Lincoln, Neb. • At Nebraska, athletes dine on specially made entrees such as mahi mahi steaks, bison meatloaf or chicken marsala at the Lewis Training Table.
At Akron, athletic director Larry Williams can only hope his athletes skip the fried stuff at the Robertson Dining Hall buffet and any runs to fast-food restaurants.
The hundreds of millions of dollars that have poured into the Power Five conferences, much of it from television rights fees, have enriched dozens of schools and allowed them to give their athletes the best of everything, right down to what they eat every day. Schools outside the Power Five draw far less revenue and many provide the same dining options available to non-athletes on campus.
Nebraska, for example, will spend $3.3 million this year on athlete nutrition. In addition to the high-quality food at the training table and healthy snacks at fueling stations, the budget covers a director of food service, executive chef, registered sports dietitian and three assistants, and more than a dozen other staffers.
Akron will spend less than $100,000 on athlete nutrition, most of that for feeding athletes when campus dining services are closed. No one is there to monitor their food choices, though men’s basketball players occasionally consult with a nutritionist who is the wife of the team physician and volunteers her time.
“It’s sort of the untold story that is really affecting college athletics and is emblematic of that disparity that is continuing to grow,” Williams said.
Athletes at Division I schools, whether on scholarship or not, have been eligible to receive unlimited meals and snacks since 2014 as part of NCAA deregulation. Before that, scholarship athletes received three meals a day or a food stipend.
The loosened rules prompted an immediate and significant increase in nutrition spending at many schools in the Power Five conferences (Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern) and a handful of other Football Bowl Subdivision schools, according to athletic spending records provided to The Associated Press.
“We know from anecdotal evidence that what you eat can either elevate you or hold you back,” said Lindsey Remmers, Nebraska’s director of performance nutrition. “So you’ve got to provide the food because we know they don’t go out and go grocery shopping on their own. They won’t eat (right) unless it’s here.”
Clemson this year opened a $55 million football-only building featuring a dining hall where, once everything is up and running for the defending national champions, a player’s biometric readings will help determine his recommended diet for the day. The player will put his thumb on a scanner and step on a scale, and his personal menu will be produced based on the information gleaned from the readings.
Paul Harrington, Clemson’s director of football nutrition, said he and his staff meet with every player to set nutrition goals. Players are weighed before and after practice and closely monitored. Chef Donna McCain will fix individual meals for a player if it helps him stay on track.
“It’s meeting them in the middle somewhere,” Harrington said. “They want the fried chicken, mac-n-cheese; we want the grilled chicken, salad or something. What’s the version we can do in the middle?”
Sophomore defensive end Clelin Ferrell said he planned to eat all his meals in the new facility.
“They switched the meals all the time so the varieties are crazy. I’m loving it,” Ferrell said. “They cut back on the fried food. I love fried food. I’m definitely starting to see the results and, hopefully, it translates over to the field.”
At Alabama, nutrition spending increased $1 million the first year of the new food rules and is up to a national-high $3.6 million this year.
The Crimson Tide broke ground this summer on a $15 million-plus dining hall that can seat 817 athletes. The building will house the nutrition staff’s offices and a “demo” kitchen where athletes will be taught how to cook their own meals.
Accounting methods vary, but the common range for nutrition costs at Power Five schools is $1.5 million to $2.5 million.
“Certainly the Power Five conference schools that have a winning tradition have an operational budget to go with it,” said Dave Ellis, a sports nutrition consultant and former president of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association. “It’s not just Top 25 teams that value fueling. Guy like (Wyoming coach) Craig Bohl has his administration building a new football complex with a training table that will feed all Wyoming sports. The first thing Craig had me do when he arrived at Wyoming was put in a fueling station in the weight room.”
Wyoming led the Mountain West Conference in nutrition spending at $900,000 last year, three times more than in 2014-15, and has hired two nutritionists.
Houston, of the American Athletic Conference, is spending just over $1 million, which ranks at the top of the Group of Five schools that responded to the AP survey. On the other hand, East Carolina, which plays in the same conference as Houston, spent $118,000 to provide four extra meals a week to athletes but had no training table, no fueling stations and no nutrition staff.
Of the seven Mid-American Conference schools that responded to the survey, none had a dedicated athlete training table and one had a part-time nutritionist. Ohio provided a snack station for the first time last year, allocating $35,000 for what it described as “dry food items and fruit.”
In the Sun Belt Conference, Texas State is spending $380,000 for a training table, $50,000 for a snack station and $12,500 for a campus professor to counsel athletes on nutrition.
Nebraska’s athlete nutrition program dates to 1938, when the old Big Six Conference approved training tables for football players only. The Lewis Training Table opened in its current location in 1985, built with proceeds from the Cornhuskers’ appearance in the 1983 Kickoff Classic, and was remodeled for $3.25 million in 2010. Nutrition staff and amenities have been added over the years. Since deregulation in 2014, a nutrition station known as “The Landing” was remodeled and 18 student interns take turns staffing it Monday through Friday. The menu includes, among other things, energy shakes and smoothies, yogurt, cottage cheese, fruits and nuts.
Williams, the Akron athletic director, said he is convinced poor nutrition led to the Zips’ basketball team struggling at the end of the season in 2016-17. The Zips went 5-5 after a 22-4 start.
“We went into a tailspin where we couldn’t muster a full game’s worth of energy,” Williams said. “It was apparent we were not well-nutritioned. There are a whole bunch of factors that go into that. Clearly, one of those is that we were not lean.”
With Akron’s total athletic budget of $34 million — about one-third of the budget at big Power Five schools — Williams is left to imagine what full-time nutritionists and carefully planned training table spreads could do. The school did cobble together some money to provide nutritious meals for football players over the summer, and an outside caterer was bringing in breakfasts for the basketball team.
“So at least for one meal they weren’t eating out of pocket at Taco Bell,” Williams said.