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Planning for the future: Texas A&M-Corpus Christi has ambitious plan for athletic growth

The Corpus Christi Caller Times logo The Corpus Christi Caller Times 10/21/2019 Quinton Martinez, Corpus Christi Caller Times
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Jon Palumbo had a master plan for the Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Athletic Department when he stepped foot on campus nearly a year ago to take over as the school’s director of athletics.

Coming from Virginia Commonwealth University, Palumbo had a goal of making A&M-Corpus Christi a premier program in the Southland Conference.

But there is something different when that plan has a name and is released for all to see.

At the beginning of the fall semester the school unveiled its five-year master plan for the athletic department called ‘Making Waves’ which underlined the steps for the school to achieve Palumbo’s lofty goals.

“This was to hold ourselves accountable,” Palumbo said. “You can talk and say you are going to do things, but when it is out there for the world to see, there is a different level of accountability for our coaches and our staff. This is what we said we wanted to accomplish, and we have to roll up our sleeves, get to work and make them a reality.”

Among the goals:

• Creating a more desirable environment for student athletes

• Becoming financial stable

• Competing for championships

• Transforming Corpus Christi into a college sports town

PLAYING ON CAMPUS

Perhaps most ambitious is the goal of creating an on-campus convocation center/arena.

In 20 years since the rebirth of intercollegiate athletics at the school, the Islanders flagship basketball program has played at the Memorial Coliseum and most recently the American Bank Center.

On campus, the 10-year old Dugan Wellness Center is home for the volleyball program and select women's basketball games, but has limitations for men's college basketball and a limited seating capacity of 1,200.

“Certainly, we have a great relationship with the American Bank Center,” Palumbo said. “It is a great place to play our games, but any time you can have a home of your own — and that is certainly something that is a long term goal of ours — it isn’t something that is going to happen tomorrow or next year, but it was something that we felt was important to put out there and let people know is on the radar for us. Now the process begins.”

Challenges arise in convincing those with the means to donate and invest in a capital project of that magnitude, along with where a new facility could fit among the school’s tightly packed island campus.

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi CEO and president Kelly M. Quintanilla sees both the athletic and broader benefits of an on-campus facility.

“First, it will provide much needed space for campus events like convocation and orientation,” Quintanilla said. “Additionally, it will facilitate a better sense of spirit and camaraderie, as well as an enhanced home court advantage for basketball and volleyball games.

“For our student-athletes, it will provide state-of-the-art facilities for training, conditioning, competition and sports medicine support. The new arena will also provide a more intimate fan experience and new amenities to maximize the game day experience for our supporters.”

Palumbo and Quintanilla see a new facility as a way to check several of the boxes addressed in the strategic plan.

Part of helping teams compete for championships can come back to the training and practice facilities as well as an improved home-court advantage.

Though Making Waves is labeled as a five-year plan, Palumbo and the university do not have a firm timetable on the construction of a new arena. Plus, it is not known how much a new arena might cost.

"We’ve laid out some pretty lofty goals and I know it is going to take work to improve those," Palumbo said. "I think we can do things that have never been done here, in terms of competitive success, the way we support our student-athletes by getting some impactful, transformational facilities projects off the ground here in the next few years."

Quintanilla said the biggest challenge will be raising funds for the facility and that she is focused on making sure the funding will not financially stress other areas of the institution.

COMING TO THE GAME

In the 2018-19 basketball season, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi averaged 1,185 fans at home games, including two games played at the Dugan Wellness Center.

Outside of homecoming, which drew 2,318 fans, the Islanders next-largest home crowd was 1,400.

Drawing fans comes back to having a winning program and a good game-day experience.

The school is investing in its student crowds by providing shuttles to the American Bank Center, re-branding the student section and last year moved the students closer to the floor.

“One of the things athletics should do for a university is provide that level of spirit in the student body,” Palumbo said. “That is something we are working to build. When you have a student body that is invested and coming to games and participating and engaged, there is really no substitute for that as far as a home-court and home-field advantage.

“It is something that student-athletes can feel and it also makes it more fun for the fan that is not a student.”

As programs compete for and advance to the NCAA Tournament, fans will come, businesses will invest and sponsors helping the bottom line and the entire process becomes cyclical.

CORPUS CHRISTI, A COLLEGE TOWN?

While the goal of building a new facility on campus is eye-catching, the plans to make Corpus Christi a college town are also large in scale.

Part of that begins on campus with the students, but it also must involve the community — both businesses and fans.

Palumbo said the school aims to build its annual fund by reaching prospective donors and showing them the benefits of latching on to the program.

Some of that comes from producing winning teams, but A&M-Corpus Christi also sees the need to improve community engagement from its athletes and coaches.

“Our coaches and student-athletes are going to be out in the community a lot more,” Palumbo said. “We’ve set a goal for community service hours for this academic year, which is more than twice what we’ve ever done. If we want people to invest in our programs, we have to invest in the things the community values, in terms of charity events and local causes that we can get behind and support.

“Hopefully they reciprocate that by coming out to games and supporting our student-athletes.”

Palumbo understands that most of the potential base of sports consumers in Corpus Christi have allegiances to many of the larger schools in the state — the University of Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and others — but the second-year AD is hopeful they will also support their hometown Division I program.

"We do have a lot of support, both financially and in terms of season ticket holders that are not alums of our school, but one of those other programs in the state," Palumbo said. "If you live in Corpus Christi, this is your town and the Islanders are your team in your hometown. I understand the pull to your alma mater, to well-established successful programs in the state that people love to support.

"You can get up to Austin or College Station on the weekend and support those programs, but when you are in town come out to an Islanders game."

Andy Purvis, local author and radio personality, has long been a fixture at Islanders basketball games and said Quintanilla's commitment is key to making the goals a reality.

"I think the whole key is Kelly. She understands what it is going to take," Purvis said. "I think Jon has helped convince her of that. I don't think we've seen the whole program yet. I think there is more to come. I think this is good for the university and they are going about it the right way.

"They are trying to make this a college town and it has long been a high school town. If they can make this a college town based on men's and women's basketball, that would be great. Then the next step would be football, but I think that is years away."

a crowd of people watching a football game: Islanders defeat Howard Payne 61-34 at the American Bank Center on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018. © Courtey Sacco/Caller-Times Islanders defeat Howard Payne 61-34 at the American Bank Center on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018.

FOOTBALL?

Though some are hopeful that sponsoring football could be the finishing touch of a strategic plan for Islanders athletics, Palumbo said the university is happy with the 16 sports it currently sponsors.

Palumbo admits A&M-Corpus Christi doesn't have the revenue football could provide, but also don't have to account for the expense of sponsoring football, either. 

"Most schools at the Division I level, they are at best breaking even at football, if you are not at the power conference level," Palumbo said. "For us we saw that as an ability to be a little more nimble. Be a little more flexible with how we allocate the funds that the university provides to us and the funds we bring in."

In addition to finding a place to play, purchasing equipment and hiring a football staff, FCS schools are allowed to offer 63 scholarships.

Adding football would have Title IX ramifications.

The department understands it needs a larger revenue stream, but looks to men's basketball to be the driver.

"As we continue to build the competitive success of our programs and our goal is to win conference championships and get to the NCAA Tournament," Palumbo said. "It has been done here, but it has been a while.

"I truly believe we are positioned to have a great shot at doing that every year here with both of our basketball programs. I think as our team wins and continues to build a brand of basketball that is exciting here to the local community, I think we can get people to rally behind us."

a crowd of people watching a baseball game: The Texas A&M-Corpus Christi baseball team celebrates winning the game against Texas, Tuesday, April 30, 2019, at Whataburger Field. The Islanders won, 8-2. © Annie Rice/Caller-Times The Texas A&M-Corpus Christi baseball team celebrates winning the game against Texas, Tuesday, April 30, 2019, at Whataburger Field. The Islanders won, 8-2.

PULLING UP THE SLEEVES

Led by Palumbo, the Islanders athletic department appears ready to, by his own admission, "roll up his sleeves" and get to work.

"We are raising the bar," Palumbo said. "The status quo is not good enough anymore. We are looking at elevating everything we do. We are building something that everyone in this town can take pride in.

"We want to be the premier program in our conference and we want to represent Corpus Christi on the national stage in the NCAA Tournament. What I want people to take away is that we are going to work extremely hard to make that a reality and give them something they can be proud of."

Several Texas A&M-Corpus Christi programs have had success and reached the NCAA Tournament including men's and women's tennis, with men's basketball and women's basketball each reaching the conference tournament finals in recent years.

For the program to raise its profile in the community, it has to begin with men's basketball.

Quintanilla also knows how much a successful and healthy athletic program can impact the university as a whole.

"A healthy athletics department is vital to a vibrant campus culture, serving as a rallying point for students and alumni," Quintanilla said. "It also provides opportunities for engaging the local community. For many people, their first exposure to the university is through seeing or reading about an athletic event.

"With every championship and NCAA tournament we bring to the region, Islanders are showcasing all that our University and community have to offer. We are setting out to accomplish things that have never been done here before, things that will bring pride to our entire community."

This article originally appeared on Corpus Christi Caller Times: Planning for the future: Texas A&M-Corpus Christi has ambitious plan for athletic growth

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