Saturday Column: Football stadium isn’t the only KU embarrassment

Several years ago, Kansas Athletics officials started talking about major renovations to Memorial Stadium, home of the Kansas University football team and host site for the nationally known Kansas Relays.

Apparently, in the eyes of some within the athletics department, the existence of a track inside the stadium was an “embarrassment,” with officials saying alumni, fans and those in the department were embarrassed to be one of only a few major universities with a running track inside its football stadium.

Numerous ideas about possible renovations for the stadium were floated to excite and enthuse potential donors and the public.

Officials talked about taking out the track, lowering the field and adding 10 or so new rows of seats so fans could sit closer to the playing field, thereby creating a more hostile environment for visiting players — and taking in more money.

Also, a significant effort was made to add a private “touchdown suite” club from goal line to goal line atop the east side of the stadium. A common area, or meeting place, would connect the west-side suites with the new east-side suites along the north rim of the stadium.

This plan included squaring off the north end “bowl” of the stadium, moving the playing field further north and adding a large patio gathering spot at the south end of the stadium. This would be at a level higher than the playing field.

Unfortunately, for one reason or another, none of these dreams or ideas came to fruition. Lowering the field was the top priority, which, in turn, would necessitate eliminating the track.

Athletic department officials are careful not to pinpoint the reason none of the renovations have been initiated, but it is clear the No. 1 reason is the football team and its losing record, thus the less-than-enthusiastic support from potential donors.

KU fans were excited and enthused about the leadership and winning record of former coach Mark Mangino, but due to a severe personality clash, ego and questionable accusations, former Athletic Director Lew Perkins, with little finesse, got rid of Mangino. (KU fans will have another chance to watch Mangino in action on Nov. 8, directing the Iowa State offense when the Cyclones play the Jayhawks in Memorial Stadium.)

Since Mangino’s departure, there have been two new football coaches, Turner Gill and Charlie Weis, with a combined record of nine wins and 39 losses.

KU athletic officials talk about the stadium and its track not measuring up to those at peer institutions and being an embarrassment. They say fans are embarrassed about the stadium and the track.

Critics of the athletic department program point out the real embarrassment is the team’s record, not the track or stadium.

Facilities do make a difference, particularly in the game of recruiting. If a team is winning, fans will pack the stadium regardless of the amenities, whether or not there is an inside track circling the field. However, in big-time athletics, pampered and glorified players place significant importance on stadium or arena facilities, locker rooms, special housing and all the other “extras.”

Consider the Allen Fieldhouse situation: winning teams, year after year; fewer coaches (10) than KU chancellors (17) over the years and far fewer than the revolving door of football coaches (38). The past three coaches — Larry Brown, Roy Williams and Bill Self — have compiled a record of 878 wins and 124 losses. By the way, KU has had 19 athletic directors.

This kind of record stimulates fans, major contributors, ticket sales, fancy new facilities for the players, constant improvements to Allen Fieldhouse and a high international image that is a terrific assist in recruiting top players.

Who knows the price tag and how long it will take to lower the football field in Memorial Stadium and add thousands of new seats adjacent to the field and more high-priced seating in suites? How long will it take to develop a sustained winning tradition in KU football?

This being the case, KU athletic officials apparently believe it is important to show some evidence of trying to pretty up the stadium so it isn’t an “embarrassment.” They began this week by starting to remove the synthetic track, along with the pole vault and long-jump runways. The track area will be covered with a swath of fake grass. The public is told the reason for the new turf is that it is a major improvement for the safety of our players.

Will this attract more fans and win more games? Not likely. What’s important is winning more games, and, certainly, Athletic Director Sheahon Zenger and Coach Weis are well aware of this reality.

The KU athletics department is BIG business — big dollars and big employee numbers. Annual revenues are more than $90 million, and that number will continue to climb through television revenues. According to phone-book listings, the department has 283 employees, and some of those phone numbers may serve more than one employee.

It’s nice an anonymous donor has given $500,000 to pay for the cosmetic stadium facelift, but the new turf will be trashed when and if the field is lowered. Could the $500,000 have been better spent in some other stadium effort?

Recently, the Kansas State University athletics department announced plans for a $2.4 million upgrade of the scoreboard and sound system in K-State’s basketball arena, Bramlage Coliseum.

K-State basketball coach Bruce Weber said the new video boards, sound system and lighting will bring “great energy” to the program and that the “improvements will only make it a more intimidating place for opponents.”

Maybe this is what Zenger and Weis are hoping will be the result of removing the track and adding the fake turf: making Memorial Stadium more intimidating to Jayhawk opponents.

Something needs to be done to fix the “embarrassment” and improve the intimidation factor — both with the stadium and the football program.