By JAMISON COCKLIN
When Sam Covelli walks onto the field during halftime of today’s showdown with Michigan to present Ohio State University with a $10 million check, he’ll be worried about one thing:
“I’m a little nervous, but I just care about the game,” he said. “At that point we should be pounding [Michigan]. I’m glad to be involved and proud of our ability to do this, though.”
Covelli, owner of Covelli Enterprises and the largest Panera Bread franchisee in North America with more than 250 stores, made statewide headlines earlier this week when OSU announced the jaw-dropping donation — the largest individual bequest in the history of the university’s athletic department.
At his headquarters in Warren, it wasn’t difficult to grasp Covelli’s enthusiasm for Ohio’s flagship. He sat with The Vindicator in a second-floor conference/game-day room covered wall-to-wall in OSU regalia to discuss the reasoning that led him and his wife, Caryn, to make the donation.
“First of all, we’re extremely blessed to have the ability to do this — to make this donation,” he said. “I have to thank all the people in this Valley that got us a start. Our organization started with that loyalty over the years, and that’s why we were able to do it.”
Indeed, Covelli Enterprises has been on the rise in recent years, extending into markets at points across the country and beyond with its recent push into Toronto, Canada. In December alone, Covelli will open five new stores. He’ll expand in the Valley, too, with a new location on Market Street in Boardman set to open in about four months. His Panera Bread operations now boast a footprint in six states and employ 25,000 people.
His charitable causes run the gamut from funding for food banks and animal welfare to breast-cancer awareness to support for the American Heart Association.
His latest gift has a special meaning.
“My son graduated from OSU, and we bought Panera in Columbus a while ago,” he said in describing his decision. “We’ve built such great relationships with the school — it was a marriage made in heaven.”
Last year, Covelli opened the largest Panera Bread in the country on Lane Avenue in Columbus, across from Ohio Stadium. Since then, the relationships he’s built doing business with those in the area, combined with parenting an OSU graduate and interacting with the school’s leaders has made his affinity for the university that much stronger.
Along with Caryn, Covelli said the two thought about the decision for a year and liked what’s in store for the $10 million donation. It will go toward a 4,000-seat arena, where OSU is expanding its athletic district north of Lane Avenue.
The facility, Covelli Arena, will serve seven sports, including women’s volleyball, gymnastics and wrestling.
“There’s so many people from [Youngstown] that are OSU fans. I’ve been an OSU fan my whole life,” Covelli said. “I have a loyalty to the school, and the more people I meet there I can’t believe how terrific they are.”
In this way, Covelli views his donation as one for both OSU and the entire state.
With work starting on a new $4.3 million sports complex at Youngstown State University, Covelli was quick to point out that he’s never overlooked the Penguins.
“We’ve believed in YSU forever,” he said, earnestly. “Years ago, Jim Tressel would come up to our [headquarters] and hold coaches meetings — we’ve always had a good relationship with the school, and we’ve made numerous contributions. You have to give back to the communities where you got your start.”
On thornier issues, Covelli was sharp in displaying his business acumen.
When asked if he’s at all concerned about his name being attached to the city-owned Covelli Centre, which at times has struggled to turn a profit and forged contentious debates between city leaders in full view of the media, he didn’t hold back.
“Believe me, my name wouldn’t be on that building if I didn’t think it was doing well,” he said. “Five years ago, I wouldn’t have touched it, but it’s done nothing but improve, and it’s great for the community.”
Covelli purchased the naming rights in 2009 and recently renewed his contract for the next year.
For now, though, Covelli is focused on “The Game.”
“We have passes to walk out on the field — my kids will get a kick out of it,” he said. “Did you know they’re bringing the 2002 national championship team back for this?”