Published Saturday, June 30, 2012 at 9:29 pm / Updated at 1:16 am
BASKETBALL
Boosters helped make NU facility top-flight

Photo Showcase: Nebraska's Hendricks Training Complex

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LINCOLN — Nebraska men's basketball: a national leader.

For nearly a century, those words were ineligible to be written about this longtime stumbling program. Then came completion last fall of the $18.7 million Hendricks Training Complex.

This hoops palace — part Vegas sports bar and part Rodeo Drive fitness center — has vaulted Nebraska, which last won an outright conference championship 96 years ago, into a believe-it-or-not level of basketball prestige.

The NBA's Chicago Bulls, planning their own new practice facility, recently made Lincoln the first stop for their executive team seeking construction guidance.

Meanwhile, coaches at nationally elite AAU programs — a rare sight in Lincoln — are now escorting their top players here for a visit.

Current Husker senior Brandon Ubel is one of the tour guides.

“We've had Top 100 recruits in here — guys who have seen a lot of places — and they say this is the best,” Ubel said. “They come in and their eyes light up. How could they not light up? It's an amazing facility.”

Yet, as Nebraska fans know, nothing comes easily to men's basketball.

Six months into construction of the building that has earned NU national buzz, the two key boosters behind the project cast a critical eye on its progress.

They came away less than impressed.

“I thought we were building an average practice facility,” said Neal Hawks, a Dallas real estate developer and son of NU regent and longtime Husker athletic contributor Howard Hawks.

“It was going to be nice, but I thought we could do better.”

Neal Hawks' frame of reference for such buildings comes from a lesser-known family tie.

He is a brother-in-law of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban (the two men's wives are sisters). Cuban has spent millions of his personal fortune on facilities often cited as the NBA's best, and Hawks has inside knowledge of them and others in that league.

Howard Hawks, during his first in-depth look at early work on the Hendricks Complex, also furrowed his brow.

As founder of Tenaska, a multi-billion-dollar independent power producer, he knows plenty about successful building projects.

“Some of the things we wanted to do, the athletic department didn't want to fund,” Howard said. “To me, if we hadn't gotten involved in it and pushed for these kinds of things, not much of that would have been implemented.

“It's disappointing that we had to get involved. It shouldn't have been required.”

Howard Hawks described Neal as the practice facility “initiator” and himself as the “assister” to make sure it happened. The lead gift for the project was about $10 million from the Tom and Mary Hendricks family. Tom Hendricks is Howard Hawks' business partner.

“Our family wanted to make the men's side of the facility the best in the country,” Neal Hawks said. “The athletic department said ‘we're willing to do that if you pay for it.' So we did.”

Neal Hawks declined to disclose his contribution, or what things he wanted added to the building. Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osborne said the Hawkses sought two primary changes to the men's basketball side.

One was hot-and-cold soak tubs, which are something trainers and players see as must-have elements in a premium athletic building. The second was an expanded ready-room/video suite that now looks like a movie theater — and has left recruits drooling.

“We're not saying we don't appreciate everything Howard and Neal did,” Osborne said. “We are very appreciative, and what they wanted certainly adds to the building.

CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Howard and Neal Hawks helped finance an expanded ready-room/video suite that now looks like a movie theater. (click image to expand)

“As you know, I don't tend to think of those things (premium add-ons) very much. So if it works, we're all for it.”

As good as the facility is, bricks and mortar don't win games or guarantee high-caliber signees.

“But this is an integral part of the decision-making process for recruits,” first-year Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “The message about commitment that it sends to people is of equal value to the benefit we get out of it.”

That's what the Hawks family was looking for, said Neal Hawks, the Husker alum who took out a full-page advertisement in the Feb. 26 Sunday World-Herald questioning the NU administration's support of the sport.

“Our family's whole deal,” Neal Hawks said, “is to see Nebraska basketball become relevant. We don't see any reason why it can't be.”

‘An amazing place'

Nebraska's athletic department wants more than relevancy in men's basketball, said the man who has overseen the sport for nine years.

“As you know, we don't have a whole lot of tradition,” Marc Boehm, executive associate athletic director, said of a program that has gone 14 years without an NCAA tournament bid and 62 years without even a share of a conference title.

“But what we can say is we are committed to this. We think we have done this in a very tasteful way with this facility, showing recruits and our fan base that we are serious.”

Miles, who was hired from Colorado State in March to replace the fired Doc Sadler, said he took the Nebraska job because of the athletic department's reputation, the university's leadership and membership in the Big Ten Conference.

But a state-of-the-art home for basketball was hard to ignore.

“This has got to be in the top 2 or 3 percent in college basketball facilities,” he said, “and we're not even talking about Pinnacle Bank Arena yet. (NU's new $179 million home for games will open for the 2013-14 season).

“If I was a prospect and looked at the whole package, it's an amazing place.”

But can pool tables decorated like basketball courts and 103-inch televisions on the wall of the practice court really flip NU's fortunes?

Husker assistant coach Chris Harriman says yes.

“You can't remodel any existing facility to this,” said Harriman, an Australian who has seen basketball buildings worldwide. “You have to rebuild to have what we have, and I don't know how many colleges can make the commitment Nebraska has.

“This is something Nebraska has never had, which is why we think something that has never been done here before can happen. Now, we have to take advantage.”

A new building doesn't automatically kick the door open on a higher level of recruit, assistant Ben Johnson said. The current number of head-turning signings or commitments since Miles' hiring in late March is zero.

CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
The players lounge features pool tables decorated like basketball courts. (click image to expand)

“You've got to win,” Johnson said. “But this place helps. We've had nothing but positive feedback. And people who come soon realize our academics are really strong, too.”

Shopping with their eyes

Word travels fast in the college and AAU basketball grapevine. The hot topic lately is that Nebraska has a way-cool building, and prospects want to check it out.

“Coaches are calling us and wanting their guys to see it,” Harriman said.

This at a school that has finished last in its league two of the past three seasons and not had a winning conference record in 13 years.

So far, Harriman estimated about 35 to 40 high school prospects have visited campus, with another 14 or 15 expected before the July on-the-road recruiting period. Members of some of the country's elite AAU programs have passed through.

Ubel said he hears a lot of “wows” about the players lounge and the televisions when giving tours. The lounge itself has a 5-by-8-foot wall of screens. Overall, there are three 103-inch TVs and six 65-inch plasmas.

“We tried to count all the TVs the other day,” Ubel said, “and I still don't know for sure.” Boehm said there are 121, then added: “I think.”

The longer the tour, Ubel said, the more impressed visitors become.

“Guys are amazed with the team lounge,” he said, “but then you haven't even shown them the locker room or the hot-and-cold-soak room.”

During construction, Husker players would sneak into the new building to try to figure out what would go where.

“As they got closer to being done, they closed it off, so we looked at the virtual tour online,” Ubel said. “But that didn't do it justice. When you finally lay on a 6Ĺ-foot leather couch, you realize what you've really got going on.”

In today's culture, Ubel said, it's no secret that recruits “shop with their eyes.”

CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Howard and Neal Hawks would like to see more NCAA banners than NIT banners hanging from the Huskers' practice facility. “Our family's whole deal,” Neal Hawks said, “is to see Nebraska basketball become relevant.” (click image to expand)

“You hope a guy would pick a school for multiple reasons,” he said. “But facilities play a huge part.”

Jump-start

Boehm said Nebraska had a basketball practice facility listed in its athletic department master plan from the time he arrived in 2003. But it wasn't until a major football construction project was completed in 2006 that the hoops plan moved up the to-do list.

“The magic date is 2008,” Boehm said. “That's really when things got into motion.”

Coincidentally, that's when Lincoln city officials began discussion of a new downtown arena, with Nebraska men's and women's basketball as major tenants.

The original arena plans, Boehm said, show a spot for a practice facility to be built on the arena's north side.

“And that was the plan for six or eight months,” he said. “But then we got together and asked if that's really what we wanted to do, for several reasons.”

Nebraska's master plan for athletic construction evolved into creating two “hubs,” Boehm said. One was at Memorial Stadium, where there is an academic center, training table and weight room on the edge of campus.

The second was at the Devaney Center, which soon will be retooled to become home to Nebraska volleyball with continued use by gymnastics, swimming, wrestling and track.

“Those two hubs form a triangle with the main campus,” Boehm said. “So why take both basketball programs and ship them out to some remote arena which would be farther from class and the two hubs?”

The decision to decline city involvement on a practice facility, Boehm said, provided two benefits.

“We thought we could get a better deal financially,” he said. “Also, we got a head start on the recruiting process. If we had delayed to go with the arena, we would have been two years behind in getting this program jump-started.”

Home away from home

Call it “kid-to-kid credibility.”

In today's world of social media and far-flung AAU basketball travel, discussion about Nebraska's facilities has rocketed from coast to coast among big-name recruits.

Just getting into those conversations is something new for the Huskers — and vitally important, said Johnson, one of NU's new assistants.

“When you have a kid who really is high on Nebraska,” he said, “and he hears positive things from other good kids, it gives him confidence to say, ‘Hey, maybe Nebraska is the place.'

“That superstar kid has to have the belief that he is passing up options A, B and C to go here for good reason. When other kids back him, it validates that decision.”

While the Hendricks Complex's electronics tend to dazzle visitors, Harriman said, the players and parents quickly notice the nutrition center, the hot-and-cold-soak area and a separate dedicated gym.

“What we're trying to create is an environment where guys are comfortable and can hang out together like family,” Harriman said. “I don't know if there is any other place I'd rather be myself. It leaves very little reason for guys not to be there.”

The Hendricks Complex becomes a home away from home, Ubel said.

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“During the season, we practice, we lift and we're too tired to move,” he said. “We're spending six or seven hours a day together in a place, so you want it to be as nice as it can be.”

Doing it right

Howard Hawks has season tickets to Nebraska men's basketball, but admitted he hasn't made the drive from Omaha very often in recent years.

“Our record overall has not been acceptable,” he said. “One of the reasons we don't go is the quality of play and the competition.”

Choosing not to settle for long-term mediocrity is why the Hawks family, which also has donated generously for football practice facilities and NU's baseball stadium, got busy with Husker men's basketball.

“It would have been a shame to have spent as much money as we spent and not done the player facilities right,” Howard Hawks said. “Especially if you have the economics to do it, which I believe our athletic department has.

“You either stay where you are, or you get into the upper half.”

Hawks said he met Miles shortly after the coaching change and pledged his family's support.

“I'm excited about the potential,” Hawks said. “Tim is working hard on recruiting. That's an area that needed improvement, and I think these facilities will help him get that done.”

Contact the writer:

402-444-1024, lee.barfknecht@owh.com

Contact the writer: Lee Barfknecht

lee.barfknecht@owh.com    |   402-444-1024    |  

Lee Barfknecht has won nine national writing awards from four separate organizations, and is a 12-time winner of the Nebraska sportswriter of the year award. He covers Big Ten football and basketball, Nebraska basketball and other college financial issues for The World-Herald.

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