The Daily Illini

Athletic director Josh Whitman announces Memorial Stadium renovations

By Joey Figueroa, Staff writer

 

Since Josh Whitman’s hiring in February, he has outlined grand plans for the Illinois football program and Illini athletics as a whole.

The first-year athletic director shared part of his realized vision Monday, announcing a multi-year renovation plan for Memorial Stadium and its facilities. The estimated $132 million renovation program includes reconstruction of the south and east sides of the stadium, as well as a complete overhaul of the player and coaching facilities.

“The stadium will be well-positioned for its next 100 years of life,” Whitman said. “It has been an unbelievable asset to our University and a tremendous home.”

The plans include the addition of a grandstand in the south horseshoe that will extend to the field, allowing for seating closer to the gameday action. An estimated $90 million of the expenditures will go to the south-end reconstruction.

The east end will likely lose some seating following its renovations — including wider aisles, more access to elevators and increased concessions — so the overall stadium capacity is expected to remain at about 60,000.

A large portion of the renovations will include a complete overhaul of the stadium’s athletic facilities. Of areas to be updated, Whitman listed a new team locker room, sports medicine facility, physician and consultation rooms, mental health facilities, recovery spaces, positional and staff meeting rooms, offices and recruiting spaces.

The southend was built in 1929, and structural work was needed, whether new facilities were added or not.

When Whitman first met head coach Lovie Smith in March before he was hired, the facility renovations were a large part of the pitch to bring the ex-NFL head coach to Illinois.

“It was a factor,” Smith said. “I knew there was a commitment to having the best possible football program that we could have, and of course, that was a part of it.”

Whitman was frank about how he thinks Illinois’ current facilities compare to other teams, saying he believes Illinois ranks in the bottom quartile of the Big Ten in terms of behind-the-scenes amenities.

“Our building was built in 1985 and it was built for a 1985 football program,” Whitman said.

Whitman said the University is currently in the midst of the architectural selection process and hopes to have that completed this fall. From there, he expects full approval from the Board of Trustees in the spring of 2017 and demolition to occur in the spring of 2018. The south facilities and seating are expected to be open in time for the 2019 season, and the east renovations will complete the entire process in 2020.

Whitman does not expect the Illini to have to relocate throughout any part of the renovation process.

Although quarterback Wes Lunt will be long gone from the team once the renovations are completed, he believes the plans are being set in place for an improved Illinois football experience.

“It’s awesome for the future of Illinois football and athletics to have that on campus,” Lunt said. “Down the road when that place is packed and that new renovation’s going, it’s going to be a special venue.”

No state funds, university funds or student fees will go into funding the multi-million dollar project. Whitman said the athletic department has already been aggressive in terms of allocating revenue through private donations, and several seven-figure gifts have already been received.

Although a corporate partnership is not off the table, Whitman said there is absolutely no intention to give the stadium a corporate name.

“What’s been exciting is a lot of our donors have a strong invested interest in football,” Whitman said. “Football has always been something people are prepared to rally around.”

Smith is excited about the potential impact that the renovations could have on his recruiting pitches, and said he’s been bringing up the plans to prospects since day one.

Whitman hopes the upgrades will have a lasting impact on the success of the team and stressed that the renovations are a crucial step toward rebuilding a winning culture within the Illinois football program.

“I hope, as everybody saw when we made the decisions that we did in the spring, there’s a commitment here to building a championship football program here at the University of Illinois, Whitman said. “I believe this program is necessary in order for us to achieve our goals as an athletic program and realize our full potential as a university.”

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@joeyfigueroa3

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