Before TDECU Stadium was built, Tony Levine faced a recruiting dilemma.
The Cougars’ head coach took prospective recruits through the sprawling metropolis that the University shares a name with. Then the potential Cougars were given a tour of a diverse campus that’s developing a bustling night life. Finally, they toured the athletic facilities in the Athletic/Alumni Center.
Coach and recruit didn’t go to Robertson Stadium, where the athlete and his family would spend their Saturdays for the next four years.
But since UH’s $120-plus million project has been constructed, the recruiting process has been different. Levine said the team has hosted recruits at every game that wasn’t on a Friday, and routinely takes potential Cougars to the stadium where they could compete as a collegiate athlete.
Catering to the student-athletes
“When you’re talking to families and 17- to 18-year-olds, they’re all motivated by different things. The majority of them are going to ask about your facilities,” Levine said. “Families want to know what kind of venues they’ll be sitting in watching their child play for four or five years. The young men we recruit naturally wanna to see the locker room, see the stadium, see the field.”
But for UH, improving its facilities has stretched beyond the football stadium.
UH has commissioned a feasibility report to determine whether it should renovate or rebuild Hofheinz Pavilion that will be completed in three months.
In September, the University began construction on a $25 million basketball developmental facility, which will feature an improved area for volleyball as well. Plus, UH spent more than $2 million to renovate the turf on Cougar Field before last baseball season and created the Dave Williams Golf Academy in 2012.
Around the state
In collegiate athletics, building new and better facilities has become part of the cost of doing business. Just in the Lone Star State, Baylor spent $266 million to construct the 45,000 seat McLane Stadium, while Texas A&M dropped $450 million to renovate Kyle Field. Both opened this year.
Even Texas high schools are increasing their spending on stadiums. Katy voters approved the construction of a $58 million football stadium in early November, and Conroe ISD’s Woodforest Bank Stadium was a $49 million project.
But the big projects at UH are not without bumps in the road.
‘Three quarters of the way’
The still yet-to-be-completed TDECU Stadium, which was once budgeted at $105 million, could reach $128 million or more before the project is complete. With the football stadium and basketball development facility going over budget, the University will need to fundraise to attain the funds to renovate or rebuild Hofheinz.
A complete rebuild of Hofheinz could cost $10,000 per seat, or $80 million for an 8,000-seat project, Athletics Director Mack Rhoades said.
“Do I wish that coming in that we didn’t have to build over $200 million in facility upgrades? Sure I do,” Rhoades said. “But you know what? We have to. And once the practice facility is done, we’ll be about three quarters of the way.”
For a University that doesn’t have the expendable income of private universities like Rice University and SMU, or the donors and fanbase of legacy programs like the University of Texas, completing another near-$100 million project could be a chore. Though Rhoades admitted a complete rebuild of Hofheinz is a “large price tag to tackle,” he expects the donor base to step up.
“We have a great group of donors that want this University to be great, our athletics program to be great. They understand that part of that process is we didn’t do anything with facilities in athletics in 20 plus years,” he said. “And now Hofheinz needs to be addressed. And I know that there will be donors and alums that will help us with Hofheinz as well.”
The long-term academic goal is that with better facilities like TDECU Stadium, students will be more engaged on campus, leading to better student success and a more engaged alumni base willing to donate more to the University in the future.
Better facilities = better fan base
The facility improvements have already helped UH in the short term. All six of the Cougars’ spring sports reached the postseason, including golf and baseball which were both ranked in the top 10 of their respective sports.
The winningest golf program in NCAA history reached the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive year while the baseball program reached a super-regional.
Winning at the highest level is required, though. Many fans judge the success of an athletics department on its two revenue generating sports — men’s basketball and football.
In men’s basketball, the Cougars haven’t been consistently competitive since legendary coach Guy V. Lewis was leading the team to appearances in Final Fours.
And in football, the team is 18-16 since former quarterback Case Keenum piloted the Cougars to arguably the best season in program history.
Whether the new football stadium helps put UH at the national table consistently, provides more student success or delivers a more engaged alumni base is yet to be seen, but junior defensive back Trevon Stewart said he knows the new stadium has helped recruit talented players to UH.
“You want to be in a weight room where they have the equipment to help you get better. (You want) indoor facilities and turf if you need it in case of weather,” Stewart said. “That’s a big deal in recruiting.”
Though he enjoyed playing under the palm trees at Robertson and taking the same field as a professional team, his favorite place to play is at TDECU Stadium, with the skyline in the background.
He’s sure other athletes will enjoy the atmosphere, too.