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Officials present case
Division I-A football hearing

UConn administrators, students, alumni and several prominent members of the state's business community Wednesday asked a gathering of more than 50 state legislators to help fund a new football stadium that would allow an upgrading of the football team to the highest level of play in the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Roger A. Gelfenbien, chair of the Board of Trustees and a managing partner at Andersen Consulting, UConn President Philip E. Austin, Chancellor Mark Emmert and Trustee Claire Leonardi led a team of UConn officials who told legislators the move to Division I-A would be good for UConn and for the state.

Gelfenbien, citing past legislative support for the University, especially UConn 2000 and UConn's 1997-98 operating budget, asked that they also support the stadium and the upgrade. And, hoping to assuage some legislators' concerns that Connecticut's business community may not support the project, he said at least seven corporate leaders already had committed to buying skyboxes in the facility, and two had indicated interest in buying naming rights to the stadium.

Karl Krapek, president of Pratt & Whitney and chair of the Capitol Region Growth Council, also cited corporate support for the project, and told the legislators the upgrade would bring national recognition and jobs to Connecticut.

"This state has a tremendous appetite for sports," Krapek said, adding that a UConn football team, unlike the former Hartford Whalers, "will pay us back year after year after year. They will not move to North Carolina in five or ten years," he said.

The day-long hearing at the state Legislative Office Building brought together the UConn officials, along with Big East Commissioner Michael Tranghese, CBS Sports basketball analyst Jim Nantz, and members of the legislature's finance, bonding and revenue committee, education committee, appropriations committee and other legislators interested in the process. The hearing ran from 11 a.m. until well after 7 p.m. UConn officials responded to questions for more than four hours. Following their testimony, legislators alternated comments from the general public with testi- mony from a variety of state agency commissioners.

Public comments favoring the initiative slightly outnumbered opponents.

Legislators must decide before December 31 whether to support the project, if UConn is to be guaranteed a spot in The Big East Conference, an offer that Tranghese and Nantz told the legislators only comes once in a lifetime.

But, said President Austin, "The real subject before this body today is much more fundamental than Division I-A football, or a football stadium, or even UConn athletics. The real issue is the transformation of the University of Connecticut from a very good state university to one of the preeminent public institutions of higher education in the United States. The question we face is whether the elected leaders of this state will give the University one of the tools we need to help that transformation succeed. Let me be clear at the outset. Football is not, in and of itself, a central University priority. Nor is athletics in general. The proposed football upgrade is important to the University because, and only because, it will help us mightily to reach goals that do represent central priorities. It will, for example, help us build a more exciting campus - one that can attract more of Connecticut's best students,"

Added Nantz, the sportscaster, "This is an investment in the community, it is an investment in the students, in their quality of life, and it is an investment in our state." Nantz lives in Westport.

"This is an amazing opportunity. Not only to upgrade the program to Division I-A, but to join a huge conference like the Big East. These opportunities just do not come along every day," he said, noting that the Big East is one of only six conferences in the country that is guaranteed, by virtue of an automatic bowl bid, to be in the annual hunt for the national championship. That championship is currently decided by polls of writers and broadcasters.

But Nantz - and virtually everyone involved in NCAA football - say that when the current system that annually names the top college football program is changed to a format more like the NCAA basketball tournament, the money earned by participants is likely to be "huge," he said.

"Right now, CBS pays the NCAA $245 million, just for the rights to March Madness (the NCAA basketball tournament). A similar program for college football would be much bigger, in my estimation, and only those teams that are part of it will see those revenues," Nantz said.

UConn officials, citing consultants' studies, and Big East Commissioner Tranghese pointed to data that refutes concerns that the stadium, if built, would not draw enough fans to make it worthwhile. They also argued that the stadium was needed to boost UConn, already rated one of the 20 best public universities in the nation, to the next level of athletic and academic excellence. The officials said the academic excellence that already exists at UConn would only be enhanced by the upgrade. They also repeated earlier statements that the upgrade will not go forward if even one cent has to be taken from academic programs.

UConn officials announced also that they had found a way to cut the total cost of the stadium to the state by $20 million - through $10 million in private fundraising, a reduction in project costs, and through contributing program proceeds to the state, beginning in 2005, the first year a profit is anticipated.

Some legislators, however, appear to question the "intangible" benefits that UConn officials have continuously said would accompany the upgrade, including any benefits to academics.

UConn officials say Division I-A football will increase the University's fund-raising capabilities, and give the University national publicity and name recognition that will help draw top students and faculty from across the country.

Chancellor Mark A. Emmert underscored that point during his testimony, referring to an event he attended November 18.

"Last night I was at a black tie gala with about 1,200 people in mid-town Manhattan to celebrate the best NBA performances of 1997. Now, had this been the National Basketball Association, and Ray Allen one of the honored guests, you would have heard about it this morning in all the media.

"But it wasn't about basketball. This NBA was the National Book Association, and one of our professors, Marilyn Nelson, was being honored as one of the 20 greatest writers in America," Emmert said, adding that he doubted any of the legislators knew of the honor.

"I don't agree with the way it works. I don't happen to think it's right. But that's the way it is. Division I-A football lets us tell our story," Emmert said.

Emmert added that the American Association of Universities (AAU), "the most exclusive club in the academic world," has only 64 members, 32 of whom are public research universities like UConn. Of those 32, "only two do not play at the highest level of competition, and there are special circumstances why they do not. It is almost certain that you don't get in (to the AAU) unless you are at the top of your game in every single aspect, including athletics," he said.

Gov. John G. Rowland told reporters he would discuss the issue today or Tuesday with leaders of the House and Senate, and decide whether to convene a new special session to vote on the project.

Richard Veilleux