Penn State's Board of Trustees on Friday approved a $48.3 million plan to continue upgrading the Lasch Football Building, which the athletic department called necessary to remain competitive.
But six trustees, including former assistant football coach Jay Paterno, opposed the project, asking the program to postpone renovations until fiscal issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and uncertainties facing college athletics are clearer.
"My former boss used to say, 'Football is here to serve the university, not the other way around,'" Jay Paterno told the board, referencing his late father Joe Paterno. "Football is a part of life, not life itself."
The board voted 27-6 to fund the project, which represents the first phase of a $69 million overhaul of the Lasch Building. Penn State's board initially approved the project, and architect HOK of Philadelphia, in 2019.
Among those voting against the proposal were Paterno and Anthony Lubrano, who served on Penn State's football coach search committee in 2011. Trustees Cynthia Dunn, Pennsylvania secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and Noe Ortega, acting secretary of the Department of Education, also voted against the resolution.
Terry Pegula, the CEO of the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres whose donations built Pegula Ice Arena, was among those voting for the project.
The board debated the proposal for about 20 minutes before voting, with position patterns being clear. Those who favored funding the renovations cited the importance of football to the university's mission and fundraising and the desire not to fall behind other programs.
Those who voted against it questioned the idea of financing a $48.3 million project while the university has cut budgets, furloughed staff and frozen capital investments.
Paterno noted that, when the two-phased Lasch Building project is complete, the athletic department will have spent more than $105 million on football upgrades over a 10-year period. Penn State's athletic department is self-funding and said it plans to pay for the projects through donations and borrowing.
"At the same time we have students sleeping in the [Hetzel Union Building] at night, we have students who are hungry," said Paterno, who coached at Penn State from 1995-2011. "We battle to make Penn State more affordable. We have a moral obligation to do that. How do we look the people we are asking to make sacrifices in the eye and then borrow and spend this money?"
On Thursday, trustee Brandon Short, a former All-American linebacker at Penn State, urged the board not only to fund the program but also to "invest much more." He repeated that statement at Friday's board meeting, saying that Penn State "has a strong balance sheet" and the financial flexibility to "withstand unforeseen events."
Short also quoted his former coach to explain his position.
"Joe use to say you either get better or you get worse, you don't stay the same," Short said. "... Our competitors are making massive investments in their football programs. If we do not match or exceed these investments, we will be left behind. We need to invest in this project and much more if we want to be competitive."
On Thursday, Penn State Athletics Director Sandy Barbour told the board's Committee on Finance, Business and Capital Planning that the project has generated about $8 million in donations.
Penn State planned to seek approval for the project in September 2020 but delayed that decision because of the pandemic and uncertain football season at the time.
"With this project, we made a decision that, to get it underway rather than wait for the philanthropy to come in, that we would agree to look at debt for this but with the idea that we would continue to fundraise," Barbour said.
In a statement Thursday, Penn State coach James Franklin said, "We will continue to fundraise for this renovation, as well as future projects in our football facilities, and will need the support of our entire Penn State community."
Trustee Laurie Stanell voted against the project, calling for a delay until "we've raised the funds, like Joe [Paterno] used to do, and do a project after we get the funds in hand."
Added trustee Alice Pope, "Fiscal prudence leads me to vote no on this resolution and to ask the football program to wait just one more year until things settle down. The strength of our program can endure this weight."
Barbour said that delaying the project would incur cost increases of 3-5 percent. It also would delay the potential impact the upgrades could have on player development and recruiting, she said.
Trustee Rob Tribeck voted for the renovations, comparing votes against the proposal to a company "laying off salespeople because sales are down."
"Here we have an opportunity and a need to invest in that which we all acknowledge is the front porch of our university at a time when it’s needed, a time when the resources are available," Tribeck said. "The money has been borrowed. I see no reason to delay this."
Lubrano joined Jay Paterno in explaining his vote. Lubrano, whose name is on the baseball field across from Beaver Stadium, questioned the investment during a time of "headwinds and uncertainties facing us over the next year."
He noted that Penn State's athletics department lost $38 million in ticket revenue during the shortened 2020 season. He asked what might happen to future budgets if Penn State can't play in front of fans again this fall at Beaver Stadium.
Lubrano also cited what he called a potential gender-equity issue. The women's field hockey team has been told that construction cannot begin on its new $9 million facility until that money has been fundraised, Lubrano said. The program has raised $7 million in gifts for the project, he added.
"In a time when we have homeless students living in the HUB and showering in Rec Hall, what message are we sending with this decision?" Lubrano asked.