The $10 million donation from Warren businessman Sam Covelli and his wife Caryn to The Ohio State University, the largest single cash gift ever from an individual donor to the university's athletic department, no doubt shows a serious commitment to the university.
But Covelli was adamant Wednesday afternoon as he sat inside ''The Ohio State Room" in his East Market Street corporate headquarters that his heart remains firmly rooted in the Mahoning Valley.
''Our commitment stays here. Our headquarters is here, and we are probably going to expand our headquarters because we are running out of space,'' he said. Covelli owns about 250 Panera restaurants, the country's largest owner.
Covelli Enterprises owner and CEO Sam Covelli stands in “The Ohio State Room” in the company headquarters in Warren. Covelli has announced plans to donate $10 million to The Ohio State University.
OSU will use the $10 million gift to build a 4,000-seat arena to house sporting events now held in the deteriorating St. John Arena.
Covelli credited the support of the Warren area.
''Thank goodness we are able to do it,'' he said, fittingly one day before the Thanksgiving holiday. ''But what really has enabled us to do this is this community.''
Profile: Sam Covelli
Owner / operator of Covelli Enterprises
Opened first Panera cafe in 1998 in Boardman
Opened his first O'Charley's in 2006 in Niles
Previously owned and operated McDonalds Restaurants
In 2009, took over the naming rights of Youngstown Covelli Centre
This year, Covelli Enterprises donated $13 million in unsold bread product to local food banks
Donates $15,000 annually to the U.S. Marine Corps Toys for Tots program
Received Salvation Army's Distinguished Community Service Award and the American Red Cross Spirit of the Mahoning Valley Award
He and his wife, Caryn, have three children, Candace, Albert and Danielle
Source: Covelli Enterprises
The longtime Ohio State athletics fan sat in a leather chair adorned with the "OSU" logo as he spoke Wednesday. He was surrounded by others just like it along with Buckeye helmet chairs, Ohio State artwork, several flat-screen wall-mounted televisions and even a Buckeye Christmas tree erected just this week. The room, he said, is used for meetings from time to time and for gatherings to watch the Buckeye games.
He chatted about the much-anticipated football game Saturday between the Buckeyes and rival Michigan Wolverines. Covelli and his family will be honored at the game for the donation, but Wednesday Covelli, a Buckeye booster, spoke more about whether the 11-0 Buckeyes will be able to wrap up the season without a loss than about the halftime presentation.
OSU athletic director Gene Smith said the new Covelli Arena will be home to seven varsity sports, including wrestling, volleyball and gymnastics. It also will serve as a training facility for men's and women's volleyball, an occasional venue for women's basketball and site of local tournaments and camps.
OSU hopes to break ground in late 2014 or early 2015, and construction will take about 24 months, university officials said. Eventually, the iconic but deteriorating St. John Arena will be demolished, but Dan Wallenberg, OSU associate athletic director for Communications, said Wednesday that is a "long, long way away."
Wallenberg expressed his excitement. "It's going to be the cornerstone of an athletic district that we will eventually have. It will be the gateway on the north side of the athletics area,'' he said.
University officials are calling Covelli's gift "one of the most transformational gifts ever" to the school.
Covelli preferred to describe it as just ''a spoke on the wheel.''
Covelli said he has gotten to know university officials like university president E. Gordon Gee and Gene Smith along with several Buckeye players after he opened a restaurant - the nation's largest Panera Bread - near the campus.
The donation had been kicked around between the family and university officials for about eight months, he said. ''This happened to be a project that was coming up, and we thought it would be a fantastic project,'' he said. ''We built really a great rapport with everyone. It's really been exciting for us,'' he said.
Covelli's wife also expressed her excitement, describing the scenario as "a lot of fun."
Covelli's son, Albert, graduated this year from Ohio State, and now is working in the family business in the Columbus area. His daughter, Danielle, a senior at John F. Kennedy High School in Warren now also is being courted by the university, he said with a chuckle.
Covelli Enterprises supports hundreds of charitable and community organizations across the country, donating more than $13 million a year to local food banks, hunger relief agencies and other nonprofits. He also donated $150,000 to construction of OSU's new basketball practice facility and founded "Step Up for Stephanie," a 5K race to benefit The Stefanie Spielman Fund for Breast Cancer Research.
Locally, Covelli Enterprises hosts the Panerathon 10K run to benefit the Joanie Abdu Comprehensive Breast Care Center at St. Elizabeth Health Center in Youngstown. The Panerathon has raised more than $500,000 for the center over the past three years.
This week's announcement was special to both Covelli and his wife, he said, noting that she had gotten very involved in the university while their son was a student and had gotten to know other parents.
''The people have been so warm that you feel like you are at a small university,'' he said. ''That's important. My wife and I really found that."