Two years after pondering preliminary plans, Vanderbilt is no closer to building a new football stadium or renovating its current one, and that lack of progress may be self-inflicted.
Multiple sources told The Tennessean university administrators undercut efforts to raise funds for a stadium project to focus on building other campus structures. Athletics fundraisers were prohibited from soliciting certain donors already targeted by university fundraisers. Vanderbilt is amid a $600 million capital project, which includes no athletics facilities.
The National Commodore Club, the primary fundraiser for Vanderbilt athletics, is moving from McGugin Center to the Loews Vanderbilt Plaza in the development and alumni relations office, the headquarters for fundraising for non-athletics campus projects.
Vanderbilt Stadium has undergone numerous renovations since it was first built at current site in 1922. Most of current structure built was in 1981.
McGugin Center houses Vanderbilt athletics. Vanderbilt will be the only SEC school with its primary athletics fundraiser office not located in either an athletics department building or a freestanding building in the athletics area of campus. Sources said it illustrates Vanderbilt’s institutional de-emphasis of athletics.
No answers on fundraising office consolidation
In the SEC, Vanderbilt is decades behind the other 13 schools in stadium upgrades. Internal conflicts about fundraising plans could widen that gap.
University spokesman Ian Morrison declined to provide a reason for the consolidation of the university and athletics fundraising offices. But he said the National Commodore Club has always been a branch of the development and alumni relations office rather than under the purview of the athletics department.
That also makes Vanderbilt athletics fundraising unique in the SEC. Among the other 13 member schools, eight have their athletics fundraising under the athletics department, and five others raise funds through an athletics-specific nonprofit foundation.
When asked if Vanderbilt administrators, either in policy or practice, prohibit athletics fundraisers from soliciting certain donors already targeted by university fundraisers, university spokesman Princine Lewis declined comment.
The Tennessean’s request to interview Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos for this story was declined. In a statement, the university said: “We’re always looking for ways to improve the fan experience, but we have no immediate plans to build a new stadium or to undertake any major renovations.”
Meanwhile, athletics director David Williams said a renovation to Memorial Gym may happen before any major work is done to Vanderbilt Stadium.
Vanderbilt athletics director has ‘desire’ for new stadium
As Vanderbilt opens preseason football practice this week, Williams said he wants to upgrade the stadium.
“Oh, the desire is very much there,” Williams said. “People say that we are not interested in (a stadium project). Trust me, there is no AD in this conference that wants to do things to win a championship more than I do.
“We value it, but we have to do it within our framework.”
At SEC Media Days two weeks ago, football coach Derek Mason said he is confident Vanderbilt can figure out a plan for a stadium project. But he is focused on coaching in the upcoming season while the administration tries to navigate obstacles for a new stadium.
“I think we need to address it now because the skyrocketing costs of building are not going to go down in Nashville,” Mason said. “We have to be smart and strategic and also work with a sense of urgency.”
Why can’t Vanderbilt pay for a stadium?
Vanderbilt is a private university with a $4.1 billion endowment, according to university tax returns provided to the USA TODAY Network. The athletics department receives about $40 million annually from SEC revenue distribution.
Williams said the university “does not pull any (money) off the top” of that $40 million for campus projects, but it is used in athletics department operations and expenses, some that exceed other SEC schools.
Vanderbilt’s ongoing $600 million capital project along the West End Avenue side of campus is a source of university pride, but it does not include any work for a much-needed football stadium renovation.
In 2016, Williams estimated that a new stadium would cost between $60 million and $90 million, or perhaps more depending on amenities and several other factors.
According to Vanderbilt financial reports, the university invested $308 million combined in capital projects and acquisitions in 2016 and 2017, but only $15 million were in athletics. That was mostly spent on a new $12 million baseball facility, which was capped by a $2.5 million donation from former player David Price.
Vanderbilt tuition, aid higher than other SEC schools
Apart from any possible infighting over fundraising, Williams said Vanderbilt’s distinct emphasis on elite academics and inclusion creates challenges in athletics that public universities do not face.
In 2009, Vanderbilt greatly expanded its need-based financial aid so prospective students from low-income households could afford the high tuition. The program has been a source of pride for the university and Williams.
However, the athletics department must pay for scholarships, cost-of-attendance and expanded financial aid for all student-athletes through its portion of the endowment. That’s an estimated cost-of-attendance of $70,146 per undergraduate student-athlete for the 2018-19 academic year, according to the Vanderbilt office of student financial aid and scholarships.
The other 13 SEC schools, all public universities, range in cost-of-attendance from $21,000 to $33,000 for in-state students and $40,000 to $55,000 for out-of-state students.
“People need to realize things like (need-based financial aid) comes out of (the athletics portion of) the endowment,” Williams said. “I would much rather they use the endowment money for something like that, and we’ll go out and raise the money for (a stadium project).”
‘No imminent plans’ for a stadium project
For better or worse, that initiative makes Vanderbilt a unique member in the facilities-rich SEC.
Vanderbilt Stadium has not undergone a major renovation since 1981. Each of the other 13 SEC schools have had major football stadium renovations since 2006, costing a total of $1.6 billion. In contrast, Vanderbilt has added only a few cosmetic improvements, including artificial turf and a new video board, since 2006.
The University of Tennessee, for example, is planning a $340 million two-part renovation to Neyland Stadium. Phase one will cost $180 million and be funded by fundraising campaigns, athletic department revenues, partnerships and debt financing. As of last fall, $50 million had been raised for the project. UT declined to provide updated figures for a story that the Knoxville News Sentinel published June 1, following the SEC spring meetings.
Vanderbilt opened a $30 million multipurpose indoor practice facility in 2014, which is separate from the stadium. It was funded by a combination of philanthropy and university investment, according to the Vanderbilt athletics website.
“It’s a challenge when you’re a private school as opposed to a state flagship university, and what state schools can do as it relates to bonding mechanisms and how the state legislature feels about you having (stadium projects),” Williams said. “… We clearly know that our stadium situation needs to be improved, but there are no imminent plans.”
In September 2016, Williams met with university planners and financial officers to accelerate plans for a new stadium or a renovation to the current one. But that momentum fizzled and fundraising efforts fell short.
In December 2017, Nashville won a bid for a Major League Soccer expansion franchise and got initial approval to build a new soccer stadium primarily funded by an ownership group led by John Ingram, a chief benefactor for Vanderbilt athletics.
Vanderbilt briefly flirted with the idea of playing home football games at the off-campus MLS stadium, but opposition from fans nixed that possibility.
“I’m not going to say that fundraising is the problem. Fundraising has to be the solution,” Williams said. “My position is whatever we do, we are going to raise the money (exclusively in the athletics department). People need to understand that we’ve never turned to the university and said, ‘Give us the money to build that.’”
Memorial Gym renovation may precede stadium
Williams said Vanderbilt is the “planning stage” of a renovation to Memorial Gym, a project that may occur before any stadium project. But even that renovation has a wide range of possibilities.
Some cosmetic touch-ups to Memorial Gym would not be very costly. But any major infrastructure work to the 66-year-old arena would include installing an air-conditioning system at a cost of at least $5 million, according to Williams.
“Memorial (Gym) would probably come before (Vanderbilt) Stadium, but I don’t want to leave the impression that we’re not going to do anything to the stadium,” Williams said. “That doesn’t mean we won’t go in there and do some things.”
USA TODAY’s Steve Berkowitz contributed to this report. Reach Adam Sparks at email@example.com and on Twitter @AdamSparks.
Most recent SEC stadium large renovations
School/Stadium: Cost (Year completed or projected)
Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium: $66 million (2010)
Arkansas’ Razorback Stadium: $160 million (2018)
Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium: $40 million (2018)
Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium: $28 million (2008)
Georgia’s Sanford Stadium: $63 million (2018)
Kentucky’s Commonwealth Stadium: $120 million (2015)
LSU’s Tiger Stadium: $80 million (2014)
Mississippi State’s Davis-Wade Stadium: $75 million (2014)
Missouri’s Memorial Stadium: $98 million (2019)
Ole Miss’ Vaught-Hemingway Stadium: $44 million (2016)
South Carolina’s Williams-Brice Stadium: $33 million (2006)
Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium: $340 million (2021)
Texas A&M’s Kyle Field: $485 million (2015)
Vanderbilt Stadium: $10.1 million (1981)
Note: Excludes smaller more recent renovations like video board or turf.
Vanderbilt Stadium timeline
1892: Old Dudley Field (later Curry Field) first used as home field.
1922: New Dudley Field dedicated as first stadium in South used exclusively for college football.
1949: New press box and seats added to west side for capacity of 27,901.
1960: Additional seats on east side expands capacity to 34,000.
1970: AstroTurf installed for $250,000.
1980-81: Major renovation/new construction yields Vanderbilt Stadium.
1998: JumboTron video screen installed as Tennessee Oilers play home games there.
2002: Dudley Field natural grass surface renovated after upgrades in 1999.
2003: North end zone bleacher section removed.
2009: Gates 2 & 3 renovated.
2011: New natural grass playing surface installed.
2012: New artificial turf, video board and berm seating in north end zone added.