Illini basketball to return to renovated State Farm


Daily Illini file photo

The Big Church Night Out is coming to the State Farm Center Oct. 15. Tickets are available July 15 at 10 a.m.

Walking past the State Farm Center these days, one hears the roaring of bulldozers and the clack-clack-clacking of construction equipment. Behind the construction fences is where the magic is happening.

Renovations to the 51-year-old arena started in December and kicked into high gear after basketball season ended in March. The project will take three years to complete and costs $165 million.

When it opened, Assembly Hall was the largest edge-supported concrete dome in the country. The 10 million pound concrete dome stands 128 feet above the floor. In many ways, State Farm Center — as it has been known since March of 2013 — remains an architectural marvel.

When Illinois basketball fans walk into the arena in November, evidence of construction will be everywhere. The most notable signs will be at the entrances, particularly the west entrance. Temporary walls will be erected in certain areas and Do Not Enter signs will be visible.

Despite obvious signs of construction, not much change will be visible after the first offseason. There is a lot of structural work being done that fans won’t see: shifting of mechanical spaces, changes in the venting and foundation work inside the arena’s bowl.

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But there will be one noticeable change. The 9,000 to 10,000 drab gray seats in the C-section have already been removed and are being replaced with new blue seats. When the project is complete, the arena will be as orange and blue as the Illini’s uniforms.

“We wanted to try to do something from a fan’s perspective,” said Tom Michael, senior associate athletic director at Illinois. “Putting the C-section seats in there now was going to give some noticeable change in the bowl.”

Fans can watch the progress of the renovation at from a live webcam atop the Memorial Stadium press box. Another webcam is planned to be placed inside the arena. 

The project’s biggest challenge has been scheduling the renovations so that Illinois men’s and women’s basketball teams can still call the arena home during the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons.

Construction will continue behind the scenes during the 2014-15 basketball season, as it did during much of 2013-14. The phase of the project following the 2014-15 season will be the most intense.

The seating in the A-section and B-section will be redone. Loge seats — seats with a countertop, dining services and television monitors — will be in place at the north baseline behind the student section.

Legacy Club seats will be placed behind the student section at the south baseline. The 12 suites will be on the east side, each accommodating up to 14 guests. Student seating will surround three sides of the court in what is today the A-section.

Work will begin on the four clubs — the Legacy Club, the Traditions Club, the Orange Krush Club and the Courtside Club — but only the Traditions Club will be ready for the 2015-16 season.

Because this phase of the project is so intense, Michael said the bowl would not be ready to host basketball games until December 2015. This poses a scheduling problem that Illinois has not quite worked out yet.

“Our fans adapted when we renovated Memorial Stadium (between 2006-2008) and they’ll adapt as we go through the next two basketball seasons,” Michael said.

A former Illinois basketball player who played in the early ‘90s, Michael has worked to take this project from an artist’s rendering to a reality. Simply getting to the construction is a relief, but Michael fears that by the end of the three-year project, he might have a few more gray hairs than he does now. 

“This is unique,” Michael said. “It’s certainly the largest project so far on this campus.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond.