Moorhead

Early in his tenure as Minnesota State Moorhead athletic director, Doug Peters thought something as simple as a new coat of paint was significant.

That was nearly decade ago, and was one of the first steps to freshen up Alex Nemzek Stadium after Peters took over the athletic department.

"It was a big deal when we just painted the bleachers," Peters said. "I'm a firm believer that any time you start something new, you have to create some sort of tangible, visible change that people are going to see and notice to see that it's going to be different."

That was prior to the 2008 football season at a time when the program offered less than 10 scholarships. Since then, artificial turf and new lights have been added to Scheels Field at Nemzek Stadium, and the football program offers the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference maximum 28 scholarships, combining hard dollars with countable aid.

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Fundraising has been one key factor in those significant changes. In 2008-09, Peters' second year on the job, the Dragons offered $467,000 for scholarships, a shade more than 38 equivalencies for all sports. That has grown to a projected $1.2 million in 2016-17 for nearly 73 scholarships.

"We created a vision for where we want athletics to go and what it would cost to get there," Peters said. "I like to say that money follows ideas."

A big chunk of that money came five years ago.

In March of 2012, Sanford Health pledged $2 million to MSUM for athletic scholarships at $200,000 per year for 10 years.

"That was a game-changing event in scholarships," Dragons head football coach Steve Laqua said. "Not just for football, but for our department."

The Sanford gift helped nearly double the charitable donations that the athletic department received the next school year.

In 2011-12, the charitable gifts amount was nearly $315,000. In 2012-13, that figure increased to more than $611,000.

"It was huge in the sense that it gave us momentum," Peters said. "People saw that (Sanford) gift and it opened the door for us to get other gifts from businesses and individuals."

MSUM has restructured its athletic fundraising in recent years. Dragon Fire is the booster club, where members receive benefits based around season tickets and priority seating for their donations. That money can't be sports specific.

Created in recent years, the Red and White initiative is focused on money given by athletic alumni and the donations can be sports specific.

The money from those two sources, along with major gifts like the one from Sanford, goes through the MSUM Alumni Foundation.

The Foundation endowment, which includes athletic endowments, has grown from more than $9 million in 2011 to its current level of more than $20 million. Around 10 percent of the current overall endowment is for athletics.

Recents upgrades, like the electronic facelift to Alex Nemzek Fieldhouse and the renovated athletic administration offices, have also been important elements, Peters said. The money for those projects came from the university's repair and restoration fund.

"One of the things that we heard from our alumni again and again was the university is not investing in athletics. Why would we give?" Peters said. "As the university started to invest in athletics, our alumni started to invest in athletics."

The Dragon Fire memberships have increased from less than 100 in 2011-12 to around 260 current members. Dragon Fire and Red and White donations reached around $110,000 this year, Peters said.

The $1 million electronic upgrade to Alex Nemzek included high-definition video boards and high-definition broadcast equipment. That has helped the athletic department significantly increase its annual revenue from sponsorships. In 2010-11, that amount was less than $16,000. For the 2015-16 school year, that number was nearly $351,000, which is a mix of cash and trade.

"It's critical," Peters said of the increased revenue. "The big jumps came because we added the video boards."

Dragon Fire president Matt Oachs said the recent success of the men's and women's basketball teams and football team have been important. The men's basketball team advanced to the Division II Elite Eight tournament in 2015. Both basketball programs won the NSIC overall regular-season championship this past season and both advanced to the Division II tournament.

Both men's and women's basketball teams offer the NSIC maximum 10 scholarships.

"For people who do invest in us, by giving their dollars, they want to see a good product," said Dragons head women's basketball coach Karla Nelson, who has been the program's head coach the past 17 seasons. "They want to see us getting the best athletes that we can."

The Dragons football team had a 7-4 record last fall for its first seven-win season since 1999.

"It's seeing some of those returns on their investments so to speak," said Oachs, a former MSUM football player.

"I think it's a high priority that we are good stewards of that money," Laqua added.

Gary Haugo is the vice president for university advancement at MSUM and the executive director of the Alumni Foundation. Haugo said the Foundation is in the process of hiring a fundraiser for athletics and expects that person to be in place by next fall.

"The Foundation and our commitment to athletics is very strong," said Haugo, who has been with the MSUM Foundation for a year. "From the university standpoint, I think the university is committed to excellence in athletics. ... It's fun to be in a place where I think has a lot of upside."

The Foundation received more than $600,000 in cash donations, including the Sanford gift, for athletic scholarships in 2015-16. Laqua said around 200 former players and supporters are giving four-year commitments to the football program at varying dollar amounts for scholarships. When he took over the program, around 20 people were giving money to football.

"The more scholarships, the more it evens the playing field," said Laqua, entering his seventh year as head football coach next fall. "We were so far at a competitive disadvantage when we took over."