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Duke Athletics Seeks 'Transformational' Gifts

"Unrivaled Ambition," the athletic department's first strategic plan approved by the Board of Trustees in May, proposed a potential $325 million capital campaign for the athletic department. In 2006, the largest ongoing development campaign in the country was the University of Washington's $300 million goal, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. And while Duke's likely would not have been rolled out until the end of this year, at the earliest, it would have qualified as the most ambitious in the country.

That announcement and the donations Duke would have received might be put on hold until the economy bounces back. And while the effect of the teetering markets spread to the base of Duke’s giving pyramid, the development office is perhaps most concerned about the hit its top donors has taken.

After all, a $325 million capital campaign for the expansion of facilities and full endowment of scholarships would be almost impossible by what senior associate athletic director Tom Coffman called "transformational gifts." These types of donations are bigger than Spike and Mary Yoh's $5.5 million gift to build the Yoh Football Center—they're more reminiscent of T. Boone Pickens' $165 million donation to Oklahoma State's athletic department, or the $63 million more he gave this week.

“In order to be successful, the athletic department will have to, in the future, identify people who are making those transformational gifts,” said Coffman, who is responsible for development and planning. “We think a lot about that. We need to position ourselves to find people who are passionate enough who can do that, and we will.... In order to compete in the world we’re in, we’re going to have to have those types of benefactors.”

Yoh and the Michael W. Krzyzewski Center for Academic Excellence are the two newest additions to the on-campus athletic landscape. Yoh cost $22 million, while the newly opened Krzyzewski Center cost $15.2 million and benefited from a combined $4 million contribution from former Blue Devil stars Christian Laettner and Brian Davis. Both are members of the Legacy Fund, the elite group of 34 boosters who have contributed more than $1 million to Duke Basketball.

In future development campaigns, however, the University will likely need gifts even bigger than Yoh's donation, the largest single donation to the athletic department. The University of Virginia required $130 million to build John Paul Jones Arena, which opened in 2006. The building was bankrolled by Paul Tudor Jones II, who gave $40 million.

Duke does have its own stable of major givers—Roy Bostock, Trinity '62, and Aubrey McClendon, Trinity '81, come to mind—but it also doesn't have the expansive and wide base of a major state university. Athletics officials said the University's concentrated giving network, though, might help it weather this likely recession better than other schools.

"Our base of support is big," first-year Director of Athletics Kevin White said. "It's very strong, and it's comprehensive, so I suspect the ebb and flow at Duke will be less dramatic than if we were reliant on one or two high-end benefactors."

"They have 100,000 fans, their income from their programs is so big, they're building facilities, they're doing this and that," Coffman said of state institutions. "We're never going to be that. We don't want to be that. We can't be that. This is going to slow them down and, in some ways, bring them back to where we live. In some ways, that's not bad for us, because it brings them back to our world."

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