Vaulting Milwaukee basketball to new heights

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the past year, it is that money is catching up to the Milwaukee Panthers in a big way. Between the move from the U.S. Cellular Arena to the Klotsche Center and the growing $10 million debt, Milwaukee is suffering from a serious lack of cash. If only there were a way to change our lucky stars overnight.

There isn’t. You can’t take a couple million dollars down to Potowatomi Casino, bet it all on red and collect your cash when the little ball stops on the turning wheel. Well you could, but the state would probably frown upon that plan. And you’d probably anger your hosts at the casino by promptly walking out with their money. So that’s not really an option.

What is an option? What can Milwaukee Athletics do to break free of the chains that bind the program?

It seems the current plan is to build a basketball practice facility that will allow the men’s and women’s basketball programs their own space, a serious boon for recruiting that would cut away the biggest remaining advantage any Horizon League school has over the university. They could follow that up with a baseball and track facility, probably in the neighborhood of the former Rank and Son car dealership on Green Bay Avenue. After that, the Panthers can renovate the Klotsche Center in the style of Loyola’s Gentile Arena, hopefully with a bit more flair and a couple luxury boxes to boot.

But where does this plan leave Milwaukee once it’s all said and done? What is it about this plan that elevates Milwaukee Athletics? At the end of the day, you’re talking about tens of millions of dollars down the hole to bring us up to the level of our peers.

A practice facility – the first because it’s likely to be the cheapest project and one to deliver better basketball results faster – is still going to cost in the range of $6 million to $12 million just to make it the level of Wright State’s Setzer Pavilion or Green Bay’s Kress Center. A baseball stadium looks great, but it’s going to take $10 million to build something that can compete with UIC’s just-announced Granderson Stadium. The indoor track and field facility will be great for practicing in inclement weather, but that’s just on par with Youngstown State’s WATTS Center. And that Loyola-style renovation of the Klotsche Center, where you drop the floor and create a permanent bowl? That’s good for Loyola, but what about Milwaukee? And how much would that cost?

Conservative estimates have such a renovation costing $30 million. Essentially, you’re talking about projects in excess of $50 million to make the Milwaukee Panthers the class of the Horizon League. Let me tell you something: we already are. The trophy cases full of McCafferty Trophies and Horizon League Championships numbering 115 and counting are all the proof we should need to know that we’re the best. Spending that much money on those projects will definitely vault Milwaukee to the front of the conference; our neighborhood, our city, our coeds, our academics, our size, all put together make this university the class of the conference, and fixing our facilities problem cuts away the last of the great advantages any of those schools have on us.

But the NCAA is a world of haves and have-nots, and if we’re going to spend $50 million, what good does it do to get to the finish line only to find out we don’t have the kind of facilities that will secure the best rosters? There’s nothing wrong with being the class of the Horizon League, in and of itself. Butler did just fine in that role and a nationally-prominent men’s basketball program is viable in the Horizon League. But you don’t become a nationally-prominent men’s basketball program with a $10 million practice facility and a $30 million base renovation of current space.

If it’s done correctly, the Milwaukee Panthers can join the ranks of the nationally-prominent men’s basketball programs by spending that $50 million (or less!) more wisely. It’s not an easy job – the money has to be raised, after all – but the benefits would be much greater than they’d be with the current, pedestrian plans.

Not just a gym, but the best gym. The first and most important piece of the puzzle is a basketball practice facility, to be used only by the men’s and women’s varsity basketball programs. You might say, “But Jimmy, a practice facility is probably the first part of the university’s current plan LOL!” It sure is. But the scope of the project is likely to be minimal; what’s important to them is to make sure there is some space for the basketball teams to be separate from the Klotsche Arena, where they can train and recruit players to a facility on par with the rest of the Horizon League.

That’s not good enough. One of these facilities has to make a statement. Whether you’re talking about the practice facility or the basketball arena, the university has to make a statement that says “Not only are we committed to basketball, but we’re more committed than any school you will visit.” Between the two, I’ll pick the practice facility. Why? Because the current gold standard for a college basketball arena is $230 million. The best college basketball practice facility in the country is at Kentucky, and it was built in 2007 for $30 million ($33.1 million in 2012 dollars).

Is it starting to make sense? For Milwaukee Athletics to be viable in the future, it must be able to make money. It cannot, in its current state, make enough money to be profitable today, let alone ten years down the road. What you need is a winning program. A wildly winning program. To achieve the level of winner that fans will buy into – remember, we’re competing with the Bucks and Marquette for the entertainment dollar – you need better players. Today, better players will not practice and play in the Klotsche Center. Yesterday, better players would not practice in the Klotsche Center and play in the Cell. The constant is the practice facility – this much the university has identified – but it lacks the vision to see ten years down the road.

Owning a practice facility on par with those at Loyola, UIC, Green Bay and Wright State does nothing to elevate the program. Building a practice facility that far outpaces those, and competes with the best in the nation, is better. $35 million buys you the best practice facility that money can buy. $35 million makes Wisconsin and Marquette green with envy. The great part about those schools is that neither has a need for a basketball practice facility – MU has the Al McGuire Center and Bucky Badger just freed up the Kohl Center from ice hockey practice. We’re talking about the kind of facility that John Calipari and Kentucky look at and say, “This school is planning to compete with us in at least one arena.”

Building the best practice facility in the country is expensive and it seems like a project that doesn’t fit at the hyphenated little sister to Wisconsin. And that’s the point. This project makes the university step out of Wisconsin’s shadow, stretch its legs and stand on its own two feet.

By coming late to the party, the usual suspects of the nation’s basketball elite have already played their hand. Kentucky’s $30 million Joe Craft Center is the gold standard; just because Milwaukee built something better doesn’t mean they’re going to tear it down and start over. It’s almost a good thing we’re one of the last schools in the country to have a space problem with facilities.

So what kind of space are we talking here? What goes into a super-facility, besides the obvious gym, locker rooms, training rooms and weight rooms? Of those, you can assume you’ll get the best of everything. But there’s more.

First off, the coaches’ offices will be some of the best in the country. Envision a posh space overlooking the basketball courts, each fitted with a sitting area to recruit student-athletes and teach players. Recruiting rooms allow coaches to have a specific space tailored to wooing prospective student-athletes to Milwaukee.

The best academic space money can buy, there to ensure the men and women who suit up for the Milwaukee Panthers are given the tools to expand their minds and broaden their horizons, would probably be accessible to all student-athletes, not just basketball players.

Another addition for the entire athletics program would be a permanent home for the Bud K. Haidet Hall of Fame. Line the McCafferty Trophies up along one wall. The 115 Horizon League Championship trophies would probably be served best as wallpaper – a single-file line is going to get too unruly. But a special section – ideally an adjacent room – would be dedicated to the 120-year history of Milwaukee hoops. Picture in your minds the framed photos – the 1941 undefeated team, the 1960 NCAA Tournament team, the 1989 Elite Eight team – there’s more history here than we take credit for, even if it’s not all in Division I. It’s important that this room is big enough to be changed whenever a team adds to the history, especially when considering the fact that the room’s existence is indicative of a recruiting juggernaut.

It’s not just student-athletes and coaches that would get to reap the rewards, though. At Duke, their practice facility contains a space for the university to entertain up to 240 guests. That space would also be used for players to dine for team meals.

It could also be a place that makes money. Not only is the banquet hall something that could be rented out, but the practice facility itself could find a way to make money for the program: the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks have long been rumored to want out of the Cousins Center along the south shore, mainly because the facility is not up to par with others in the NBA. The Dallas Mavericks thought so too; they were practicing at home in their game arena, when a tour of SMU’s new Crum Practice Facility caused them to move all their practices to the private school’s campus. SMU makes money on rent from the Mavericks; the Bucks could also find themselves a home at Milwaukee’s new facility.

Having a place where basketball players can swipe their key-card and enter at any time of the day to work on their game or their schoolwork is a basic need that has gone unfulfilled – I once had a Facebook conversation at two in the morning over the summer with a former player who wished he could just go and practice his shot. I don’t think any of us would complain if they could do that. But it’s more than just having a space, it’s about having a space that will ensure the players who are using those key-cards are the best possible players this university can attract, make the team better, bring in more fans, more money, and the snowball keeps rolling and growing.

One day, perhaps not long after the facility is built, another school will come along and knock Milwaukee’s off its pedestal. But it will be a long time, maybe never, before the facility becomes just-another-gym. By then, the message will be heard loud and clear by every gym rat in the country: Milwaukee has arrived.

Not just a home, but the best home. Milwaukee students have long taken pride in the fact that certain players from the basketball team have lived among them in the dorms – legends of Rob Sanders and his fur coat come to mind – but if we are to enhance our ability to recruit the best players in the country, we can do better than the best practice facility in the country.

The practice facility is the biggest, most expensive and most important piece, but there are other parts to this jigsaw puzzle. One of them is establishing a beautiful home for students, including the roster of the basketball programs, to live.

At the University of Kentucky, men’s basketball players have long lived sequestered from the rest of the student body at the Joe B. Hall Lodge, which was a great home for hoops athletes. I say “was” because this past fall, Wildcats players moved into a brand new building on the same spot: the Kentucky Coal Lodge. Take a break from reading and feast your eyes on this video of the brand new home.

Of course, buying and maintaining a house that is big enough to be the home of the entire men’s basketball program – and other students – would probably cost somewhere around $10 million just to buy the land and build the base structure.

Unless it already exists.

Enter the Alumni House, the picturesque castle of a home east of Lake Drive, right off of Lincoln Memorial Drive. It was bought in 1949 by the Milwaukee State Teachers College for the steep cost of $80,000. It seems like a ridiculous suggestion to house the men’s basketball program, until you learn that the Alumni House was initially a women’s dormitory for the College. For 15 years it house female students, until 1964 when it was converted to a conference center. Not long after that, the much bigger dormitory at the Hefter Center became a conference center when Sandburg Towers were built, and the Alumni House eventually became the home of the UWM Foundation and the Alumni Association.

It was in this function that the Alumni House became a daily destination for me. I did my required internship for the English Department at the Alumni Association, in the south wing of the second floor. I’m not going to lie, it was a pretty spectacular view for a 23-year old intern. The internet may have lagged behind and the parking might not have been ideal (I didn’t get a parking pass in the – get this – 15 or so parking spaces), but it was without a doubt the coolest building I ever worked in – and it would be an amazingly good home for Milwaukee Basketball.

It wouldn’t be quite the space that the Kentucky Coal Lodge is, but that’s okay – there is more than ample space for the basketball team and even general students to live in comfort. There are bedrooms and bathrooms on the second and third levels to accommodate even the tallest of tenants. The pantry and kitchen are big enough for a chef to have all the space they need to feed 20 students at various times during the day. The back patio has great views through the trees of Lake Michigan, the dining room is high class, and the living areas are big enough for an entire team of seven-footers to spread out.

No doubt, it would need some updating – I’m fairly certain the carpeting hasn’t been updated since the 1980’s and they’re going to need to settle that wifi problem – but it’s an outstanding home. It sits on 3.9 acres of land, much of which is a depressed lawn that used to be a swimming pool, which was filled with the dirt they picked out of the ground when excavating for Mellencamp Hall. If they wanted, they could put a basketball court out on that space (it’s big enough). A university-controlled dorm that wouldn’t be open to partying, it would give players a place to kick back and enjoy creature comforts without making it a place the neighbors would complain about.

Neither of these projects is a money maker in their own space. We’ll never make enough money from the general student population that lives in the other space of the Alumni House to cover costs. We’ll never draw thousands of people to watch the basketball team practice in the new facility, even if it is the best in the country.

But putting these projects does one thing – it vaults Milwaukee Basketball beyond the Horizon League and up with the national elite in the eyes of recruits. Fans have complained about the concessions, the merchandise booth and the D-III atmosphere of the Klotsche Center, but what really hurts recruiting is the perception that the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is not committed to its basketball program. Schools recruiting against Milwaukee have been hammering us to recruits about the Klotsche Center for years, and that criticism has only ramped up since the Panthers moved their home games to campus.

If we come through on these two projects, is anyone ever going to question our commitment to basketball again? Recruits won’t. They’ll see the best place to practice in the country and the most beautiful home for a basketball team and they’ll want to be a part of it. It won’t matter if we still pay the same gouging rent at the Cell, because the level of the team will draw enough fans to easily cover the costs of the Cell lease and then some.

Sure, we can spend $50 million and build a run-of-the-mill practice facility and a Loyola-style renovation of the Klotsche Center, but that will leave us right where we are – consistently one of the best basketball teams in the Horizon League, the best overall athletics program in the conference, and still losing money. For $10 million less, they can completely transform how the university, city, recruits and country view Milwaukee Basketball.

How’s that for a strategic plan?

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