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May 10, 2012

Part 3: RMU's quest for facilities, donors, and publicity

This is the final part in a special three-part series examining Robert Morris' place in athletics. Today, ColonialsCorner looks to the future, including how Robert Morris plans to stay competitive financially, with facilities, and the level of competition.

In early April 2010, Robert Morris president Gregory Dell'Omo stood behind a podium and announced a contract extension for basketball coach Mike Rice. As Dell'Omo praised Rice's efforts for guiding the team to a near upset of Villanova in the NCAA Tournament, he offered a glimpse into his own competitive spirit.

His goal as president was to help elevate Robert Morris to the level of the Gonzagas and Butlers of college basketball. He had the coach locked up and ideas on how to make the push forward.

One month later, Rice was off to Rutgers.

Dell'Omo lost his coach, but he found his next one just one seat down on the Colonials' bench. Now behind Andrew Toole, striving to be the next Butler is still the plan.

"Yes, it is. Specifically basketball," Dell'Omo said this week. "We're always going to have great opportunities in football, ice hockey, and lacrosse. But you cannot downplay the national prominence that basketball plays, and it's one area where mid-majors can have some real success."

It doesn't happen overnight. And it can't happen with the current environment, with just a 3,000 seat arena that's quickly becoming dated even in the Northeast Conference, and a fanbase that still trends toward the apathetic.

But it's possible. The last five years offer an indication at how Robert Morris plans to get there.

*****

Two years onto the job, Dell'Omo and his administration announced a five-year plan to push forward certain projects and goals at the university. Athletics, as well as a remake of the Robert Morris image, played a central part to the plan.

"We're part of a handful of schools that have this set-up and history, but to do that you have to have success," Dell'Omo said.

For the most part, success has been there. Both basketball teams have been perennial postseason participants out of the NEC, football won its first NEC title in ten years in 2010, hockey has defeated nationally ranked opponents, and lacrosse flirted with national rankings this year.

It's measurable progress, as wins and postseason play bring more revenue and more notoriety. But wins can only do so much.

"Where I feel we have not made as much progress as I'd like, although I'm always impatient, is our facilities have a ways to go," Dell'Omo said.

The school introduced lights to the recently built Joe Walton Stadium for the 2011 season, and a new softball facility was built as part of the five-year plan. Dell'Omo's also happy with the acquisition of the Island Sports Center to serve as hockey's home for the near future.

"We need to do a lot more in terms of our basketball and indoor sports situation. We've done a few minor cosmetic changes, done some things with the locker rooms," he said. "But I'd really like to see a major overhaul of our basketball facilities, as well as then provide other indoor facilities for sports like volleyball and recreation space for our other students."

Everything else at Robert Morris is growing. On campus student residence increased enough that RMU built a new apartment complex and purchased the nearby Holiday Inn in order to meet the demand for beds. A new business school opened in the fall, and Wayne Center, which formerly housed maintenance and support staff, is being overhauled to become the new home to the Communications Department.

"Athletics is competing for resources with the critical demands tat the school has for classroom space, living space, and recreational space for students," athletic director Craig Coleman said.

Other schools with new facilities didn't have that issue; Monmouth could direct donations and available resources to its new arena because it didn't have to worry about increasing the infrastructure available. Robert Morris wasn't a full-fledged university until 2002, and it only recently shifted to having a majority of students living on campus. Its academic and residence life facilities are playing catch up.

"We probably could have built a new basketball arena if we didn't have to build all these new dorms. This is called where have we gone right," Coleman said. "You have all these kids who want to live on campus. We're playing catch up in terms of classroom space and giving schools their own homes on campus."

The university-wide improvements had to be done. But they very well might have held RMU athletics back, at least temporarily.

*****

Everything has a cost. As is the case with most things in life, costs add up quickly in Division I athletics.

At the somewhat ill-fated press Mike Rice press conference back in April 2010, Rice and Dell'Omo spoke of piggy-backing off the basketball team's success by establishing a fundraising arm that the university hadn't had before.

That arm is very much a part of Dell'Omo's repertoire now. He issued a call for a $40 fundraising campaign, which has raised $37 million so far. But other schools similar to RMU have made significant investments well beyond that. Dell'Omo doesn't want to get into an arms race, but he recognizes that Robert Morris must remain competitive financially if it's going to push forward.

"The question is how do you fund that?" Dell'Omo said. "There has to be a lot of external support. You can't fund this stuff off the backs of tuition students."

That question might be the biggest hurdle Robert Morris faces in the near future. The administration had a company evaluate the Sewall Center for either an overhaul or a new facility, and it wants to make some sort of significant upgrade in the near future. But Dell'Omo said the school needs to see improved support from the student body, outside community, and especially from donors and alumni, to help push things forward.

And the first step, he said, starts in the stands.

"We still have a ways to go. With the level of competitiveness our teams put out on the court and field, I'm always surprised we don't have more attendance," he said. "Not just from our students, which I think has improved, or from the alumni, but from the community as well."

*****

Growth is growth. The push for arena upgrades isn't a black and white issue. Additional facilities throughout the campus are still needed, especially if the university's projection of a substantial increase in resident students holds true.

"As long as we can keep incrementally improving things until we get to the point where we get some donations that our intended specifically for athletics, that would be a different story," Coleman said.

The push is on for those donations, and it's not just with hands out asking for help. Every move is a calculated one at the Division I level. Dell'Omo, an ardent supporter of the athletic programs, has vocally criticized media coverage, even going so far as to publicly appeal to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to improve its coverage.

"I probably showed my age and realized I didn't understand how fast social media works. That got a lot of attention very quickly," Dell'Omo said. "When I see that the media, whether it's the papers, TV, radio, whatever, is just ignoring us simply because we weren't part of the scene before, given our history, I get frustrated. But I also say it's our responsibility to get that word out to them."

So Robert Morris is doing what it can to grab attention anywhere possible. That includes hosting the 2013 Frozen Four at the Consol Energy Center - "I think it's going to be huge for over the next 12 months," Coleman said - and continuing to push for growth.

They believe the growth has had an impact already. Along with his athletic director duties, Coleman is also the university's softball coach. He's seen the changes at the university drastically impact recruiting.

"It's as if my recruiting budget was multiplied by ten," he said. "It was to the point where we'd have recruits come on campus and we'd want to put a bag over their head before the tour. Now, heck no. We want to give them two or three tours. It makes a world of difference."

Dell'Omo's comparison turns back to Gonzaga. The Bulldogs began their run as a perennial mid-major contender in 1999. They didn't get a new arena until 2004, and that came on the back of several deep NCAA Tournament runs.

"Those things didn't happen overnight. They took years," Dell'Omo said. "But they were able to nurture a very strong alumni and community support for those programs."

Now Robert Morris is eying the next step. Dell'Omo's self-professed impatience will be tested. But he wants to do things right.

"If you want to do it like those schools have done it, you have to do it as part of the overall package," Dell'Omo said.

Robert Morris plans to put a package together. The only questions are how fast it develops and how expensive it costs.

ColonialsCorner publisher Andrew Chiappazzi can be reached at achiappazzi@yahoo.com.

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