Patience. Nebraska has tested it these past few years.
Since Bill Moos and Scott Frost’s arrival at the tail end of 2017, promise has been on the horizon but not yet tangible, not yet reachable. Two years ago, Nebraska announced a sprawling facility renovation, an ambitious project that would take years to complete and buckets of cash to finance.
Nebraska called it the Go BIG Project. It brought in the Populous design firm—a global agency that recently built one of London’s architectural gems, Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, where the NFL plays its overseas games—to spearhead the production.
It announced the news steps away from the ESPN College GameDay set, a weekend that culminated with a disappointing 48-7 loss to Ohio State—showing still how much patience was needed—but still emphasized the brand of Nebraska athletics as a program still worthy of the attention of the larger sporting public.
“Being a student-athlete here and seeing Nebraska always be a leader in nutrition, in academics, in health services for our student-athletes, in sports science, it made us proud to be Huskers,” Frost said.
In too many ways, Nebraska athletics has slumped.
The return of publicly visible Performance Index testing results was welcomed this spring, but signaled that the program had only just reached a place where it felt comfortable making those results known. Frost was brought back to restore Husker Power.
Nebraska’s last facility project, a renovation to Memorial Stadium that built the Sun Strength and Conditioning Center, was outdated within a decade of completion. Nebraska had fallen well behind its peers in the athletic facility arms race.
“Our team room can’t fit the team in it, and our locker room can’t fit the players in it, and that’s a problem,” said Associate Athletic Director, and one of the fore-bearers of the project, Matt Davison.
UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green thanked Frost for pushing for upgrades. Frost admitted Davison had to convince him of how hard to push. Davison put the bug in his ear before Frost even accepted the head coaching job.
This has been something a long time coming.
And even then…
“I was hoping and thinking we’d be halfway through this project right now,” said Moos, Nebraska’s athletic director, on Friday.
Frost has coached his first three seasons* in Lincoln to a 12-20 record. Nebraska enters 2021 with expectations not because of promise but because of patience. It has been tested a bit. On Saturday, in front of 36,000 fans inside Memorial Stadium, Nebraska football showed a defense with teeth and an offense with options.
Perhaps Moos, who years ago set expectations at 6-6 while everyone else shot for a Big Ten title berth, should be listened to a little more this time around when he says eight wins are on the table even in spite of a daunting schedule.
For the crowd wearing scarlet-colored glasses and sipping cherry red beverages, this weekend offered a small reward for patience.
The patience to see out a pandemic that closed off sports.
The patience to see out the painstaking rebuild of Nebraska football’s talent pool. If Saturday showed us anything, perhaps it’s that depth seems an advantage for the Huskers in key places again—the offensive and defensive lines, the secondary, at wideout and running back.
And the patience to remain committed to the Go BIG Project while pocket books were slashed everywhere.
“We’d raised quite a bit of money before the pandemic hit, and none of our donors went away after the pandemic,” Davison said. “The money that was committed before, not one dollar went away.” And Nebraska gained an additional $12 million in donations throughout the economic downturn. “That’s unprecedented,” Moos said.
Nebraska raised $80 million since the announcement of the project in the fall of 2019, enough with this final late push to green-light construction.
It expects to complete fundraising of the remaining $20 million by the time Phase 1 is completed, allowing the project to roll right into Phase 2—support services for other sports within the department. The $155 million project stands on stable financial footing as Nebraska makes it out the other side of the pandemic.
NU “broke ground” on Friday in the same spot it announced the project some 20 months earlier. Actual construction is set to begin sometime in June, Moos thinks. Demo will start over Ed Weir Track. The project is expected to be completed 24 months later, with Nebraska football occupying the facility ahead of fall camp for the 2023 season.
“When this is done, it’s going to be spectacular,” Frost said. “We can’t wait to get to work in it.”
In the same way an editor reads over a piece of writing three or four times and catches something worth changing on the fourth read they didn’t see on the second, Moos feels the extra 12 months time to pour over the design allowed for upgrades.
“We’re better in a lot of aspects because we had another year,” he said. “I always try to find some lemonade out of lemons. We were able to spend 12 more months fine-tuning this design and when it’s done, guys, it’ll literally blow people away. It’s the finest of its kind. It’s been well-thought out.”
The front-facing aspects of the design—the only parts NU is willing to show at this early stage—received a face-lift from the initial renders, changes that were met with universal adoration from the public.
Frankly, the building looks spectacular.
“What we have right now is nice, I think when this is done, what we’re going to have is the best,” Frost said.
Davison toured athletic facilities the country over, at elite football programs like Alabama and Clemson. Moos has chaired projects at Washington State and Oregon. Both feel Nebraska will be a new standard-setter in the industry when the project is finished.
“From an adjacency perspective, we’re going to be one of only four schools in the country that has everything right here,” Davison said. “Where you train, where you eat, where you recover, where you practice, all without having to go out.”
Some programs have training facilities far away from stadiums and academic centers far away from training facilities. Nebraska has a proximity advantage.
Whereas at some universities, the football facilities are seemingly placed wherever fits within the context of the campus map, Nebraska’s footprint, at least for the athletes, will feel like everything builds out from the stadium and athletic facilities.
With a 350,000 square-foot building, NU student-athletes will have everything in one centralized location. The tunnel walk will stay the same on game day. The weight room will house the full team at one time. Academic services will be a walk away from the training table, which will be a walk away from the practice field, which will be a building over from the business college, where the vast majority of student-athletes are enrolled.
“This is gonna be a unique place,” Davison says.
And it’ll be future-proof.
Take building a computer, for example. You want to pack the build with the most cutting-edge tech so that in five year’s time—because tech is always changing—you don’t have to drop stacks on a new graphics card.
This facility has been like that.
Nebraska hasn’t wanted to share details of the interior design because every day architects at Populous receive calls from other programs asking what Nebraska’s doing.
Moos asked his sons, Bo and Ben, both major college football players, what they looked for in facilities.
“I can tell you this, it’s uncharted territory,” Moos said. “I thought I’d seen it all.”
Added Davison: “I think there’s elements of the building that are going to allow it to sustain for a long time. This isn’t something we’re going to have to upgrade and it’s gonna cost a bunch of money. We’re gonna be able to continue to make small tweaks to this thing over the decades. Because of the footprint of this thing, it’s going to allow it to be a big part of this athletic department for forever.
“This is gonna put us right back where we need to be from a facilities perspective.”
The goal is that in doing so, it’ll help Nebraska athletics return to where it needs to be from a competitive perspective.
“This facility will have an immediate impact on the recruiting efforts for all of our sports programs, and the university as a whole,” said head women’s basketball coach Amy Williams.
Nebraska started using it in recruiting pitches when the project was announced. Prospects in the 2022 cycle will get to use the facility for three or four years of their Nebraska career. The class finishing up its first semester will get two or three years in the new digs.
The hope is that the Nebraska football team that occupies it will be similarly positioned at the forefront.
“We’re working every day to make our part of this athletic department and university something we can all be proud of and winning at a rate that every one of us wants it to and expects it to,” Frost said Friday. “This building is certainly going to help.”
Nebraska’s efforts this spring may as well. The last month was grueling, but most feel progress was made.
In the coming months, dump trucks and bulldozers and cranes will occupy the space to the northeast of Memorial Stadium. Tangible progress.
In the fall, Nebraska hopes for its first winning record under Frost. It’s certainly reachable. Patience rewarded.