once bettered rival Ole Miss in that time span, when the class of 2012 edged the Rebels. The Bulldogs fell to No. 11 in the SEC with the recently signed class of 2013, while Ole Miss rose to No. 7 nationally.

Stricklin noted that although the program has gone 29-22 under Dan Mullen and has played in three bowl games in four years -- which was better than the two times since 2000 prior to Mullen's arrival -- the team still must compete for elite players.

"The players we recruit are being recruited by other SEC schools," he said. "They are going to go to those campuses and see what is important to those other schools, and we need to be right alongside them.

NOT JUST FOOTBALL
The importance of football is obvious across the Southeast and in many other areas of the country, but the sport is not alone in its facility upgrades. Universities across the country are putting investment dollars behind many other athletic programs. Here are some of the schools that have made upgrades in the last year:

Nov. 2012: Notre Dame, fencing athletics facility branding upgrade
Sept. 2012: Maryland, basketball office and facility branding upgrade
Aug. 2012: USC, all-sports athletic facility branding upgrade
Aug. 2012: San Francisco, basketball arena branding upgrade
July 2012: Auburn, all-sports weight room upgrade
June 2012: Tampa, all sport branding upgrade
Feb. 2012: Mississippi State, softball field graphics upgrade
Feb. 2012: Pepperdine, campus wide branding upgrade for all sports

"I think that we are getting to the place we want to be. We have taken away a reason why players would not want to come here."

Nashville (Tenn.) Independence safety Rashaan Gaulden is being recruited by Mississippi State. He also has been offered by SEC schools Kentucky, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Tennessee and Vanderbilt, as well as many other BCS programs.

At the Rivals Camp Series presented by Under Armour, he said his interests fall in line with the findings of the Galain study because his primary concern is his history major but just below that is the condition of the athletic center in which he will play.

"Facilities have to be the best of the best," Gaulden said.

Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said the arms race has leveled off because most every school has done some sort of improvement. However, upgrades are important.

"Having the coolest player lounge or the best weight room that a player sees on his visit will play a role because it makes the players feel like they are really important," Farrell said. "Oftentimes it is window dressing and overrated, but the bottom line is that if you don't have great facilities it is obvious."

Kentucky is another program making a major commitment to upgrades.

The university recently approved a $110 million renovation project that will update Commonwealth Stadium by adding luxury suites. It will improve and implement a space dedicated to recruiting and involve multiple other upgrades.

With one of the best basketball programs in the country, the recruiting success has yet to translate to football.

Since Rivals.com began tracking recruiting classes with the class of 2002, Kentucky has finished better than next-to-last in the SEC only twice. The classes of 2006 and 2004 bettered Mississippi State and Vanderbilt. In 2012 and 2002 the program finished in last place among SEC teams, while in every other year it beat only Vanderbilt or Missouri.

New head coach Mark Stoops said the commitment to the betterment of the facilities is among the most important moves the university can make.

"It is critical to our success moving forward," he said. "We had to have an upgrade, and the commitment that is being shown to the program is exciting."

The buzz generated by the Stoops hiring was measurable because the program averaged better than 3.0 stars per signee for the first time. The class of 2013 ended the cycle with a 3.05 average signer, while the 11 prior classes averaged 2.52.

Stoops said recruiting is a unique part of the annual football cycle and took note of what facilities can do for boosting the sales pitch.

"There are things that should take precedence over facilities," he said. "Each player is different, and I know that facilities are high on the list of a lot of players."

The difference in facilities, according to Farrell, is more of a determining factor for players who are between levels.

His opinion is that the higher-level programs have balanced one another out and that balance is sustained at a level above the second tier of programs.

"Big schools with a lot of money will always have the advantage, and that is where you notice the biggest difference," he said. "Going from Alabama to Ohio State to USC, it is all really nice, but for kids who are between being a first choice to a non-BCS program and a Plan B guy for a BCS program, there are more likely to be things that stand out to them."

Todd Monken had been an assistant at Oklahoma State and LSU, as well as a coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars, before taking the head coaching position at Southern Miss after last season.

He has recruited in the lap of luxury -- billionaire T. Boone Pickens upgraded the Oklahoma State facilities with a $250 million grant -- and is selling his vision to a group of players who will come to a program with plenty of success but not as plush surroundings.

Carlisle-Faulkner Field at M.M. Robert Stadium has been a major advantage to Southern Miss. The team has won 73 percent of its home games since it opened in 1976. Its renovations have been limited to a scoreboard upgrade in 2007, a lighting system in 2002 and an irrigation system in 1989.

This season a renovation campaign called "Building Dominance" will debut more upgrades, but nothing will compare to what SEC programs can offer.

"Facilities are important for big-time kids, but mostly they are all the same," Monken said. "Guys like me who went to Knox College never expected facilities like Florida has. I believe that we are at the point where it only matters if what you have is not impressive. I believe that when a young man walks into our facilities they are as good as -- or better than -- any school we regularly play and recruit against."

Since the class of 2002, the program has had the top-rated class in Conference USA five times -- including four consecutive seasons from 2006 through 2009 -- and it has been below fifth in only three seasons.

Wisconsin's Gary Andersen is a coach who has gone in the other direction for facilities.

Andersen took over at the Big Ten program after Bret Bielema left for Arkansas. He came from Utah State -- a program with arguably the worst facilities in its state -- to a place that has some of the finest in the country.

Wisconsin was as active as any school in improving what recruits would see when they came on campus. In 2012, the university started its $76.8 million "Athletic Village" that now wraps around Camp Randall Stadium.

The upgrades included new turf, a new roof, locker rooms, multimedia instructional space and a three-story, 32,088-square-foot addition to the stadium that includes study rooms, a computer lab and a state-of-the-art strength and conditioning center.

Andersen downplayed the glitz and glamor of the project.

"If you have nice facilities, that may be all you have," he said. "Having a nice house and a nice car doesn't mean you have a nice family.

"Having a nice academic center with all new computers doesn't mean our students will be better unless they use them. Our weight room is one of the nicest in the country, but unless we get players to go in there it is just a weight room."

Wisconsin has finished in the top five of the Big Ten in recruiting only once, when the class of 2003 was rated as fifth in the conference.

The program has represented the conference in the Rose Bowl each of the last four seasons.

Andersen said that, despite having one of the better athletic complexes in the country, he believes that players need to look at more than that.

"Things like weights and stadiums shouldn't be an end-all, be-all," he said.

It is to that end that Mississippi State is hoping its investment is not in vain.

"It has to go beyond recruiting," Stricklin said. "Current players' pride walking in the door is improved, fans are responding well to everything we are doing, and outsiders are taking notice.

"Whether it translates into recruiting success and more wins on the field is yet to be determined."



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