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University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler and athletic director Norwood Teague approached the state's unofficial Mr. Hockey and school alum Lou Nanne late last year about becoming involved in the $190 million athletic facilities fundraising campaign.
"I said, 'Definitely. I'd certainly love to be on your committee,' " Nanne responded. Kaler and Teague told him they had bigger plans, asking Nanne to chair the campaign.
Nanne reiterated his desire to be a committee member, only. The university officials persisted, and ultimately prevailed, thanks in part to Nanne's memories of his grandfather.
"My grandfather used to have a word where, when I'd screw around and do things I shouldn't be doing, he'd say, 'Basta.' B-A-S-T-A. That's the Italian word for enough," Nanne said. "Enough. I thought of that when they asked me. I said, 'You know, I've had enough.' I've had enough of hearing that the University of Minnesota can't compete. I've had enough of hearing the University of Minnesota can't recruit. I've had enough of hearing all these reasons why other places are going to succeed and we can't."
And so Nanne, at age 72, has taken on a role that he hopes will end the futility, especially in football, where the program's last appearance in a major bowl was in 1962, by far the longest such drought of any Big Ten member. Nanne's voice resonates with passion, leaving little doubt he's the right man for the job because, well, he's "a Gemini ... with a lot of restless energy."
He already has helped put in place an executive committee numbering 12 people, with room for two more, and a leadership group of 45. Nanne discussed his role in a wide-ranging interview last week at his downtown office - oh yes, he has a full-time
job as Senior Managing Director for the global management asset arm of the Royal Bank of Canada.
"I've had the good fortune to follow the Gopher football team, and I've gone to these other places in the Big Ten, and I see these other places in the Big Ten and I say, 'Why can they do it, and why can't we?' he said. "There's no reason why we can't. That's why I got myself into this deal."
That, and that word: Basta.
Q: Pretend I'm a potential donor. Tell me why this project is important and why I should contribute.
A: I think that everybody has looked at the University of Minnesota and just considered the people that donate to the University of Minnesota are alumni and the university is only involved with the alumni. Realistically speaking, the University of Minnesota is the engine that drives the state. ... The University of Minnesota is the only research institution we have in the whole state, and we have to start looking at it as the jewel of the state - not just for the alumni.
Q: So you're not just focused on the usual suspects, the alumni? You're trying to expand the base of donors?
A: I don't care if you went to Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Robert Morris, North Dakota State, whatever it is. If you're living in the state of Minnesota, you're benefiting from the University of Minnesota in some way ... [Athletics] creates emotions, and it touches a lot of people. So you have all the different athletic things that we have here, sports that we have here, that makes it a better place for students to come. If you have better students, then you have better faculty, you get better educated people, you get better output from the total university and it makes the whole state benefit from it.
Q: I would imagine it's easy to get a list of potential alumni donors, but how do you find the people you're talking about to expand it? How do you know where to go?
A: That's a great question, and that's why we have the leadership council we have because there are people from different walks of life that all have different circles of friends and business involvement and they lead us to these other potential donors and that's what we need.
Q: Where do you think Minnesota ranks in athletic facilities in the Big Ten?
A: [Big Ten Commissioner] Jim Delaney was just in town and met with my leadership council and he told us we're last, which we knew. I'm not making it up. ... I'm embarrassed by it, I'm embarrassed by the fact that we have so much going on in the state of Minnesota and we have great facilities for professional sports - which I love, I'm happy for that - but at the same time I see our students go and study in the hallways of Bierman, they don't have enough room in the study hall, they're eating on card tables and training tables, compared to the plush places these other schools have got. I see Northwestern raising $200 million for better facilities now. I see Texas A&M has [2012 Heisman Trophy winner] Johnny Manziel one year and they raise $550 million. I say, 'What is this? We're the state of Minnesota. This is our jewel.'
Q: So how did this happen? It didn't happen overnight.
A: It was complacency. For too long, too often, we just took things as they are and no one really focused on the fact that we were falling behind. We just took things for granted and people don't really realize when you're successful in athletics, you raise more money for academics.
Q: There are going to be people that say Minnesota has competed well in many sports, especially the non-rev sports, and the key is the coach, not facilities. Why do we need it now?
A: First of all, non-rev sports are not going to drive the university. They're not going to be able to exist if this continues. ... We want to get to the position where we maintain what we've got in non-rev sports and continue to compete. ... I'm a hockey guy but I'm not an idiot. I love hockey, but I know football is the most important athletic team at the University of Minnesota. The more successful they are, the more successful we are.
Q: What if you only get to $120 million? Then is it only just football, basketball, hockey facilities?
A: You know, if you have a goal and you don't reach it, I don't think you quit. You keep trying to get there. THERE'S AN OVERALL PLAN. One of the earliest things in this is the facilities to study and have training table, that's for everybody.
Q: You and Teague must have some time frames in mind - where you'd like to be in a year, in two years.
A: No. I want to get it done tomorrow, can you help me? That's it. ... The faster we get something started and going, the more momentum we get, the more people we get on board, the more likely we are to succeed.
Q: You can break ground on some projects if, say, you get $50 million and then keep raising funds?
Q: There are prominent people who say that money is out of control in major college athletics, and will be the death of major sports. What's your reaction to that?
A: Well first of all, I have to tell you one thing, they have been saying that for 20, 40 years, it doesn't change. Everything goes up. ... You don't compete in the league and not give your athletes the opportunity to win. We are never going to be at the top of the spectrum for facilities and coaching salaries, etcetera. We don't have 100,000-seat stadiums like Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, so we're never going to have as much revenue. But there's no reason for us to be at the bottom, and we're at the bottom.
Q: Do you worry about major college athletics, where football coaches like Nick Saban make over $5 million?
A: But they take in $150 million [in revenue]. Be realistic. Why do a lot of salesman make more than the president of a company? Because they bring in business.
Q: Do you run into people who say why aren't you raising money for academics?
A: Athletic success raises money for academics. The people have to start correlating that.
Q: How is it that in this state, with so many big corporations, raising money, at least athletically, has always been so difficult?
A: That's the question that I think we're trying to address. ... I go to that little town in Ann Arbor and I see everything they got and I say, 'What the hell is going on here?'... I personally think that the focus got away from the university when those pro sports teams came here, and we never got it turned back.
Q: And there wasn't ever a solid fundraising plan?
A: That's right, I don't think there was a full-scale plan to get people involved. I really don't think that "the ask" has been there. It s like me, I never got involved in the University of Minnesota until the year 2000, I graduated in 1963. Someone came over and said, 'Louie, we'd like you to be part of it, we'd like you to donate.' I said, 'Fine.' And I got involved. They asked, 'Why are you doing it now?' I said, 'Nobody ever asked me.'
Q: Are you optimistic of finding a major donor?
A: I am, but I wish you wouldn't say major donor. We're looking for $190 million, however we get it, not because of a major donor or donors. We don't need a couple of top [donors] to be successful, but obviously it would make it easier.
Q: Are you satisfied where you are right now? What has the start been like?
A: Very encouraging because of the willingness of people to want to help. I'm really blown away. ... I'm excited in the fact that people now finally realize we have to do something here to make this thing better.
Q: Do you have specific events planned to raise money?
A: You don't get to $190 million by just fundraising events. You get to $190 million by people and corporations deciding, 'I want to make this thing better for the state of Minnesota.'
Q: What's your basic mode of raising money?
A: You see these things I have on? They're called shoes, and it's a lot of walking and talking.
These are the major projects included in the University of Minnesota's $190 million athletic facilities campaign:
- Cutting-edge academic excellence center
- Nutrition center
- Football complex
- Men's and women's basketball complex
- Women's gymnastics center
- All-sport indoor performance facilities and track
- Wrestling development center
- Outdoor track