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Donor's gift to U stadium drive rekindles debate
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T. Denny Sanford says Friday that his gift is contingent on the university seeking minimal taxpayer financing for the stadium. (MPR Photo/Brandt Williams)
A potential multimillion-dollar pledge from a South Dakota banker has energized University of Minnesota boosters eager to bring Big Ten football back to campus. The contribution from T. Denny Sanford, 67, would be the largest single gift in the university's 152-year history. The news has revived talk of a Gophers-only stadium after a plan to build a joint facility for the university and the Minnesota Vikings unravelled last year.

St. Paul Minn. — The chairman of a South Dakota bank holding company, a University of Minnesota graduate, pledged up to $35 million Friday to match donations for the construction of a new football stadium for the university.

"I am thrilled to be able to play a lead role in helping to turn the dream of returning Gopher football to the U of M campus into a reality," said T. Denny Sanford, "I have fond memories of games in Memorial Stadium, and I think it is a tragedy that an entire generation of university alumni does not know the exhilaration of an outdoor, crisp autumn Big Ten football game."

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Image Joel Maturi

Athletic Director Joe Maturi says the gift has encouraged others to sign on.

"I can't tell you the number of e-mails I've received today , the number of calls I've received today, people lining up, (saying) 'Where do I give?' Now, I don't know if they're going to give $100, $10, or $1,000 or $100,000. But I do know this has energized the athletic community. And some of us will buy a brick worth $1,000, but that's help. And somebody else who has the wherewithal to give a million, hopefully, they'll give the million," he said.

Maturi says those donations could form the nucleus of a new funding proposal for a Gophers-only facility on campus. The Gophers currently play their home games at the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis, which they share with the Minnesota Twins and Vikings. All three teams consider the Metrodome inadequate and have lobbied for new facilities. Maturi says having an on-campus facility brings a different energy and sense of collegiality to campus.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty says he, too, would prefer to see the Gophers play on-campus. But he says if state assistance is needed to fill in the financing gaps, the University may have to work with the Vikings.

If the Gophers' proposition is they're able to do this themselves, we'll pat them on the back and cheer them on.
- Gov. Tim Pawlenty

"Well, if the Gophers' proposition is they're able to do this themselves, we'll pat them on the back and cheer them on. If at some point they come and say they need a significant amount of state money, then I think we have to at least ask the question whether we should reconsider combining the potential Vikings stadium with a Gophers stadium somewhere to get the economies of scale and the efficiencies," according to Pawlenty.

Lawmakers previously recommended that the University and the Vikings work together to develop a joint-use stadium proposal. But those discussions stalled last November when university officials said they would be unable to accomodate the Vikings' needs on-campus.

The Vikings said the proposed on-campus site was too restrictive. Lester Bagley, a stadium consultant for the Vikings, says the team is supportive of the Gophers' attempt to raise private donations for a college-only facility. But, he says, it's unlikely the university will be able to cover the entire cost with private contributions. He says that means a Vikings-Gophers partnership is still a possibility.

"If there's going to be state involvement and state financing involved in the Vikings and/or Gopher facility, the state and state leaders are going to have a lot to say about location and whether or not the Vikings and Gophers should be working together," says Bagley.

University Athletic Director Maturi says it's premature to discuss a financing model at this point, or even an active fundraising drive. And he says the university and its athletic department are keenly aware of the state's and the university's financial health. A significant state budget deficit led to a nearly $200 million cut in state assistance to the school.

Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, who served on a legislative stadium task force two years ago, says if the university approached the state for a significant portion of the stadium funding, they'd find a cool reception.

"Especially given the state's economic circumstances and the concerns about having to prioritize, I think we'd be looking at are there other ways to spend that money," he said.

Kelley, like Pawlenty, says it would be very difficult to provide resources for three new facilities. He says if state money is required for the university, he'd like to see the Gophers and the Vikings re-open their discussions.

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