Showcase or shown up?

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Mar 182002
 
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It’s a cold place up here.

A place where the breeze rips along the Foothills and the forehead, moving from south to north.

Where there are roads of dirt, concrete, pavement and grass.

This place is a history museum, a highlight reel, a movie theater, a lion’s cage and a tomb all rolled into one.

Such is the off-season at Hughes Stadium, the age-old home of CSU football.

There will be warmer and louder times in the coming football season for Hughes. But for now, there is nary sound to hear, save for the silent yet symphonic spectacle of the Rocky Mountain habitat.

Hughes Stadium is like the biggest grizzly bear in the west – it needs to hibernate.

Lately, some in the CSU community would rather that bear head down College Avenue to the mall for a makeover or just be put to sleep altogether.

A recent CSU football media guide dubbed Hughes Stadium “The Showcase of the Rockies” and one of the region’s finest playing facilities.

There’s no debating Hughes’ significance in Ram football history.

The venerable venue has been host to numerous heated gridiron battles and has seen countless All-American performers grace its Kentucky blue grass.

But recently, this local landmark has come under fire.

It’s too old (built in 1968), too far away (more than three miles from the main CSU campus) and too small (barely meets the NCAA Division I minimum standard of 30,000 seats).

“We need more space, we need more seating,” said Dick Zubradt, a CSU booster club member who has held season tickets for Ram football ever since opening day at Hughes back in 1968. “I don’t need my two cents of input and it doesn’t matter to me how they do it, but they need to improve it, and I’d be in favor of whatever CSU would propose for improvements.”

Players who donned the green and gold also see the need for an upgrade.

“It’s a great setting for football, but it could be better,” said Derrek Uhl, a former Ram football player and current graduate assistant coach. “The locker rooms are tight on space. The visiting locker rooms we went to on the road are almost the same as our home one here at Hughes.”

The house that Cam built does command some respect and praise amidst the criticism – and from the highest authority, no less.

“From a viewing perspective, it’s a good stadium. Every seat has a spectacular view of not only the game but the surrounding natural setting as well,” said Jeff Hathaway, CSU’s director of athletics. “Though there are an amenity of improvements we’d like to see.”

Stadium could undergo renovation

Renovation seems to be the most popular – and most realistic – option for Hughes.

Hathaway, who is nearing the completion of his first school year on the job, said renovation of the just about 35-year-old facility is a topic of near-constant discussion.

Among the improvements Hathaway and the CSU administration have discussed are added seats in the south and north ends of the stadium, increased restrooms and concessions, an increase in the number of club seating and luxury suite areas and an upgrade to the press box.

The wish list of improvements is long, but CSU administrators seem to realize the process will be lengthy and that a more patient approach will result in a greater end product.

“We’ve really done some good homework and gotten all the necessary background information on the project,” said Doug Max, associate athletic director for facilities. “We have a long range plan of priorities and if it doesn’t get done as a packaged deal, it will get done in bits.”

The idea of improving the existing stadium isn’t a new one. Talk of expansion and renovation has been around since the late 1980s, when the Ram football team began to come into the winning ways that recent CSU fans have enjoyed for the past decade.

It wasn’t until 1995 that a real plan was put into action. At that time, a cabinet was formed to help the university initiate a fundraising campaign to upgrade Hughes Stadium and Moby Arena.

A study at the time showed the Rams’ facilities to be the worst among the 10 member schools of the Western Athletic Conference.

Then-Athletic Director Tom Jurich envisioned new locker rooms, expanded weight rooms, training and rehabilitation rooms and additional classrooms within Moby Arena, as well as a 50,000 square-foot addition to the south side of the complex.

That addition eventually became the Thurman F. “Fum” McGraw Athletic Center. Completed in 1997, the McGraw Center houses offices for CSU sports marketing, sports information and coaching, in addition to improved training and educational facilities – all directly connected to Moby Arena.

But other than the installment of permanent light fixtures in 2000 and small improvements in restrooms and concession stands, few renovations have been made to Hughes Stadium since the cabinet’s inception.

The main obstacle standing in the way of making the scenic sights at Hughes Stadium available to more fans is the all-mighty dollar.

“The key question here is ‘how do we finance the renovation?'” Hathaway said. “This is not an overnight project. We have to find out who we can go to to start the effort and identify people that might have an interest in this.”

Plans in place, but no funds

Both Hathaway and Max say a plan is essentially in place and ready to be carried out, but the project still lacks a major donor to get the ball rolling on expansion and improvement. That “major donor” would most likely consist of a combination of major companies and corporations, but none have stepped forward to post the cash.

The ballpark dollar amount for renovation, according to Hathaway, is in the $11-12 million range. And while the Rams are fine with being patient, they also realize the economic drawbacks of waiting too long.

“This is a big ticket item. We only get one crack at the renovation process, so we want to get it right,” Hathaway said. “But we also realize that each year you don’t put the shovel in the ground, the estimate will go up.”

Another long-standing argument with Hughes has been to abandon it altogether in favor of an entirely new facility on or nearer to campus.

While its distance from campus gives Hughes ample parking room and gorgeous vistas, it also causes a fair share of headaches come game day and has been cited as a main reason for the occasional drop-off in student support.

Don’t bet on a new facility, though. Odds and reality are stacked against it.

“People haven’t even really discussed the possibility of an entirely new facility because they don’t consider it to be the reality,” Hathaway said. “It’s very difficult to build a new football stadium and even more expensive.”

Hathaway cites the newest football facility in Division I at the University of Connecticut, which will open next season. Also an off-campus facility, that stadium cost roughly $95 million to construct (“And that’s not even a luxurious stadium,” Hathaway, a former Husky himself, notes).

CSU boosters seemed to like the idea of having their possible donations spent wisely.

“If they were to officially propose a (renovation) plan and wanted boosters to help pay for it, I’d have to ask ‘What’s in it for me?'” said Gregg Kietzmann, a longtime Ram supporter. “They might be able to use some more seats, but personally I don’t see anything wrong with it as is. It’s in pretty decent shape.”

Many would agree that Hughes isn’t exactly an eyesore on the horizon of the Cache la Poudre plain.

The “Showcase of the Rockies” has been host to numerous national television broadcasts and is a popular destination for ESPN, FOX and other sports television networks because of the natural surroundings.

“It really is a great place for a stadium and it serves TV and the press well,” associate AD Max said. “ESPN loves coming here, especially now that we have lights. And while the lights are nothing spectacular, they enhance what we have.”

What CSU has is a perennially strong football program, one of the winningest in the nation over the last decade. Perhaps that fact alone is CSU’s best shot at finally getting a renovation project underway.

“Success breeds success,” Zubradt said. “It’s all about the product the players, coaches and the department are putting on the field. You succeed on the field and you’ll find there’s more people willing to get involved.”

At this point, all CSU athletes, coaches, administrators and supporters can do is essentially do what they’ve done all along: Do the best with what they have. AY

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