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Focus on EMU: Athletics' Championship Building Plan

Eastern Michigan University

Patrick Campion sat down with Eastern Michigan University's Vice President and Director of Athletics, Scott Wetherbee, to talk about the current state of the Championship Building Plan, Athletics funding, and how they are moving forward without the $6 million gift announced by his predecessor, Heather Lyke.

Patrick C.:            This is Focus on EMU, on 89.1 WEMU. I'm Patrick Campion, and as you know, we like to spend a little time talking with some of the people we work with, and the organizations here on campus at Eastern Michigan University, to just talk about the great things happening in and around our campus community. One of the great things that you might have heard of certainly, was our football team went to a bowl game, two out of the last three years, which is certainly something to celebrate.

                                I always am very open about how much I love the work that Coach Creighton has done with the players, and the graduation rates, the GPAs, the community service, but kind of nationally, the cherry on top of that whipped cream is a bowl appearance, and the real thrust of what we're talking about here, is that, very quickly here, in the next year or so, we're gonna have a nice new facility for athletics. The championship building. The plan is in place, and moving along, and construction is underway.

                                We've brought in Vice President and Director of Athletics for Eastern Michigan University, Scott Wetherbee. Hello, Sir.

Scott W.:              Hello. Thanks for having me.

Patrick C.:            That's the main thing we're gonna talk about today, but I do want to ask you about your Bowl game experience. You've only been here a little while now, and you already were in another bowl game here. So, are you getting used to this, being on the national stage with Eastern?

Scott W.:              Yeah. It was real exciting this December, and you talked about Coach Creighton. He's done a great job, and we actually just got our GPA. His cumulative GPA for our football team is over a 3.0.

Patrick C.:            Wow.

Scott W.:              Which is just incredible. I've been in this 23 years now, and have never had a football team have a GPA over 3.0. So, he's doing a great job in the classroom as well, but we had a great experience down in Mobile, and they rolled out the red carpet for us, and I just thought it was a great experience for our student athletes, and the coaches, and our fans.

                                We had a great turn out down there, and had that opportunity. I've been spoiled in my career. I had gone to, I think 12 or 13 straight bowl games, until last year. So, it was my first kind of hiatus, and then to get back in to it, I certainly enjoy that a lot more, and putting the planning together, and it's just neat to see the student athletes, and their families, to be able to have a nice week together.

Patrick C.:            Speaking of graduation rates, just coincidentally, the Bowl just happened to be on the same day as the graduation ceremonies here on campus, so some of your players had to miss out, but you did something special for them, and I loved that, what you did. So, talk about that for a minute, 'cause I think it was really nice to acknowledge these departing seniors.

Scott W.:              Yeah. We took advantage of the pep rally. We talked to the Bowl Game and said, "How do you want us to do the pep rally?" And he said, "You guys can do whatever you want." So, Coach Creighton and I talked through, how can we honor the seniors, or how can we honor those that are graduating, knowing their families and everything, had made plans to be at a graduation here in Ypsilanti. So, we said, "Let's bring their cap and gown. I'll bring mine."  Our Faculty Athletic Rep., Dr. Sidlow brought his, and performed our own little ceremony there. 

                                What was really neat is, to see our fans, the parents, then they create a little runway for them to kind of go through. Normally, when you have graduation here at the Combo, your teammates aren't all around, and now, they all got to celebrate with them, and then to see the Georgia Southern fans, behind ours, like they thought it was really cool, and I had a number of Georgia Southern, and Bowl people come up and say, "What a classy move. That was really neat to see." And I think our Seniors enjoyed that even more, than they would if they were here. No knock on Dr. Smith.

Patrick C.:            That speaks to Coach Creighton's emphasis too, on academics, and it's nice to have that be emphasized, to have these graduating Seniors, because realistically, a huge percentage of these guys, are never gonna do something with football, or never play football again, once they walk out the door here. So, to acknowledge that. The main thrust of why you're here is to get a degree, right? And I think you and I both know, there's that negative stereotype that athletics doesn't care about academics, but you do, a lot.

                                The reason I was bringing it up, is just it put it front and center that, that really is an emphasis.

Scott W.:              Yeah, absolutely. I'm just glad that Coach really does embrace academics, and if you sit down and talk to him, or if he's in a home talking to parents, he hits on academics first. Then we talk about community service second, and then we talk about what we're doing on the field.

Patrick C.:            So, are Buffalo and Phoenix and what not, giving him a call, trying to get him to leave the confines of Eastern?

Scott W.:              Well, I hope not. I hope not. We want to do everything we can to keep him here, 'cause he's done a great job, and he really embraces the challenge here, and really wants to make an impact. Not only at Eastern, but in Ypsilanti, and in our community, and you don't always find that every day. So, I appreciate coming to work with him every day.

Patrick C.:            That's a nice bridge in to the new facilities that are going up, because obviously football, among all of the athletics programs, and portions of academics here too, will benefit from this new championship building plan. I haven't been over to that side of campus. You guys have active construction going on, right?

Scott W.:              Yeah, you need to come by.

Patrick C.:            All right.

Scott W.:              Even if it's just a drive by. All the steel work is up, and so you can see how big the building's gonna be. You can see the layout of it. They're actually putting in the second floor cement right now, and you can see where the video board's gonna be, and the neat thing is, if you haven't come by this thing, I'd just recommend people just come by, and check it out. It's really impressive, and where the video board's gonna be, the top beam is about 70 feet in the air, and then the speakers are gonna go above that. So, it's about 76 feet in the air, which is the top of the bubble. That's how high this is. So, it's significant. So, we've had a lot of work, and they're on track for July, and you're right. This is gonna give the opportunity to touch all of our student athletes, with our weight room and our sports medicine, that's going in there.

                                Obviously has a big impact on our football program, with coaches' offices, and locker rooms, but it also has a domino effect of clearing some people out of the communications center, and allowing us to move some of our coaches out of Warner and Boeing and freeing up space there, for our academics and the Health and Human Performance is gonna be using that space. So, we're working on getting it. I would love to have all of our coaches, all of our student athletes, over basically in West Campus, or the Athletic Village, that I like to call it. The outliers are obviously, our swimming. We can't build a natatorium, but that's pretty much the only outlier.

Patrick C.:            [crosstalk] natatorium is pretty awesome as it sits.

Scott W.:              Yeah, it is.

Patrick C.:            I know it's a little older, but it is a beautiful facility, that's kind of the envy of a lot of the Midwest.

Scott W.:              Yeah, that facility is awesome.

Patrick C.:            So, to envision it, for people that have been to Rynearson, this is the far end away from the Convocation Center, where they used to come out. The football players would come out, break down the wall. That's the end. That building is gone. That is being replaced, by this obviously, much larger facility.

Scott W.:              Yeah. What we had before, was basically just a locker room, and a little lounge with an equipment room. So, this is significantly bigger.

Patrick C.:            How much does it involve? I know that Eastern's known for things like  kinesiology program, or Sports Medicine Programs, things like that. How much student involvement, not directly in athletics, is going to be had, in these new facilities?

Scott W.:              We have really done, and actually it's one of the areas, when I first got here, that in all areas of our Athletic Department, we need to rely on our students more, and it's part of their educational experience. So, we try to come over to our Sport Administration Programs, to any Sports Medicine Programs, the kinesiology that you mentioned. We try to pick people from campus to help us out. We hire a bunch of students, and we get a lot of volunteer students. We do internships, and then we do a lot of paid positions as well.

Patrick C.:            What great practical experience for them. They're working on a D1 Program, on different athletics programs. A lot of these people are students, I'm sure, 'cause that's what they want to do or something very related to it, but what a great resume builder, saying, "Hey, I did training with a D1 football program, that went to a Bowl Game." That's a big a ...

Scott W.:              It's truly the immersive learning that you really want, and to just come and go to class every day, and just say, "I'm getting my degree." You want to have involvement, and then we can help them. Whether it's in college athletics, or another field, and you're right. You need to take advantage of having a Division One football program, or a Division One athletic program here, and be able to do that.

                                So, the new facility, obviously this will have, now we'll have a third Sports Medicine area. We need to have more student involvement there. It's gonna have another equipment room, so we're adding to what we already had.

Patrick C.:            Is there a Track and Field component in this building too, do I remember, or is that?

Scott W.:              No, the basics of the building will be new Sports Medicine for all of our student athletes, and a new weight room for all of the student athletes. Then, a significant portion is the new football locker room, coaches offices, and those. So, there's not a Track and Field component to it, except for the weight room and Sports Medicine, but we're working on that. The whole Championship Building plan as a whole, does include a new indoor Track and Field. A new outdoor Track and Field.

Patrick C.:            So, it's like a phase one.

Scott W.:              This is phase one, and the interesting thing is, phase one is the biggest challenge was there's not a revenue source to it. Over time, I've got to replace the bubble. The bubble has a 10 to 12 year lifespan. We're on year nine, so it's getting there, but it's rent. You make money on it, and so does an indoor track.

                                So, the next phase is to replace the bubble, and to get a new indoor track, and then that frees up Boeing to get back to Health and Human Performance, or to Rec/IM, and now you have this beautiful Student Center, that people can walk over and work out at Rec/IM, and they obviously have the natatorium, and everything else that they're upgrading in the rec right now.

Patrick C.:            Yeah, there's a ton of stuff going on, on campus. They just reopened Strong. It's beautiful. I don't know if you've been [crosstalk].

Scott W.:              No, I need to walk by. They were telling us about it in our VP meeting yesterday.

Patrick C.:            I'm super excited about Sill and the new engineering building they're gonna do with Jones and Goddard. I'm biased, 'cause I'm in the PhD Program. It's in college of technology at Sill. You look around that building and go, "Wow, this really needs an update." So, thumbs up on that.

Scott W.:              Yeah.

Patrick C.:            And the Rec/IM, I'm super excited about that too. What great opportunities for students. Kind of a hub of student activity, and it all ties in to, again, what you're talking about, because as you're shifting people around and stuff, a lot of those facilities become open to more student opportunity. So, this isn't just a, we're not building a palace for athletics here. We're building something that's gonna benefit all students.

Scott W.:              Yeah, it's truly a partnership, and that's what I always try to, since I've gotten here 18 months ago. I need to help campus, just as much as I need campus to help us. So, yes. Do I want new shiny things, to help our student athletes? Absolutely, but I also want to have the opportunity to help campus, and we're sitting right in the middle of campus, and there's an opportunity for them to grow, and do more, and morally, and those with Health and Human Performance, they have a lot of great ideas. They just need me to get out of the way. So, we're working on that, and trying to make it the best way possible, at the most efficient and affordable way.

Patrick C.:            Now, this is Eastern Michigan University. So, I would be remiss if I didn't talk about money, 'cause funding is always a big topic of conversation. Especially, when it comes to athletics. You've been here 18 months. I'm sure you've heard 18 months of conversation. I'm using quote fingers about funding for athletics at this University.

                                This project was initially announced by your predecessor, Heather Lyke, and one of the big thrusts for the project was, the largest commitment in cash to the University ever, in the history of the University, from The Power2Change Foundation. Is the plan still to partner with Power2Change, on the portions of the facility, and where does that kind of stand right now? 

Scott W.:              Yeah. So, right now, we're still having conversations, kind of with that group, that kind of backed off when Heather left, kind of wanted to see, obviously, they had basically a new President and a new Athletic Director, over that same timeframe. We're still having conversations and relationships, and I'm hoping we'll get all of that still. We're still having those conversations.

Patrick C.:            Is it a point of concern to you at all, that an organization that's only ever reported $5,000.00 in revenue, is going to commit to a six million dollar donation to the university?

Scott W.:              Yeah, and that's part of having those conversations. I need to understand what their mission, and goals, and those as well, but they are tied in very tightly with Engage at EMU, who helped write the program, and the curriculum for them. So, there can be a great partnership, and again, it's the backing behind it, and kind of who and what is helping with that. I feel good that we're gonna get somewhere, and we've got others lined up as well. That's been the biggest challenge for me, is developing relationships, and then they have to see, what kind of leadership do I have.

                                A lot of the conversations is a couple things. One, well, nobody's ever asked. I get that a lot, and then two. I get, well, a lot of times when I invest in a company, I invest in the CEO, and so, they want to see what kind of CEO I am, and if I have the vision and the leadership to lead us to that next level, and hopefully, you know, we won five Mat Championships last year, and then, this Fall already, won two, and went to a Bowl game. I think our basketball programs are in a good spot. I hate that our women's basketball team's had a couple injuries, 'cause I really thought that this was gonna be a take-off year, but Fred's still fighting. I think we're in a really good spot, and I can go and have those conversations, and look people in the eye, and say, "We are taking off, and now is the time."

                                We can't wait. Now is the time to invest. We got to finish up this building. I want to move on to the indoors. The nice thing about the indoors, is that I'm not expecting that to be a fundraising piece. That's gonna be a, let's go out and get some people in the community to help us, 'cause we can make money, and we can partner in that.

Patrick C.:            People don't know. Like the dome right now has a pretty good, and we don't even manage it. We got a contract with a third party company to manage that, and it does bring revenue back. It's not a revenue neutral. We use the facility, and it pays for itself, and brings in come back. Does that income come back to athletics?

Scott W.:              Actually, to the university.

Patrick C.:            Okay. So, even better.

Scott W.:              Yeah. Exactly, and that would be the whole concept of it. This isn't just, Hey, what can the athletics piece of the pie? No, I want the buildings, but I want the university as a whole, to be able to generate the revenue for it.

Patrick C.:            Just to kind of go back a little bit on the funding piece of it. I think the border regions was pretty clear that, the 35 million dollars they allocated to this, I don't want to use the word loan, but it was kind of contingent on your faith, that you're gonna be able to, as the head of athletics, raise that money. You're still in that same mindset, it sounds like, that that money will come.

Scott W.:              Yeah. So, actually what happened was, when they initially rolled this out in April of 2017, it was a 35 million dollar Championship Building plan.

Patrick C.:            Okay.

Scott W.:              What the approval was, was a 20 million dollar Student Athlete Performance Center, which is what we're building right now.

Patrick C.:            And Greg Steiner's scoreboard.

Scott W.:              Yeah, that's right. It's exactly. So, it was 20 million dollars, of which 18 was the building, two was supposed to be the video board. We've actually gone 19 for the building and only did a million dollar. We cut back on the video board a little bit. It's still gonna be plenty of what we need, and Greg will be very happy, but, so it's a 20 million dollar project, and the approval was that the university would pay for eight, and the athletics would go and fundraise 12.

Patrick C.:            Okay.

Scott W.:              We're right around the five million dollar marks. We're almost halfway with, I think this Spring, is gonna be a good Spring for us, and that's where, when I stay up at night, it's I need to keep building relationship and knocking down doors, and you know, I'm not blinded by the fact that Heather was very upfront with me when I took the job, that it's a struggle to go and get those fundraising dollars, and there's only so many pods to go and get 'em from.

Patrick C.:            But we do have some very generous people, and I personally, like TJ Lang. Weirdly enough, he coaches on my kid's little league. A tremendous guy, obviously, but a generous donor. I think athletics produces a lot of generous donors, and I think you and I are the same kind of business mentality, that success will drive more of that, that if we're pushing more students to graduation that are successful, while they're here in athletics, the likelihood of them be coming back, and becoming donors, five, ten, twenty years down the road, is much higher.

Scott W.:              Yeah, absolutely, and I think it's easier for me to sit in front of a donor now, and say, "Our overall GPA is 3.25. We're doing 8,000 community service hours, and this is how successful we've been. Two Bowl Games in three years, and our basketball team went to post-season." We can go down the line-up, and go back 10 years, and we didn't have that. So, those are things that we are improving. We are getting better, and the main focus is those three areas, and if you can show them that growth, they will come. They will want to be a part of it, and they'll realize why it's important to invest in our programs.

Patrick C.:            And in the money end of it too. I think this is something that's not talked about a lot, your general fund allocations have been reduced by the university, for three consecutive years now.

Scott W.:              Right.

Patrick C.:            Above and beyond the cuts, which we won't get in to the programs that were cut, because there's a lot of pending stuff there, but you've managed to lead an organization through a time where money coming in has gone down, but results to me, seemed to have gone up.

Scott W.:              Yeah. I think we're doing a really good job of just rolling up our sleeves. Not making excuses. It would be very easy, just to say, "Well, they took 10% from our budget, and so, we're just gonna do 10% less." No, we're just gonna, all of the coaches and all of our stuff, just said, "It's not who we are. We realize we're tough, and we're gonna help get through it." And in our mindset, and we just had an all coaches meeting this morning. We talk about it all the time, that we are the front porch. We have got to be the ones, that are establishing Eastern Michigan, in getting us out and front, and then, that's gonna help our faculty and staff, recruit students, recruit faculty to come here, and I don't want us to be a black eye. I want us to be a shining, bright, and so, we want to be able to go to Bowl Games.

                                So, then they're bragging about it. We want to go down and beat Purdue, so that now we're seeing more people get applications from Indiana. Now, we gotta go down and do that, and in Ohio, and have that happen. I think we can really help the university, and our overall goal is the same goal as our faculty and staff is, to make this university better, and it's not about making athletics better. It's making the whole university. Then on top of that, I want to help Ypsilanti. I want Ypsilanti to be a great place, that people want to be here, and if I build a new indoor track, and replace the bubble, and do other things on our campus, that means we're bringing people from Canton, and Plymouth, and Novi, and Detroit, and Ann Arbor. They're coming to Ypsilanti for an indoor soccer meet, or a big weekend of gymnastics, or whatever it is, Track and Field meets. They're coming here, and going, "Wow, this isn't so bad. What a great place." Then, we're driving our economy.

                                So, it's a big picture thing, and I try to make it about everybody else, and not specifically about us.

Patrick C.:            Well, it sounds like from Dr. Smith's perspective, as the President of the university, part of the philosophy on funding has changed, where in previous administrations, previous leadership, they'd say, "We want to do this big effort. It's gonna cost a million dollars." They'd say, "Okay, we'll give you a million for a year, out of the general fund and make it work." It kind of sounds like now, they're saying to you, "Go find a way to pay for it, and we'll gladly support it."

Scott W.:              Yeah, that's right. I think that's how it should be. Most places I been at, it's been, "Hey, if you want it, you gotta show the ownership, and do that." I'm reading a book called, "Extreme Ownership" right now. It's vital that we take on that, and then, I can come and maybe I have 80% of it, and I need a ... Can we move forward? I'll go get the last 20%, or "Hey, can you help us with it?"

                                Right now, there is no help. So, we've got to be the ones to go, and take charge, and heck, if I can get it to where the whole thing ... If I can get all 20 million, I'm not gonna stop at 12. We're gonna try to get the whole thing paid for, and then, that's less worry for the campus, and everybody else, and I think we're all gonna benefit from it.

Patrick C.:            Thanks, Scott Wetherbee, the Vice President and Director of Athletics for Eastern Michigan University. Thanks so much for coming in, and giving us your time today, and one last thing is, I went on the Championship Building Plan website today, and it still says, "Coming soon." A new stuff. So, when's the roll out? Do you have a plan? 

Scott W.:              Yeah. So, the challenge that we've had is, we're in a design build. We're actually building this thing, as we're designing it. So, we have just finalized up, so they're still working on all the fly throughs. We have most of our images, and we're trying to get the last couple pieces. The one that I really want to get up, is an overhead of the entry plaza, that the brick campaign that we're doing. So, we're doing a brick campaign, anywhere from a hundred to a thousand dollars for a brick, that somebody could have their brick here, for the rest of their life, but I want to show that, so they know when they're coming in. We're looking at doing like a Block E of bricks, that you would walk over, and then people can come back every year, and see whatever message they want to put on it.

                                So, that will be a part of it, and then we have locker room shots, and we have our weight room shots.

Patrick C.:            So, coming soon.

Scott W.:              The plan actually was to have it here before February, and try to finish up, because [crosstalk]

Patrick C.:            [crosstalk] to Greg somehow?

Scott W.:              No, he's the one chopping at the bit to get it. Its' more of getting our architects. They're designing the building, then you're asking them to pause, and actually give us some fly throughs, and some things. It should be here really soon, and then Phase Two, the indoor facilities that I would really like to push more. Hopefully, before Summer get here, that we'll have that sometime this Spring as well.

Patrick C.:            So, if somebody's listening right now, and as we finish up here, and say, "This sounds like something I want to get involved in." Where can they go for info?

Scott W.:              Yeah, obviously you've mentioned to just go to our website, and there is the Championship Building plan. It does say, coming soon, but there is a donate and get information button, or you can call up to our offices and Dan McLean, and Bret Brown are really helping us drive this. Certainly every little bit helps. Somebody thinks, Oh, they're building a building and that it's gotta be a big significant check. It doesn't. The more the merrier. Whether it's a hundred dollar check, just to help out. It doesn't matter. We really need it, and it goes a lot further here, than some of our other schools. So, it makes a difference.

Patrick C.:            Thanks so much. This has been, Focus on EMU on 89.1 WEMU, with Patrick Campion, alongside President and Director of Athletics, for Eastern Michigan University, Scott Wetherbee. Thanks again for being here.

Scott W.:              Thanks for having me on. It was great.


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— Patrick Campion is the WEMU Program Director.  You can contact Patrick at734.487.3363, on twitter @WEMUPC, or email him at pcampion@emich.edu

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