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Breakout athletic year boosts all aspects of SDSU

This past school year was arguably the best in Jackrabbit history, South Dakota State University's Athletic Director Justin Sell says.

Some highlights were the football team making the second round of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, both the men's and the women's basketball teams earning trips to the NCAA National Tournament and, most recently, the university's baseball team advancing to the regional tournament.

The success is turning into several positives for SDSU. In the past four years, the university's athletic budget has risen $4 million, its season-ticket sales have jumped more than 400 percent and coaches are using wins as a recruiting tool.

"The momentum we've built from the past couple years is great," Sell said. "It's super exciting and in large part, we really do that as a team. We work with really good people, and to work on behalf of student-athletes is easy, and to see them do well is a dream come true.

"That's what I love about SDSU. It is the opportunity to win and do it the right way."

Sell said the next step is to keeping improving.

"The opportunity to be on TV has really affected recruitment in all of our sports," said Sell, adding the quality of incoming recruits is increasing.

Since Sell took over as the university's athletic director four years ago, the success and support of the school's athletic program has boomed. The number of donors, corporate sponsors and ticket sales have escalated over that span, along with the athletic program's budget.

The budget was $10.5 million in the 2009-10 athletic season and was just under $14.5 million last year.

"That's pretty good growth, especially for a school our size," Sell said. The latest headcount enrollment was 12,583 students in September 2012.

Last year, more Jackrabbit fans have invested in season tickets than prior years. There were more than 3,200 season tickets sold last year, whereas there were only 750 season tickets sold four years ago.

When Sell joined SDSU, the athletic program had 865 total donors, bringing in $332,000. Last year, there were 1,600 donors and more than $1 million dollars coming into the program. Sell added the total number of dollars coming in hasn't been completely calculated for the last year.

"We definitely have a much wider net as far as donors," Sell said. "We're starting to see donors from all over the region and it's been interesting to see. Being seen on TV has made a difference there, too."

The success has improved student life and the academic side of things as well, according to Vice President for Student Affairs Marysz Rames.

"Certainly, the coverage we get when we have a strong athletic season supports in recruiting students," she said. "Holding that high D-I standard shows the quality of education. That plays in creating a positive, winning environment."

The success in athletics also contributed to the SDSU Foundation. The foundation's six-year comprehensive campaign -- which benefits scholarships, new facilities and support for faculty and athletics -- recently wrapped up at the end of April. The goal amount for the campaign was $200 million dollars and the finishing total was $255.7 million, according to CEO of the foundation Steve Erpenbach.

Within the final year of the campaign -- from April 2012 to April 2013 -- $71 million was raised.

"It was our biggest year, and there is no question that the success in athletics had an impact," said Erpenbach, a Mitchell native. "People saw the success of the teams, which results an awful lot of pride in the university, and that generates into financial support. The athletic department certainly was a driver in that success."

The university's annual one-day auction -- which supports scholarships -- was held June 9 where it raised $505,000, said Sell. Four years ago, the auction brought in $75,000.

"The big schools across the country aren't even doing that," Sell said. "These are all key indicators in terms of success and growth."

Last year was the fifth straight NCAA tournament appearance for the women's basketball team and the second consecutive for the men's team. Former Mitchell Christian and SDSU women's basketball standout Jill (Young) Sargent was a part of the first four Jackrabbit teams to make the dance.

"It was special to be a part of the teams that first got to play in the NCAA Tournament and now being able to follow the teams," she said. "Knowing a lot of the coaches and players, they deserve it and are good people. It makes you proud to be a Jackrabbit."

New athletic projects

Because more revenue and supporters are coming into the scene, facilities need to be upgraded, Sell said.

The first addition will be the Indoor Practice and Human Performance Facility. Sell said the project will cost the university $29 million and begin July 1. The finished project is targeted for fall of 2014.

The facility will hold an eight-lane 300-meter track, 100 yards of turf and seating for 1,000. Sell said the building is 172 yards long and 94 yards wide, which is one and half football fields long and roughly one football field wide. The ceiling is set to be 65 feet high.

"This is another piece to that success," Sell said. "People are believing in the vision in moving forward."

In addition, as season ticket sales go up, so does the amount of seating. Sell said SDSU is working on seating renovations in Coughlin-Alumni Stadium.

"By the time you take up student tickets (in the football stadium), the entire west side is full," he said, adding Frost Arena has the same issue.

"The success of our athletics will justify doing those projects and continue to give us a dream. We've got to lay another year down like this year. That's the challenge ahead."