IOWA CITY, Iowa — Kirk Ferentz’s office once sat in a cluster at Iowa’s venerable Field House, a building still known as a campus catch-all for athletics and recreation.
In the 1980s, Iowa’s football fiefdom served as an incubator for college football’s most influential young coaches. In the same area as Ferentz were Hayden Fry assistant coaches Bill Snyder, Barry Alvarez and Bob Stoops, all of whom were power brokers a generation later. As Iowa’s football program blossomed, the coaches outgrew their space and moved into a separate football building in the mid-1980s alongside “The Bubble.” It was a vital first step in Iowa’s progression from a mom-and-pop college football shop to regional corporation.
Thirty years later, a $55 million performance center replaced The Bubble as Iowa’s football home. An $89 million Kinnick Stadium renovation in 2006 created luxury suites, a new press box and rebuilt a crumbling south end zone structure. Tuesday, Iowa unveiled plans for a $90 million renovation to Kinnick Stadium’s north end zone seating area. Should state regents grant approval next week, the project serves as a functional, extravagant but sorely needed step for Iowa to keep up with its Big Ten brethren.
“We’ve already got an unbelievable stadium that was pretty good before that press box went up,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Now it’s more spectacular. So it’s kind of the next step for the program continuing to push forward. It’s like anything in life, it’s competitive. If you’re not pushing forward, you’re probably not doing the right thing. It’s the next step.”
Is it cheap? No. Original plans called for this renovation to cost between $35 million-$45 million. It’s now twice that number. Even in early June, facilities officials estimated the price at around $75 million. It’s the highest-priced facility project in Iowa athletics history.
Cost aside, it’s necessary. As former Iowa athletics director and current Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby used to say, the only thing worse than being in the arms race is being left out of it. Big Ten revenues are soaring with new media rights deals starting next July. Iowa’s league-only income expects to grow from $34.3 million this fiscal year to $53.9 million in 2024-25.
If you relax in today’s athletics world, you get lapped. In football, your rivals will crush you. Illinois announced plans last week for a $132 million renovation for Memorial Stadium. Northwestern is constructing football and Olympic sports facilities costing $260 million. Wisconsin finished an $86 million football performance center in 2014 and is weighing a Camp Randall Stadium renovation. Minnesota has broken ground on a $166 million athletics village. Purdue will spend $60 million on a new football practice facility.
Even in-state rival Iowa State completed a $60 million renovation to Jack Trice Stadium in 2015.
All of those teams want to beat Iowa and vice versa. If Iowa stands still with that influx of conference revenue in an 87-year-old stadium, it falls behind. It loses a recruit or two to a neighbor. Eventually that turns into a loss, and the program spirals downward.
The north end zone has sat untouched at Kinnick since the early 1980s. It’s snug against Evashevski Drive to its north without anywhere to grow. The seating is cramped with bad sight lines. Whenever Iowa has available tickets, this area has the openings.
Recently released regents documents call for a dismantling of the current bowl after the 2017 season. By 2018, a new upper and lower bowl structure will be constructed. It includes 8,516 general admission seats, 1,570 outdoor club seats and 148 loge and premium space. The divided upper deck will have gathering areas on the east and west side.
This project also has the potential to recoup some of the cost. Iowa plans to construct a premium club between the two concourse levels. Plans are to construct a walkway from a campus transportation center over Evashevski Drive and into the club. The project should be completed by 2019, and the club will be open for other events.
“There’s going to be a lot of work that’s going to have to go into that certainly, and I’m anxious to help in any way I can, once we get done with the season,” Ferentz said. “If we want to be a first-class program, we need to keep pushing forward, and we certainly hit the jackpot with this building. We did it right and did it right for a long time.”
Keeping up in college athletics means not falling behind. The money spent on athletics facilities at times makes us all cringe, but it’s the cost of doing business at this level. Anything less and you’re irrelevant.