Copyright 2018 The Florida Times-Union
Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville)
During its more recent 65-year existence, Swisher Gym on the Jacksonville University campus has served as a two-fold reminder to basketball spectators/visitors: a homage to the school's distant past hoops glory and the need for a new facility.
While Swisher has undergone a few makeovers in recent years, including renovations to the hallway, floor, roof and basement locker rooms, it cannot mask the reality of being an antiquated structure in a basketball landscape where state-of-the-art arenas have become commonplace.
But at a small, private university like JU, with about 2,500 undergraduate students, funding for projects in the tens of millions of dollars is a huge challenge. An on-campus arena in the 2,500-3,500 seat range, which is about the size JU prefers, would likely be a minimum $30-40 million, depending on what amenities beyond athletic offices, fitness
center and meeting space go into the building.
NJIT, a public school and fellow ASUN Conference member, just opened its Wellness and Event Center in November at a price tag of $110 million. The 12,000-student school, located seven miles from downtown Newark, N.J., used public money to borrow and finance the massive project.
JU has no such luxury. And without an Oklahoma State booster like Boone Pickens to serve as a lead donor, the school's current push to fund a new home court for basketball is tempered by the reality that it could be several years down the road, if at all.
The bright side for JU is under current president Tim Cost, an aggressive fund-raiser with a business background, the basketball program has a better chance of seeing that dream come to fruition.
"We're down the path and doing the hard work of funding [for a basketball facility]," said Cost, who was appointed to his position in 2013. "A lot of options are on the table."
Tony Jasick just completed his fourth season as the JU head coach. He feels a new multi-purpose athletic facility, which many schools in the ASUN already have in place, would have a significant impact on his ability to recruit better players and on all aspects of student life.
"When you look across the country, the trend is build, build, build," said Jasick, who has a 58-72 record at JU. "When it comes to recruiting players, obviously, number one is establishing relationships. But it's also what people can see.
"The first place anybody is going to come on our campus is your basketball facility. It's the front porch. That's what often brings people on campus the first time. It'd help every aspect of the athletic department to have a nice, up-to-date building."
Cost, a former JU baseball pitcher who has already initiated $30 million-plus in renovations across the campus during his tenure, says a basketball facility upgrade is on the horizon. He's just not sure yet what form it's going to take.
Fund-raising toward a new practice facility, while still playing games at Swisher, is in the works and could happen much quicker at a cost of $5-10 million. As for a multi-purpose athletic complex to replace Swisher as JU's home court, that project would require finding a major donor for naming rights and a lot more hoops to jump through with the 28-member Board of Trustees.
"It's probably more likely we do a high-value, high-impact practice facility than something more elaborate," Cost said. "But we should be optimistic to pursue something at a higher level [than a practice facility]. That'd be a transformational situation for us."
Falling behind the competition
While JU has made significant strides in upgrading facilities for sports like football, lacrosse, baseball, softball and golf, the renovations at Swisher Gym in recent years - including money donated by Cost and his wife, Stephanie, for videoboards — have been more of a nice touchup.
It looks more pristine in the entranceway with basketball pictures of past stars adorning the walls, and the gym's look is brighter than it was five years ago. However, the seating capacity of 1,360 remains fifth-smallest among 351 Division I men's programs in the country and is smaller than many standard high school gyms.
"Every program on campus is recruiting students and every prospective student wants to see growth," Jasick said. "They want to see new, whether it's architecture or technology. When you're hosting events, people want to come into new, state-of-the-art [facilities]."
JU athletic director Alex Ricker-Gilbert, who has been at the school three years, walks somewhat of a tightrope when asked about a new basketball facility.
"We're pleased with the environment at Swisher," said Ricker-Gilbert. "But if you're asking me do I think a new arena would help the environment? Sure, but I don't think we're crying out for it."
The basketball landscape suggests otherwise. Within the ASUN, only USC-Upstate, which plays its games at 888-seat G. B. Hodge Center (built in 1973), has less room for spectators. Upstate has already announced plans next season to move to the Big South, and it'll be replaced by North Alabama, which has a 4,000-seat arena (Flowers Hall). Before NJIT opened its new basketball facility, it had a maximum capacity of 900 at the Estelle and Zoom Athletic Center.
"We've gone from seven sports to 19 sports in my 18 years," said NJIT athletic director Lenny Kaplan. "As the university was growing, we needed a new facility. What do students do when they're not in class? Your orientation visit is probably in the gym and we had a dumpy gym. It was quaint and colorful, but it was old. I always joked for its 50th birthday that I wanted to get it a wrecking ball."
Despite a small campus size of 48 acres, NJIT got the bond money to finance a 3,500-seat, multi-purpose athletic center. The Highlanders, who finished in a fourth-place tie with North Florida in its third season as an ASUN member, only averaged about 1,000 fans per game in the new facility, but Kaplan feels the future will be dramatically better as recruits see a modern hoops atmosphere.
"When we were dreaming of a new facility, I never imagined it'd be $110 million," Kaplan said. "We joined the ASUN because no other conference in the northeast would have us. They wanted a minimum size basketball facility of 3,000 [capacity]."
For JU, the NJIT upgrade is further evidence that competitors are moving well past the Dolphins on the building front. Since joining the ASUN in 1998-99, new hoops facilities have sprouted up in the southeast at Florida Gulf Coast (Alico Arena), Lipscomb (Allen Arena) and Kennesaw State (KSU Convocation Center), all schools that eventually joined the ASUN.
Some schools that once competed regularly with JU like Belmont, Mercer and Campbell all built new arenas while members of the ASUN. Others (UCF, Samford, Troy) opened new basketball facilities after departing the league.
There's no question everybody involved with JU's basketball program feels a need to follow that trend.
"It would be nice to have something bigger, something different [than Swisher]," said senior forward Antwon Clayton, the only JU player who has spent four seasons in the program. "I think we should have started this a while ago. Coach Jasick has done a good job of getting quality guys here with the limited resources we have."
Swisher a recruiting disadvantage
When it comes to a home-court edge, the conundrum for JU administrators and athletic officials in the past decade has been whether to play home games at the cavernous Veterans Memorial Arena (15,000 capacity) or Swisher.
"That was the Catch-22," said Alan Verlander, who served as JU athletic director from 2005-12 and is now an executive with Jacksonville Sports Council. "Are you more a part of the community being downtown? But then, if you're not on campus, it's harder to get students to come to the games."
From 1969-99, the Dolphins played 430 consecutive home games at the old Coliseum downtown. They moved back to Swisher for most home games until Verlander and former coach Cliff Warren decided, for recruiting purposes, to play games at the new arena for the 2006-07 season.
JU made it work when the team was winning ASUN titles in 2009 and '10, averaging 3,445 fans, but attendance dwindled to 569 by Jasick's first season in 2014-15. So after one year of bouncing back and forth between Swisher and the downtown arena, JU has played its home games on campus the past three years.
Financially, without having to pay rent, it's easier on the JU athletic budget to play at Swisher. But the attendance numbers there have only seen a modest increase, which goes back to the challenge of attracting fans to an antiquated gym that was built in 1953 (when JU was a junior college) for the paltry sum of $310,000.
This season, the average crowd for the Dolphins at Swisher was 811, a 25 percent increase from Jasick's first season (646). While that represents progress, the reality is even a loud environment in a small gym makes it challenging for Jasick on the recruiting trail. That's especially true when ASUN members Gulf Coast, UNF and Lipscomb, a private school like JU, all have relatively new arenas with capacities between 4,600 and 5,800.
The Dolphins nearly filled up Swisher for the last regular-season home game against UNF, which was encouraging. But four days later in the ASUN tournament, the gym was almost half-empty (725) for a matchup against Kennesaw State.
With only 200 season-ticket holders this season, it's been tough to create a buzz for any game outside of the crosstown rivalry with UNF. The dilemma for JU, beyond the hurdle of fund-raising for a new facility, is whether a new on-campus home court will dramatically increase attendance, especially in an Arlington area where crime is a problem and businesses have shut down in recent years.
"My first couple years there, before they built a nice fence and a new entrance into campus, there was a lot of crime," Verlander said. "You're reaching when you have to sell 18-year-old kids on the entrance to campus. There was some hard times.
"I think JU has done as good a job as they can in making Swisher Gym look nice, but at what point in time do you have to realize they've got to do something? If you're going to compete with Florida Gulf Coast, Mercer and Belmont for players, they got to have the facilities."
Dolphins' junior forward Jace Hogan, a native of Melbourne and a transfer from the Naval Academy, also makes an important point about Swisher's disadvantage from a recruiting perspective.
"Swisher is kind of a high school gym," Hogan said. "It's tough when you go to the basket, the walls are so close. You have the railings [on the sidelines], too, it's kind of a little scary. I mean, [a new arena], that's the thing we really need to bolster the program.
"A lot of times, when you go on recruiting visits, arenas are compared. Sometimes that goes the longest way in deciding if players want to go to this school or that school."
Still, the downside of Swisher isn't as bad as it used to be. The building went 30-plus years without air conditioning until JU used money it received from its 1986 NCAA tournament appearance to make the gym temperature-friendly.
"Every practice, the players had to change jerseys three times because they sweated so much," said Bob Wenzel, who coached the Dolphins from 1981-87.
Cost raising bar for alma mater
Amidst the challenge of raising the money necessary to fund a new on-campus arena, JU basketball insiders agree one factor provides real hope: Cost's love for the school and proven salesmanship ability.
Few college presidents in the country are as emotionally invested in the school they're leading as Cost, a 1981 JU graduate and former executive with PepsiCo and Bristol-Myers.
"I don't think there's a president in the country that's as supportive of athletics as Tim," said Ricker-Gilbert. "A lot of that is tied to his time here as a student-athlete, but it's also athletics being a big part of our student enrollment (500-plus) and his belief is athletes are our best students."
"This is a unique situation with his effort level and emotional ties to the school, it's off the charts," Jasick added. "That's why this place has a chance. When you look across the country, I'd bet we are in the low percentile of schools where our environment is growing. It's because of Tim."
Cost is a mover-and-shaker, not a president chained to his office and rigidly following his day-planner. He likes visiting all parts of the campus, mingling with students and getting feedback about how to make their college experience better. Cost genuinely aims to please them because those are his customers, and he never forgets he was once one of them.
His business background in CEO-type positions, coupled with an outgoing personality, makes Cost an ideal person to chase donors. His track record shows he makes people comfortable about gift-giving.
JU's ASPIRE campaign, with the goal of improving all facets of the university and the most ambitious fund-raising project in school history, began with an original target goal of raising $85 million when Cost took office. The gift total is expected to reach $120 million by the middle of this year, including $17 million for athletics, though none of it is earmarked specifically for a basketball facility.
All that money is separate from a myriad of campus improvements that have taken place on Cost's watch, from the 30,000-square foot College of Health and Science building, to chemistry/biology lab and dorm upgrades, to restoring the president's house into the popular River House bar/restaurant, with a scenic view of the St. John's River.
"We're not doing feasibility studies, we're into progress and raising the money toward that progress," Cost said. "You have to look to make an impact in these early years. I would hope we could get a substantial part of the original vision executed and in place in my first 10 years here."
That vision includes, at bare minimum, a new basketball training facility. It could be built possibly at the old 39-acre Boys Home, a quarter-mile south of JU's main entrance, on land the school purchased for $3.3 million in 2014. With JU owning nearly 300 acres, there are other location options.
Cost doesn't rule out the possibility of JU someday having both a basketball practice facility and a new on-campus arena, but that second project is a lot more expensive. It'll require an intense search for a big donor and a lot of persuasion, but the feeling on campus is Cost, more than anyone, has the wherewithal to pull it off.
"The naming rights rule of thumb is you want to get 50 percent of the cost of a building, which is $15 million if it's a $30 million building," Verlander said. "To give away $15 million, you probably have to be worth $100 million. How many alums or people that love a university have that kind of money?
"There's a lot of competition in this marketplace for corporate dollars. The good news is if anybody runs in those circles, Tim Cost does. I feel confident he can find those kind of donors if they're out there. Tim and his staff have done a good job of bringing donors back into the fold. They're beginning to get aggressive in fund-raising."
Cost, who remains on an undisclosed multi-year contract with JU, is plenty generous himself when it comes to his alma mater. He donated $250,000 toward the left-field hitting pavilion at the Dolphins' baseball stadium. Seeing JU grow in all areas is his passion.
"I love this place," said Cost, who holds the distinction of throwing JU's only nine-inning no-hitter. "I'll do whatever I can to make it better."
For a JU basketball program in dire need of a facility upgrade, the former Dolphins' pitcher just might be its ace in the hole.
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