On the day the University of Kentucky unveiled a new multimillion-dollar home for its basketball players, coach John Calipari couldn’t stop bragging about the recliners. They were leather, all in a row, the perfect seat for a college basketball star.
It was late summer in 2012, and Calipari was strolling through the new Wildcat Coal Lodge, a $7 million residence hall built specifically for his Kentucky basketball program, one of the nation’s best. There were hulking flat-screen televisions, an in-house chef and one room that displayed the school’s eight NCAA championship trophies. But as Calipari took a camera crew along for a tour, he took a moment to point out the best spot for lounging.
“We don’t do couches,” Calipari said. “They want to be on recliners.”
When the Wildcat Coal Lodge opened in 2012, the pictures rippled through athletic departments across the country. Calipari called it “the gold standard.” It was another salvo in college athletics’ arms race. The latest battlefield: housing.
Last week, the University of Kansas responded, disclosing plans for a $17.5 million, privately funded apartment complex that could trump Kentucky’s excess. The apartments, to be built near Allen Fieldhouse, will be for 32 KU men’s and women’s basketball players — and 34 other fortunate KU students.
For Kansas coach Bill Self, the new apartments will become his latest selling point in the cutthroat world of college basketball recruiting.
“Not only can we sell it,” Self said. “But people can’t use it against us.”
But if the housing boom is imminent in big-time college sports, the trend also illustrates a truth that is not going away. If universities and the NCAA continue to cling to an amateurism model that limits the earnings potential of top college athletes, all of that new television revenue must go somewhere.
“If you’re not going to pay players,” said Brian Goff, a professor of economics at Western Kentucky who has studied the business of college sports. “that money is going to try to find ways to entice players” to come to your school.
If luxury residence halls are the next front in college sports’ arms race, Oklahoma may have topped Calipari’s standard. In July, the university opened Headington Hall, which is across from the Sooners’ Memorial Stadium. The $75 million, six-story structure houses 380 students, including 180 athletes, in two- and four-bedroom suites.
Among the amenities: a game room, a media lounge, a 75-seat theater and the Sam Bradford Training Table, named for the former Heisman Trophy-winning Sooners quarterback who donated $500,000 to the project.
Another former Oklahoma star, running back Adrian Peterson, kicked in the same amount for the hall as part of his $1 million gift to the university. The hall is named for Dallas billionaire Tim Headington, a former Oklahoma tennis letter winner who donated $10 million to the project.
Previously, Oklahoma athletes were spread across three dorms, including two that opened in the 1940s.
“This is not about largesse,” Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said. “It was born out of need. We wanted to improve our situation, and I don’t think you wouldn’t do it in a first-class way if you had the chance.”
It’s one thing to trick out a football or basketball facility, where players train and prepare for practice. Oregon’s new $68 million Casanova Center includes a barbershop. At Alabama’s football facility, a hydrotherapy room includes four waterfalls. Tennessee’s new $45 million center includes a mixed martial arts fighting cage.
It’s another thing to upgrade where players will put their heads on a pillow. Sooners wide receiver Sterling Shepard had considered living off campus his sophomore year. But he ended those thoughts when he saw Headington Hall.
“It doesn’t get much better than this,” Shepard said during a media tour last summer. “You have everything you could want in this building.”
But is it too much? Amy Perko is executive director of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletes, a group dedicated to ensuring that athletics operate in line with the educational missions of the universities. She also is a former Kansas associate athletic director who doesn’t see the benefit in this type of housing.
“Luxury locker rooms and luxury dorms may help an institution win a recruiting battle, but they have more potential to hurt college sports over the long run,” Perko said.
“Athletic spending is rising rapidly while academic spending is stagnating. This pattern is inappropriate and unsustainable.”
New residence halls with amenities geared toward athletes aren’t common in college sports. For instance, North Carolina basketball players either live off campus, usually in apartments, or in a dorm across from the Smith Center “with students, most of whom aren’t basketball players,” said a school official. Kansas State and Missouri athletes who don’t live off campus generally live in dorms close to their practice areas.
But high-end residence halls that cater to athletes have the feel of a growing trend. Even though the money for the projects is largely privately raised, there is a sense of schools providing for the athletes who help generate income for the university and don’t receive compensation outside of their scholarships.
Football players aren’t eligible for the NFL draft until three years after their graduating high school class. In college basketball, top prospects can leave after one season.
Meanwhile, salaries for coaches and athletic administrators have soared. Self earns some $4.9 million annually. Calipari makes $5.4 million. Oklahoma football coach Bob Stoops earns $4.7 million. All are among the top five in their profession.
The schools reported record athletic revenue for the 2012-13 school year: $123 million at Oklahoma, $92 million at Kansas and $86 million at Kentucky. But for now, the NCAA has held firm on its stance that athletes should remain amateurs.
“Sometimes college presidents themselves, they get fixated on these costs,” said Goff, the economics professor. “
‘Facilities are costing more, this is costing more.’ But if you don’t spend money on labor, you spend it on capital. If you’re not going to spend this 50 percent of revenue on players, it’s going to wind up someplace. All of that may not (be spent) on attracting players, but some of it is.”
The schools in the five major conferences — the Big 12, Southeastern, Pac-12, Atlantic Coast and Big Ten — are all cashing checks from TV deals worth billions. Last week at the NCAA Convention in San Diego, those schools started the process of separating themselves as a voting block from lower-budget programs to gain financial freedom, as in the ability to pay student-athletes stipends beyond the cost of tuition, room and board.
Extra cash and a nice place to live may be the future for more major college athletes. It may not speak to the values upon which college sports were built, but to the coaches and administrators who have become wealthy on their performances, it may be the least they can do.
“We want them to be comfortable,” Self said, “and have the same type of living conditions as the other people we’re recruiting against.”
When Karen Bailey moved into the Jayhawker Towers at KU in 2009, she was most frustrated with the stale smell of urine that often permeated the stairways and elevators.
“It was embarrassing when your mom would come to visit,” said Bailey, who lived there for a semester before graduating from KU with a biology degree.
It wasn’t that the Jayhawker Towers, an on-campus apartment complex opened in 1969, were unbearable. In fact, the two- and four-bedroom units with their own kitchens were in demand and a step up from a dorm room. But with plain brick walls and hundreds of residents, it was dreary to some.
“It was just kind of bland,” said Brad Witherspoon, a former KU basketball walk-on who lived off campus but spent hours hanging out with teammates at the Jayhawker Towers. “But I don’t think anybody ever really complained about it.”
Since 2009, the Jayhawker Towers, where most of KU’s athletes reside on campus, have undergone a $14 million renovation that upgraded two of the four buildings. But Self still views the Jayhawker Towers as a recruiting liability.
“The housing where our student-athletes reside now,” Self said, “is way, way, way, way behind what the competitors would be housing their student-athletes in, in a big way.”
The Fieldhouse Apartments, based on dollar figures and preliminary plans, could be among the nicest of its kind. A basement that doubles as a small theater and film room? A room for players’ catered meals and tutoring? Plush lounging areas? All could be available for residents.
At $17.5 million, the cost breaks down to close to $265,000 per resident. By comparison, KU is also building two new freshman-focused residence halls to replace McCollum Hall. The estimated cost of that project — $47.8 million — comes out to $68,000 per resident.
According to figures presented to the Kansas Board of Regents, who approved the plan in an 8-1 vote Wednesday, the construction cost of the apartments is the same as the new residence halls, $180 per square foot. But the construction of a basement, commons area, parking lot and other infrastructure account for nearly $8.3 million of the total Fieldhouse Apartments cost.
To comply with NCAA rules against exclusive university housing for athletes, the new complex will have space for 34 non-athletes. Who will be living among the KU basketball players? In the current system, students are able to sign up online on a first-come, first-served basis. Rooms in the Jayhawker Towers, and the new apartments, would be for students who have 30 credit hours (usually sophomores or above) or who participate in structured academic or extracurricular programs.
KU associate athletics director Jim Marchiony said the athletic department would have no control over the remaining slots.
The rates for the apartments, the first phase of which is scheduled to open in 2016, have yet to be set. But the cost at the Jayhawker Towers for 2014-15 range from $3,472 per person for a four-bedroom apartment to $7,688 per person in the renovated portion. The rate covers the academic year.
On the whole, Self sees the housing upgrade as a necessary investment for a top-tier basketball program. In the last decade, KU has spent millions renovating Allen Fieldhouse and locker rooms, building a new basketball practice facility and academic center.
“In order for us to maintain and even exceed what we’ve been doing,” Self said, “there are certain things that have to be done. … Bells and whistles are very, very important.”
Kansas basketball players are the most visible students on campus, and Self said that can cause issues at the Jayhawker Towers. When KU freshman star Andrew Wiggins arrived last summer, an autograph seeker waited outside his apartment. And Self said he worries about agents being able to enter Jayhawker Towers and knock on his players’ doors.
“There’s very little security, and people can come and go as they please and basically take away all privacy these youngsters have,” Self said. “I don’t think that’s the intent of being a student-athlete. We can’t put it on college kids. It’s professional people. It’s agents, it’s runners, it’s professional autograph seekers and things like that.”The Star’s Blair Kerkhoff, Tod Palmer and Kellis Robinett contributed to this report.