The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

May 10, 2013

Troy in midst of $73 million athletics makeover


Associated Press

— TROY, Ala. (AP) — The Troy Trojans are making a $73 million investment in their athletic program with a new basketball arena and ambitious plans to upgrade football facilities over the next few years.

Football coach Larry Blakeney said the Trojans might have become the Boise State of the South if this extensive makeover had started during a five-year run as Sun Belt Conference champions instead of after two losing seasons and lagging recruiting.

"If men's basketball and football aren't successful, you are not considered a top-flight Division I athletic program. Period," Blakeney, who's approaching his 23rd season, told The Associated Press on Thursday. "That's not being selfish, because I'm not selfish. But we've won five straight championships and somewhere in the midst of all that, if we had broken ground out here, it would have been an explosion.

"And we might have been in a position to have been a Boise State, which I hear everybody talking about. I'll take Boise State's budget and Boise State's staffing and Boise State's facilities today. I've never been out there but I'll swap."

Troy athletic director John Hartwell, who took over last October, said the best-case scenario is for the projected $28 million facility in the North end zone to be ready by the 2015 season "if we hit a couple of home runs" in fundraising, but figures 2-4 years is more realistic. It will be paid for through private donations and corporate sponsorships plus revenue from some 14 luxury boxes.

The $40 million Trojan Arena opened last season. Facility upgrades for golf, tennis and softball are planned or in the works with projected price tags totaling $5 million.

Hartwell said Troy has raised just over $1 million toward the football facility, which will include a weight room, locker rooms and coaching and administrative offices. A rendering leans against the wall just behind his desk.

Projects costing more than quadruple Troy's annual revenue from athletics — $16.5 million in 2012 — is a huge investment for the university located in a town with a population of about 18,000, 45 minutes from Montgomery.

Blakeney is also hoping for an indoor practice facility. No promises there.

"Like with the practice facility, we're not going to jump off the mountain without a parachute," Hartwell said. "We're going to make sure that from a financial standpoint that we can afford what we build and certainly until funding is in place and a funding model is in place and the university is comfortable with it, we won't move it ahead.

"Going back to the energy and excitement that our fans have with the notion of this facility, I think we can accomplish it."

The former Mississippi administrator stresses the importance of having digs that supply the "wow factor" for recruits.

Hartwell declined to speculate on whether facilities were an obstacle for potential suitors like Conference USA during recent realignment. Four Sun Belt teams have left for C-USA and Western Kentucky will join them in 2014.

"We are very committed to the Sun Belt," Hartwell said. "We're very excited and proud to be a member of the Sun Belt but we would not be being prudent administrators if somebody came knocking and their television package was worth $3 million more a year toward us as an institution, to at least take a look at that.

"Is conference affiliation the driving force behind our wanting to improve facilities and make sure we're the very best we can be? Absolutely not. It's about Troy University."

In football, the Trojans have won eight games in two seasons since completing a five-year run atop the Sun Belt in 2010. Blakeney believes Troy and Louisiana-Monroe rank at the bottom of the Sun Belt in football facilities and support staff.

"I attribute part of that to dragging our feet on this facility because of recruiting," he said.

The basketball program has struggled, too. The Trojans finished fifth or sixth in the six-team East Division in each of the past three seasons.

Hartwell hired former Mississippi State and Western Kentucky assistant Phil Cunningham to replace Don Maestri, who retired after 31 seasons.

Cunningham inherits the new arena, which features two 767-square-foot video boards, seven upper-level suites and a banner ribbon around the wall along with little touches like the Troy "T's" on every seatback.

"For this level of basketball which most people would term it mid-major basketball, it has to be the nicest arena in the country," Cunningham said. "Obviously it's brand new but even once you get inside, just all the bells and whistles. There was no stone unturned to make this place as aesthetically beautiful and alluring to fans and recruits as possible.

"Give the folks who had the vision to build it and the folks who did build it the credit. They hit a home run with this place."

Now, they're hoping to hit another.