A day after being dealt another setback regarding their football stadium expansion plans, Coastal Carolina University leaders remained resolute about their intentions to follow through with the school’s upcoming move to the Sun Belt Conference and NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision.
The university’s board of trustees went into closed session for more than an hour Friday, citing contractual matters as the legal reason for the closed session. Officials declined to divulge much after the executive session, other than to deliver one overriding message.
“We’re fully committed to our transition to move to the Sun Belt and we are moving forward,” the board’s athletics committee chairman Gene Spivey said simply, after the meeting was reopened to the public.
That was a sentiment reiterated privately and publicly throughout the room a day after Coastal Carolina’s latest Brooks Stadium expansion plan was denied phase two state approval by the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education in a 9-4 vote Thursday afternoon in Columbia.
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As part of Coastal Carolina’s upcoming move to the Sun Belt and FBS, which was announced in September, the Chanticleers need to expand the 9,214-seat capacity of Brooks Stadium as the NCAA requires all FBS programs to average 15,000 in attendance.
The university has now brought its stadium expansion plan before the CHE four times since February and revised its previous $38 million budget to $29.9 million in advance of the latest meeting Thursday, while reducing its plan for around 22,000 seats to about 19,000 along with some other cuts.
Without approval from the CHE, that necessary expansion remains on hold.
But the big picture plans remain unchanged, university president David DeCenzo said.
“We’re still very confident. I know I’ve had some people say, ‘What does this mean about us moving to the Sun Belt?’ Clearly that has not changed,” DeCenzo said after the meeting. “Come July 1 Coastal Carolina is a member of the Sun Belt and we will continue moving in that direction.”
We’re still very confident. I know I’ve had some people say, ‘What does this mean about us moving to the Sun Belt?’ Clearly that has not changed. Come July 1 Coastal Carolina is a member of the Sun Belt and we will continue moving in that direction.
CCU President David DeCenzo
The most obvious plan for moving forward is to satisfy the CHE’s concerns about a lack of private donations for the project before taking it back for another vote.
The revised budget proposal the university pitched Thursday included a $2 million pledge from the Chanticleer Athletic Foundation upon completion of construction and $5 million of renovation reserve funds approved for use on the project by the board of trustees, while the remaining $22.9 million would come from bonds that would be repaid in part by annual contributions of $500,000 from the CAF and $200,000 in athletic department revenue with other backup funds in place should they be needed.
But the CHE commissioners continued to balk at any plan that didn’t include more upfront private money.
“There are a number of options that we’re going to explore. Obviously at this point we’re looking at any and all options and then we’ll make some decisions about which one is the best way to proceed,” DeCenzo said. “Clearly on top of that list is to continue to look for additional private monies, so that will be my personal challenge to see what we can do [toward] raising additional private monies.”
To that end, university and CAF officials were hopeful the no vote the CHE delivered on Thursday would actually help spur more contributions from the community.
This gives us a more potent, focused appeal to say, ‘You can be a part of this, help make this a reality.’ Because we’re against some obstacles at the state right now that are almost inexplicable. There’s a lot of things working behind the scenes. That’s my opinion, but I think it’s an opinion that is shared by many people, and the only way to overcome that is come to meet this committee in terms of what they want, and they want more private money. Well this is our chance, this is our appeal right now.
Chanticleer Athletic Foundation director of development Rhett Graham
CAF executive director Chris Johnson said it wouldn’t be appropriate to give an estimate of any potential donations the foundation has leads on at this point, other than to express his optimism moving forward.
“The word is opportunities and leads,” Johnson said. “There are discussions taking place. Coming out of today I think we’re more excited than we were before.”
Rhett Graham, the CAF’s director of development, shared a relevant story that occurred Friday morning as he arrived at his office.
“Coming into work this morning just preparing for today’s meeting, I was followed into my office and I don’t know who this guy is. He pulls up at the same time, so we walk into my office, he’s kind of quiet ... and he just writes us a check,” Graham said, noting it was for $100. “It was a generous check and I thought maybe it was just for CAF membership. In our typical procedure I looked at the memo line to make sure where it was supposed to go, and it said ‘stadium expansion.’ ... What he demonstrates is the community is realizing how important they can be in this whole process and realize how important private dollars are.
“These things don’t happen without the community support, without the private dollars, so what that gentleman has demonstrated is that he agrees with our vision, he sees the great things ahead and I truly think that that vote [Thursday] 9-4 against us is going to be a monumental day when the history of this university is continually written. I think this will be a great day where the community, the alumni, the fans, they all understand, this is it. This is why we need to get involved. ... I hope this will be the catalyst that we build on to take us to the next level.”
The Chants need a lot more $100 checks to change the mind of the CHE commissioners, but Graham said the CHE’s latest decision – a reflection of the commission’s new hardline approach to vetting capital projects – hasn’t changed the CAF’s sense of urgency with regard to raising money for this project.
It may have just sharpened the focus for potential donors on the significance of upfront contributions.
“There’s always urgency. Let me emphasize that, there’s always urgency in fund-raising,” Graham said. “Having gone to school here myself, I wake up every day with a chance to help grow my own school. What this is, this gives us a more potent, focused appeal to say, ‘You can be a part of this, help make this a reality.’ Because we’re against some obstacles at the state right now that are almost inexplicable. There’s a lot of things working behind the scenes. That’s my opinion, but I think it’s an opinion that is shared by many people, and the only way to overcome that is come to meet this committee in terms of what they want, and they want more private money. Well this is our chance, this is our appeal right now.”
DeCenzo didn’t expound on what other options the university could also consider at this point, or what short-term options – such as temporary seating to increase the stadium’s capacity – could come into play if needed.
As for whether or not the university takes a new proposal back to the CHE in June, he said that will depend on whether they have new information to provide by then.
“We’ll look at different stop-gap options, but again, that’s one of the options that we’ll explore to see what’s there. But our hope is we provide additional information to give what the Commission on Higher Education is looking for so that they have a comfort level and ultimately approve the project,” he said.
“We’d love to start it as soon as possible. Those are all things we’re going to have to look at. We certainly would have loved to have had the stadium available for the ’17 season, but those are going to have to be some options that we’ll have to continue to explore.”