Donating sky high for Illini
Mike Thomas and Rick Darnell have plenty of reasons to thank Illinois athletic department donors.
Twenty-eight million of them. And counting.
As the fiscal year draws to a close on June 30, Illinois has already set a record for donations.
As of Thursday, the total was at $28,123,205.
That will buy a lot of basketballs, athletic tape and sports drinks.
“It’s significant,” Illinois athletic director Thomas said. “We’re not going to take our foot off the accelerator. We’ve got more to do as it relates to other projects we want to get done, paying our scholarship bill and building up our endowments.
“We’re really happy about those efforts and the record numbers. There’s more work to do moving forward.”
It marks an increase of 41.5 percent over 2013.
And it is a whopping 227 percent jump from 12 years ago.
Simple question: why?
Not such a complicated answer.
Start with the new/old building going up at Fourth and Kirby.
When the former Assembly Hall became the State Farm Center, it provided all sorts of incentives to potential donors.
“When you have a major capital campaign like what we had with the State Farm Center, it really takes it to a new level for gifts and donations,” said Darnell, Illinois’ senior associate athletic director. “It’s our greatest year ever and obviously that is being driven by the campaign. It’s just incredible.”
Fans want to get their feet in the door of the new place.
No easier way than writing a check or cashing in that giant coin jar they have been saving for 52 years.
A year ago, the donations were less than $20 million.
There are three spokes on the donation wheel: premium seating, campaign gifts and naming opportunities.
The spike in donations mirrors that of schools that have done major projects in recent years: Kentucky, Michigan and Louisville.
The fan base becomes re-energized when it sees new buildings going up.
Donors, big and small, crave involvement.
Thomas and his staff aren’t shy about asking for help.
Besides the renovations at State Farm Center, annual costs continue to climb.
Thomas, Darnell and staff are working hard to increase I-Fund donors.
Currently, the department has about 7,000 I-Fund participants, who help raise
$7 million annually.
The I-Fund numbers were dropping but have stabilized.
The next goal is to see the numbers increase.
Seating at the new State Farm Center serves as an incentive.
Want to guarantee a nice perch to watch the game? Now’s your chance.
“When they go through that seat selection process for basketball next spring, people who are giving to the I-Fund will get parking options and seating options first,” Darnell said.
Led by Thomas, Illinois wants to have 15,000 donors giving $15 million by 2020.
That would double the current donor base and put Illinois in line with rivals Iowa, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Nebraska.
Those schools have 12,000-16,000 annual donors.
With one of the largest alumni bases in the nation, adding 9,000 donors is realistic.
“We know that is very ambitious,” Darnell said. “This place has the capacity and the commitment to do some things that have never been done before. If everybody will jump on board, we can get there quicker.”
Thomas and Darnell understand performance on the field plays a part.
Fans want to contribute to a winning program.
If the men’s and women’s basketball teams get back to the NCAA tournament, it will make a difference.
If the football team returns to a bowl after two years off, it will make a difference.
The success of other programs (men’s golf, tennis, baseball, volleyball and track) makes a difference.
There are high-visibility naming rights on the way.
Like the court at State Farm Center.
No decision has been made yet. And no price level has been announced.
“We have had interest in it,” Darnell said.
It could be an anonymous donor.
Who could put whatever name he or she wanted on it.
Lou Henson is the obvious choice.
Bob Asmussen writes three columns a week for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at email@example.com.