A group of fans, donors and University of Toledo officials will gather at center court in Savage Hall tomorrow morning to dip shovels into a box of dirt, or some such thing, to ceremonially break ground for the arena's renovation project. It's a piece of harmless fluff to signal a project is off and running. It's what politicians call a photo op.
The real business of college athletics took place yesterday. UT president Lloyd Jacobs and athletic director Mike O'Brien appeared at the regular Downtown Coaches luncheon at the Toledo Club to announce a $1 million gift, earmarked for the indoor practice facility to be built adjacent to Savage Hall, from university supporters Hal and Susan Fetterman.
People like the Fettermans and Chuck and Jackie Sullivan, who recently donated the $5 million lead gift for the Savage Hall project, don't grow on trees. Jacobs and O'Brien might wish they did, but they don't. So announcements like the one made yesterday are huge for a mid-major university athletic program.
Once upon a time, UT was the flagship of the Mid-American Conference's fleet. When the Glass Bowl renovation and expansion, complete with its state-of-the-art press tower with all those revenue-producing private suites, plus the Larimer team facility, was completed in 1990, the Rockets basically said "catch us if you can" to the rest of the MAC. Savage Hall, then only 14 years old and still plenty nice, was part of UT's winning equation.
A number of MAC schools understood the challenge, which involved both recruiting athletes and serving fans. Some have not only caught UT, but passed it.
Five MAC schools have indoor practice facilities and several others have announced plans to build one. Almost all have renovated their stadiums and added suites. Akron is building a new one from scratch. Many have new football facility buildings. Several have new arenas and a few others have pulled off impressive face lifts to old facilities. Bowling Green recently announced it would build a convocation center to replace homey but antiquated Anderson Arena.
Suddenly, with Savage Hall growing old and tired, which is different than homey, and with no indoor practice facility for football and other teams, it was UT that found itself playing catchup in some turbulent economic times. So you just can't pluck enough Fettermans and Sullivans off the figurative money tree.
Hal Fetterman has an interesting story. Unlike most major donors to a university, he is not a graduate of the school. He didn't even attend college. He grew up on a farm in Fulton County and attended the now-defunct Fulton Centralized School in Ai, a dot on old maps that may be smaller than its two vowels. His father became ill and, as the oldest of five kids, he followed high school with a stint in the Marine Corps. He was offered a general's appointment to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, but nine years of school and service commitment was a little much, he said. It was time to get married and start the business of living.
And it has been good business, indeed. In 1968, he bought a small Toledo company called Midwest Paper Specialties and sold it earlier this year for more than $20 million. He and his wife live in Florida now, but it's hard to call it a retirement because he still owns another company that makes, among other products, the bags that your HoneyBaked Hams come sealed inside.
No, Fetterman never attended UT, but a bunch of his family members have. And it is where he and his wife endow an engineering scholarship in memory of a son who died of cancer. He said he believes in giving back to the community and has always had a passion for athletics, so when he came calling on UT officials recently with his checkbook in hand and asked what he could do to help, he didn't have to wait long for an answer.
Now, having already passed go and collected $1 million, UT will be able to proceed right from the Savage Hall project to the practice structure and will be back on the map when it comes to athletic facilities.
But if you're impressed with a checking account that can absorb a million-dollar hit, it's far from the biggest thing the Fettermans have done with their wealth. Wait until you catch the next story.
Hal Fetterman says, "God has been very good to me," and he does not say it as a throw-away line. He is a believer; an evangelical. There is a faith-based school in Georgia called Toccoa Falls College. There, the Fettermans fund a loan program. Juniors and seniors can borrow up to 50 percent of their tuition at no interest and with no timetable for repayment.
It turns out Hal Fetterman is the money tree.