Vanderbilt to spend $300 million on upgrades

George Walker IV / Tennessean.com
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Vanderbilt announced a $300 million project to improve football and basketball facilities and a new Vandy United Fund to raise money for athletics programs.

The Vandy United Fund already has $200 million committed with $100 million from the university along with $90 million from anonymous donors and another $10 million from John R. Ingram, a member of the Board of Trust and lead owner of MLS’ Nashville team.

Chancellor Daniel Diermeier said at a news conference that the Vandy United Fund represents the largest undertaking of its kind in Vanderbilt’s athletics history.

“This is a bold step,” he said, “but it’s also just the beginning of a longer journey.”

Athletic director Candice Lee said the initial work will focus on infrastructure for Vanderbilt’s athletes to improve their daily experience.

“There will be more things that come as a part of this broader scheme,” Lee said.

The first investment will be in football and basketball.

Football will get upgraded meeting rooms, offices, training room and expanded locker room and a full-length indoor practice field adjacent to the outdoor practice fields. Basketball will get dedicated practice courts for both the men’s and women’s teams, along with improvements to the weight room, locker rooms and offices.

Vanderbilt hired Clark Lea as its new football coach in December. Lee said they made clear then what upgrades were planned for football and that Lea agreed with the approach.

“He was very pleased with what he saw,” Lee said.

Vanderbilt opened an indoor practice facility for football in November 2013, which also is used by other sports. Lee said they saw first-hand last weekend the challenges of moving players and gear from the football offices indoors when thunderstorms forced a scrimmage indoors.

Renderings for the first phase will be released this summer. Construction for both football and basketball is expected to start when the 2021 football season ends.

McGugin Center, home to athletics offices, also will be renovated and include a new sports performance center to benefit all teams.

Vanderbilt Stadium, the smallest football stadium in the Southeastern Conference, had its last major renovation in 1981. For now, Vanderbilt plans to upgrade the fan experience with premium seating, hospitality space, more food and beverage options and other fan amenities.

Diermeier said conversations he and Lee had with alumnae and former Vanderbilt athletes let them know there were concerns about how committed they were to actually following through with their talk of improving athletics.

“There are no ifs, ands, thens and what if, this has to happen first,” Diermeier said. “We’re committed to this. We’re going to make it happen.”

Vanderbilt hired Populous as the master architect, and Lee said the broader scheme for continued improvements will eventually affect every sport.

“Part of the paradigm shift that’s happening here is that perhaps in the past, sometimes we, Vanderbilt, have felt like we’re sort of limping along,” Lee said. “It’s really important to us that we operate in every facet like the charter member of the SEC.”

The chancellor very project item will have a purpose.

“There won’t be any frivolous things,” Diermeier said.

Lane Kiffin staying at Ole Miss with ‘a lot of work left to do’

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Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin says he has informed school officials he will be staying at Ole Miss, putting an end to speculation that he was the leading candidate to fill the head coaching vacancy at Auburn.

“Same as I said last week: I’m staying here and we have a lot of work left to do,” Kiffin told The Associated Press in a voice message.

Kiffin added he has not signed a contract extension with the school.

The 47-year-old Kiffin is 23-12 in three seasons as Rebels coach. No. 20 Mississippi finished its regular season 8-4, losing four of its last five, including a 24-22 loss to Mississippi State.

Auburn was playing at No. 8 Alabama in the Iron Bowl, and its coaching search figured to heat up soon after its season concluded.

Auburn fired coach Bryan Harsin earlier this month and has gone 2-1 since under interim coach Carnell Williams, the former star running back for the Tigers.

With Kiffin off the market, Auburn is eyeing a former Mississippi coach to be its next coach.

A person familiar with the search told the AP that Auburn is interested in Liberty coach Hugh Freeze. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because Auburn was not making details of its search public.

Freeze coached at Ole Miss for five seasons before leaving in disgrace in 2017 after the school discovered he used a university cellphone to call an escort service.

He landed at Liberty and has gone 34-14 in four seasons with the Flames.

Nebraska signs Matt Rhule to 8-year deal

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After six straight losing seasons and more than 20 years removed from its 1990s heyday, Nebraska is turning to Matt Rhule to rebuild its program and make it competitive in the Big Ten Conference.

Rhule signed an eight-year contract to be the Cornhuskers’ next coach and will be introduced at a news conference, the school announced.

The 47-year-old Rhule quickly turned around downtrodden programs at Temple and Baylor before leaving for the NFL to coach the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers fired him in October after he started his third season with four losses in five games.

“It is a tremendous honor to be chosen to lead the Nebraska football program,” Rhule said in a statement. “When you think of great, tradition-rich programs in college football, Nebraska is right at the top of the list. The fan base is second to none, and I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to coach in Memorial Stadium on Tom Osborne Field. My family and I are so grateful to become a part of the Husker Family, and we can’t wait to get started.”

Rhule was 11-27 with Carolina and left with about $40 million remaining on the seven-year, guaranteed $62 million contract he signed in 2020. The contract made Rhule the sixth-highest paid coach in the NFL when he signed in 2020, according to Forbes.

Nebraska said it would release details of Rhule’s contract.

“It is a privilege to welcome Coach Matt Rhule, his wife, Julie, and their family to Nebraska,” athletic director Trev Alberts said. “Coach Rhule has created a winning culture throughout his coaching career, and he will provide great leadership for the young men in our football program.

“Matt is detail-oriented, his teams are disciplined and play a physical brand of football. Matt also has the personality and relationship-building skills to build a great staff and excel in recruiting.”

About an hour after Rhule’s hiring was announced, wide receiver Trey Palmer announced on Instagram that he would declare for the NFL draft. Palmer, who transferred from LSU after last season, had three 150-yard games this year and set the Huskers’ single-season record with 1,043 yards.

The Huskers are among eight Football Bowl Subdivision programs with at least 900 wins, and they have won or shared five national championships. The last one came in 1997 under Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne.

Five coaches have come and gone since then, most recently the quarterback of that ’97 team, Scott Frost.

Alberts fired Frost on Sept. 11 after the Huskers opened 1-2, with losses to Northwestern in Ireland and to Georgia Southern at home. They were 3-6 under interim coach Mickey Joseph and finished the season 4-8 following a 24-17 win at Iowa.

Nebraska was 16-31 in four-plus seasons under Frost, never finishing higher than fifth in the Big Ten West or going to a bowl.

In four seasons at Temple, Rhule coached the Owls to 28 wins. That included 26 from 2014-16. Temple was 10-4 in 2015 and reached the American Athletic Conference’s inaugural championship game. In 2016, Rhule led the Owls to a 10-3 record and an AAC championship. The conference title was the first in 49 seasons for the Temple program, and the Owls reached bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history.

Rhule was named Baylor’s coach in December 2016 in the wake of an investigation that found the private Baptist university had not responded adequately to allegations of sexual assault by players, resulting in the firing of Art Briles.

Rhule’s trajectory was similar at Baylor, where he went from 1-11 in 2017 to 7-6 with a bowl game the next season. In his third and final season, Baylor was ranked in the top 10, played in the Big 12 championship game and finished 11-3 after a Sugar Bowl loss to Georgia.

Rhule’s collegiate success provided him the opportunity to take over as the Carolina Panthers’ head coach in 2020. He guided the Panthers to five wins in each of his first two seasons before this year’s 1-4 start got him fired.

Rhule has ties to the Big Ten. He moved from New York City to State College, Pennsylvania, as a teenager. He played linebacker at Penn State from 1994-97 and began his coaching there as a volunteer assistant.