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How UNH Turned A Quiet Benefactor Into A Football-Marketing Prop

How UNH Turned A Quiet Benefactor Into A Football-Marketing Prop
From Deadspin - October 11, 2017

The internet abounds in cheerful content, and last fall one of its most cheerful stories started like this: In a press release, the University of New Hampshire announced that an elderly librarian had diedand left the school a shocking donation of $4 million.

The librarians name was Robert Morin, and though hed worked at UNH for decades no one knew hed saved that kind of money. The details quickly went viral. This beautiful gift is one for the books, the Huffington Post gushed. Living a frugal life pays off, People opined. He was a librarian with a multi-million dollar secret, an anchor intoned on ABCs World News Tonight, and he left it all to the place he loved the most.

Thats where most people left Robert Morin. A second, smaller wave of coverage focused on UNHs troubling decision to funnel only $100,000 of his money to the library, even as it committed $1 million of it to a video scoreboard for its football stadium. But the full story is more troubling still. Through a series of interviews and public records requests, Deadspin has uncovered the 17-month backstory to Morins bequest. Like so many schools, big and small, UNH spent wildly on its athletic department. The university went a step further in trying to engineer a public relations victory, deceptively connecting a fragment of Morins life to its football splurge. The media eagerly repackaged the story as an inspirational fable.

What got lost in this circus, though, was the man who caused it in the first placea strange and amiable human being whose life was far too eccentric to fit in a press release or piece of digital flotsam.

The basic facts behind Morins viral fame are true. He really did work as a librarian for 49 years, he really did amass a fortune of $4 million, and he really did keep that fortune a secret. After Morin found out in 2014 that he had colon cancer, he spent his final months in an assisted-living center. When his fellow librarians came to visit, they fretted he wouldnt be able to afford the facility.

I assured them, says Ed Mullen, Morins financial adviser, that they didnt need to worry about that.

Morins story didnt turn shady until the university got involved. UNH administrators learned of the bequest soon after his death on March 31, 2015, and they wasted no time in deciding how to spend it. The school had earned quite a reputation for spending under President Mark Huddleston. There had been small extravagances, including $65,000 for a redesigned logo and $17,570 for a 16-seat table. There had been large ones, including $1.9 million for a student-athlete center and $6.5 million for an outdoor pool. But one of the biggest projectsand a crucial component in the campuss master planwas renovating the football stadium. The UNH Wildcats, an FCS team, had played in their 6,500-seat home for decades. In 2014, however, Huddleston announced plans for a $25 million upgrade, financed by $5 million in fundraising and $20 million in loans, that would nearly double the number of seats, nearly quadruple the number of bathrooms, and introduce casual fan-friendly options like an air-conditioned victory club and all-you-can-eat buffet.

One feature the administrators discussed in 2014 was a high-definition video scoreboard, but they decided to nix it when the budget got tight. That changed once they heard about Morins donation. It was an enormous sum, of course, but more important, it was an unrestricted sum. Most higher ed philanthropy comes with strings. (I was an actor; give my money to the theater department.) In a recently completed five-year fundraising campaign, UNH collected only $9 million in unrestricted funds, and almost half of that total came from Robert Morin.

Morins bequest, in other words, provided a rare and unencumbered chance for Huddleston and UNH to express their priorities. And what they wanted was that previously considered scoreboard. Things moved quickly to ensure it would be ready alongside the other stadium upgrades, just in time for the 2016 season. On September 1, 2015, Mark Geuther of UNHs Facilities Project Management summed up the latest developments in an email. President Huddleston received a undesignated gift to the University, Geuther wrote, which is being designated for the design, purchase and installation of a video board. . . . The current budget for the video board scope of work is $1 million.

The scoreboard campaign proceeded on two fronts. The first was construction. By January 2016, UNH had retained a pricey consulting firm that specialized in stadium audio and video; by February, they were reviewing multiple bids. While the bids included at least one cheaper option, the school chose a 30-foot-by-50-foot LED display from Mitsubishi.

The second front involved the publicity operation. Inside UNHs media relations office, staffers were buzzingnot just about Morins gift but about its narrative possibilities. On March 29, Erika Mantz, UNHs director of media relations, circulated a sample media campaign, an intricate plan of attack that involved at least 12 university employees and mapped their work down to the minute: a press release and coordinated media pitches; separate emails to prospective students and to alumni and parents; and the mandatory social media push.

That plan received an enthusiastic response, though at least one administrator worried about the optics. By this point, Huddleston had finalized the breakdown of Morins money: $1 million to the scoreboard, $2.5 million to UNHs career center, and $100,000 to the library, with the rest to figure out later. [T]he gift is so large, Debbie Dutton, president of the UNH Foundation, wrote in an email, and he worked in the library and only a relatively small amount is going to the library.

A solution would soon present itself. In that same March email, Mantz wrote, I have two people to contact tomorrow (per Theresa) who can tell me more about Mr. Morin. (The reference was to Theresa Curry, another UNH administrator.) One of those people was Ed Mullen, and one of the things he told Mantz was that Morin had taken to watching football at the assisted-living center.

Mantz gathered more details about the media campaigns star, and they informed the UNH press release that finally broke the news on August 30, 2016. The release provided an inspiring glimpse of Morin: a simple man, a dedicated employee, an alum. It also linked his biography to the newly funded projects. That was easy enough with the library. But the scoreboard required some finesse. Another $1 million will support a video scoreboard for the new football stadium, the release said. In the last 15 months of his life, Morin lived in an assisted living center where he started watching football games on television, mastering the rules and names of the players and teams.

This was a remarkably cynical bit of marketing. After all, Mantz had said in March that she still needed to dig into Morins lifeand that was many months after the scoreboard had already been revived. The librarians fandom had absolutely nothing to do with the scoreboard, but through a careful and shameless juxtaposition, UNH implied that it had. It made for a tidy, touching story. It also gave the university some cover from any criticism that might appear.

The news of Morins bequest traveled farther and faster than anyone could have hoped. In interviews, Mantz volunteered the football connection when the scoreboard came up; the media, even good newspapers that put good reporters on the assignment, nodded along. The $1 million for a video scoreboard also is linked to Morins interests, the Boston Globe noted. After he entered the assisted-living center, Mantz said, Morin became a football aficionadolearning the rules and memorizing the names of the players he saw on television. The same message surfaced in the New Hampshire Union-Leader: UNH spokesman Erika Mantz said that, in the last 15 months of his life, Morin lived in a Durham assisted-living center where he started watching football games on television. He mastered the rules and names of the players and teams.

Throughout the first part of September, the tale of Morins pigskin obsession continued to spread, with the sloppiest aggregators turning him into a fan of the Wildcats themselves. But in truth, Morins late-life turn to football didnt explain the scoreboard or, really, anything else. In fact, the more you know about Robert Morin, the more noxious UNHs marketing strategy becomes.

One rainy morning, while Morin was still alive, a UNH student named Sky Gidge visited him at his library cubicle. Morin was an odd but familiar figure on campusjust over five feet tall, just over 100 pounds, someone who was known for his worn-out sports coats and his horseshoe of wispy hair, whom students would often see smoking a pipe outside the library. Gidge decided to profile Morin for a student magazine, and during their interview he asked the librarian if he liked people.

I get along with people, Morin replied. Aristotle found that one of the goods was friendship. He found friendship to be very important. I dont.

That exchange was pure Robert Moringenerous, funny, erudite, and stubbornly independent.

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