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VOL. 132 | NO. 120 | Friday, June 16, 2017

Facilities, Football Fever Growing At the University of Memphis

By Don Wade

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Somewhere, in a long-ago Division I sports galaxy far away, an athletic director could catch his breath after his college baseball team made its last out and before his football team started practice. Not so much now.

University of Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen says the Tigers’ football schedule over the next several seasons should give Memphis a good chance of continuing to go to bowl games. (Joe Murphy)

The job, like the sports seasons themselves, can seem never-ending. University of Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen was gracious enough to take more than an hour one morning to speak with The Daily News and it just so happened to be on June 8, 2017 – or five years to the day he started work here.

“What used to be traditional quiet time, second week of June to about the second week of July, is now gone,” Bowen said, adding that June is when he’s working against a deadline for scholarship support.

That wasn’t a complaint, mind you, just the stating of a fact. That to oversee an athletic department with 388 student-athletes ages 18-24 is more than a full-time job.

Immediately prior to coming to Memphis, Bowen spent about nine years as AD at San Jose State. Before going to San Jose State, he was executive director of the 49ers Foundation for San Francisco’s NFL franchise.

So, by the time Bowen arrived in Memphis, he understood the importance of oversight and fundraising. In fiscal 2014, he and his team fundraised a record $19.5 million. Justin Fuente already was the head football coach when Bowen arrived, but when he left for Virginia Tech Bowen hired Mike Norvell to replace him. He also hired Tubby Smith to lead the men’s basketball program last year.

Memphis is in the final phase of the “Time to Shine” campaign with a new state-of-the-art men’s basketball practice facility nearing completion and ground was finally broken on a new indoor football practice facility last April.

There is much optimism about football, concern among the fan base about basketball, and the sting from being left off a Big 12 expansion that never happened anyway seems to have mostly healed. Which doesn’t mean Bowen doesn’t have thoughts on realignment, because he does.

Bowen addressed all these issues and more with The Daily News. Today, in Part 1 of our two-part interview, he specifically talks about facilities, the buzz around football, scheduling for football and basketball, and ticketing. Next week, topics will include Wichita State joining the American Athletic Conference, conference realignment, Tubby Smith and the men’s basketball program, and the passion in the city for Memphis athletics.

TDN: Plenty of coaches and athletic directors have said that in this day and age that you better have cranes in the air at all times. That if you’re not continually enhancing facilities, you’re falling behind. True?

Bowen: I do think you’ve got to do massive capital infrastructure strategic planning. So when I got here in 2012, we sat down and had a list of the six areas that had to have capital infrastructure. Number five on that list was the basketball practice facility and number six was the football offices and indoor training facility. Now we’ve recalibrated another list that became active in 2016, which is the addition of a baseball team room and expansion of baseball facilities. That construction will start in July. The outfield fence needs to be immediately addressed. There needs to be a digitized scoreboard in right field. We need to catch up with that. 

The track area stands need to be upgraded and scoreboard and lights so I can start playing soccer in the evening and run some high-level track meets. The Olympic weight room, while I’ve done some improvement to it, needs a massive overhaul. The women’s locker rooms need to be overhauled.

TDN: So it’s constant?

Bowen: The new facilities are fun and exciting to do and then there’s all the real work in the care of current facilities you have. So 2016-17-18 will have its own series of capital infrastructures. And then at the end of ’18, there will be another list that will start. The current football weight room may need some upgrades. Elma Roane Fieldhouse may need some new upgrades. When I got here, R.C. Johnson and his administration had been very active in building new facilities. So it was nice to see you could continue that. Investments had taken place.

TDN: The basketball facility will have a foyer recognizing decades of Tiger basketball tradition and that foyer might be usable for receptions and other events. Sounds pretty compelling apart from the day-to-day basketball uses.

Bowen: I do think when the basketball facility is completed, it will be the finest in the country. And we’re already getting accolades for it.

TDN: When will it be done?

Bowen: For sure Nov. 1. By October they can be practicing in there.

TDN: And in all sports the facilities matter when recruiting?

Bowen: Prospective Division 1 student-athletes at the highest level – really bright, talents, motivated, self-reliant young men and young women – there has to be the nuances of all the things they care about. One is a great university, great place to study, great environment. We got that. One is a great city where people like to support the teams and they like to come out to games. No prospective student-athlete likes to play in an empty stadium. Third part, of course, is the head coach and his charisma and leadership and integrity, his staff, your teammates. And the other piece that kind of locks it in is the kind of cool facility I’m going to spend a lot of my time in. And the fact we’re Nike. It matters, it really does.”

TDN: Football practice starts in late July this year. There is genuine excitement around town, a prospect of a fourth straight bowl season. Safe to say you’re excited about what this means now and going forward?

Bowen: In 2017, to have one of the finest young coaches in the country, one of the best coaching staffs, the No. 1 recruiting class in the Group of Five, the best recruiting class in the American Athletic Conference, to have all this buzz about what we can be … now the standard is set for us to be committed to excellence. And I don’t think that will ever change.

We’re gonna have more than 400 former players come back for our football reunion. To know that our M Club membership now is almost at 700 – former student-athletes, men and women – and when I got here our membership was less than 120 members. So we’re seeing this tremendous surge in pride and excitement.

TDN: How are season ticket sales going?

Bowen: We have surpassed last year’s record. Season football parking is sold out. That’s never happened. We’re north of 8,400 season tickets. Last year at this time we were at maybe 3,500.

TDN: Wow. Only potential negative to that is getting in and out of Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on those game days when you draw big crowds. Anything new on that front?

Bowen: We started the conversation with Mayor (A C) Wharton in 2015 when we had the Ole Miss game, about how to go back to some old egress design that had been done in the ’90s and the ’80s. And so now, as each season has approached, we have gotten more feedback and data on flow. I think this season will be the best because we are anticipating the larger crowds.

TDN: What can you say about football scheduling, besides expecting a big crowd in September for the UCLA game?

Bowen: The scheduling that took place in 2012, you’re seeing now in ’16, ’17, ’18. Next year we’re at Missouri and in ’19 we have Ole Miss to start the season. In ’20 we pick up Mississippi State. In ’21 it’s Mississippi State again. All this was done as we first came in to build football as much as possible. So we had seven home games last year, we’ll have seven home games this year, next year we’ll have six and then we’ll be back to seven. To be a non-Power Five school and have seven home games is remarkable. And what it does is it guarantees you should get close or be bowl-eligible in those seasons because you win about 80 percent at home.

TDN: Scheduling in basketball is different, seems more difficult, and the Tiger fan base always has seemed much pickier about what the home schedule looks like in basketball than in football. In the NBA, and the Grizzlies certainly do this, teams price tickets on a tiered basis. So, for instance here, you pay a lot more to see Golden State on a weekend than Philadelphia on a week night. Would you consider tiered-style ticketing as a means to perhaps attract more basketball fans to FedExForum?

Bowen: That’s certainly a practice that takes place in a lot of Division 1 programs. It can become problematic if you create an expectation that `I want to go to the better games.’ We’ve had conversations about it. I get real uncomfortable if it looks like I’m charging you an outrageous price to come see (a particular) game. Me, personally, I’d rather you be a season-ticket holder or buy all the conference games.

I just remember when I was in the NFL we always talked about location being more valuable than opponent. So I’ve always felt that model is viable because it’s been around for five decades. Fifty-yard-line seats are always more expensive than the end zone seat. Lower bowl is always more expensive than the upper bowl. Location and access always had more value to me than the quality of the opponent you’re playing.

TDN: What about a ticket package that would be a hybrid of some football and some basketball games, have you looked at doing that?

Bowen: That will be the next step. That component creates real revenue stability for us. I think it’s a natural progression for us and that will happen for sure (at some point), yeah.

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