State of Illini Nation: Josh Whitman discusses construction, renovation of athletic facilities
June 7, 2018
Illinois Director of Athletics Josh Whitman gathered with local media on Wednesday afternoon for a roundtable discussion about the collective state of the University’s athletic programs.
The focus of the afternoon shifted frequently, but the topic discussed the most was the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics’ proposal for a downtown hockey arena in Champaign, which would also be the home for Illinois’ volleyball, wrestling and men’s and women’s gymnastics programs.
Whitman said a hockey program and the new arena would infuse new life into Illini athletics, as well as downtown Champaign. He also said it would help the University branch out further from its usual Campustown reach. The Illinois graduate views the proposed arena as one of many steps he has envisioned for turning Illinois from what he considers to be an athletic sleeping giant into a perennial power on the national scale of Ohio State and Michigan.
The process has been unique for the athletic department, Whitman said, because the University does not have traditional ties to hockey, despite Illinois being the No. 6 state in youth hockey enrollment and having one of the most popular NHL franchises through the Chicago Blackhawks.
“You put a building like that in downtown Champaign and it is surrounded by hotels, restaurants, bars, retail space and it becomes a destination,” Whitman said. “College hockey is played on Friday and Saturday nights; it’s a very social experience. We want our fans to not just go to the game and go home; we want them to go experience all downtown Champaign has to offer.”
Whitman said it is difficult to fundraise the money needed for new facilities for volleyball, wrestling and gymnastics individually. In using hockey to drive the push for a new arena that could suit all the programs, Whitman said each of the programs can find an ideal home that will position them for success in the future.
With widespread development on the north side of campus in recent years, the center of the student population has shifted much closer to downtown. What once would have been a 25 or 30-minute walk for most students to get to the proposed site will be a more reasonable 10-20 minutes for many of those who live around or north of Green Street.
“You’ve all seen the high-rises now being built on Green Street, the student developments that are happening closer to the engineering campus,” Whitman said. “The proximity for those areas over to the downtown site is much closer than the other sites we considered. We look forward to making that a very common walk for them.”
Illinois has been in discussions with private developers, the city of Champaign, the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District, donors and corporate partners. Whitman said in the end, funding may come from as many as a dozen different sources to realize his vision of what would be a 5,000 to 7,000 capacity arena. The total cost is estimated to be between $50-60 million, though that’s a flexible estimate.
It’s likely Illinois will enter into a public-private partnership for the facility. The University would manage the facility, but would only use it for about half the year. For the times when the athletic programs would not be using it, Illinois wants to attract activities, particularly youth sports and tournaments at the arena.
If Illinois does add a hockey program, it will likely have to add another women’s varsity sport to stay in line with Title IX regulations. It’s unclear which sport that could be, although women’s hockey and women’s lacrosse are being considered as options.
Several donors have stepped up with seven-figure gifts in the past several weeks, Whitman said. He is anticipating the project will take two to two and a half years to complete after it gets the “green light”, which could come as early as the end of 2018. That means if everything unfolds on the fastest track laid out, it could be finished sometime around 2021.
Facilities as fuel for a powerhouse
Great facilities lead to great athletes coming and that’s the method through which Whitman wants to build Illinois into a national power in collegiate athletics.
Whitman views Illinois as a sleeping giant that can turn into an Ohio State, Michigan or Alabama when the potential within the department is fully tapped. He used the example of Nick Saban’s arrival at Alabama and the Crimson Tide’s successive dominance in the college football landscape to illustrate his point that strong athletics can carry over into strengthening a university and the community around it.
In 2006, Alabama had an incoming freshman class of about 4,000 students (about 75 percent in-state). The incoming class in the fall of 2017 was more than 7,000 students with about 5,000 of them coming from outside the state. Before Saban, Alabama reported about 13 percent of its students scoring a 30 or higher on the ACT, and now it reports 41 percent as doing so.
The city of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, has grown steadily while Alabama’s sporting success has continued and the university’s steady enrollment increase has been instrumental in that. The city had a population in the mid-80,000s at the time of Saban’s arrival, and it recently swelled to 100,000 for the first time.
Between the new football practice facility, the planned downtown, multiuse hockey arena and other facility plans, the University is committing to mass fundraising and a big-dollar approach to getting to the forefront of the collegiate athletic world.
Baseball, softball renovations on the horizon
The baseball and softball programs are both included in the scope of the focus on building elite facilities, though neither is set to get an entirely new stadium.
Rather than spending what Whitman said could cost tens of millions on tearing down Illinois and Eichelberger fields to build new ones, Illinois is taking an incremental approach that focuses on “player development.”
“Would I like to come in and build a brand new stadium for baseball? Obviously, I would, but it’s a question of resources,” Whitman said. “We understand that coming in and bulldozing that stadium to start over at this point is going to be a $30-40 million project. We think that the better approach is to focus on player development and over time — as we have resources and opportunity — to come in and make incremental improvements for the facilities for both baseball and softball.”
Those improvements center on building large, indoor spaces for practice that adjoin to where the clubhouses and locker rooms are currently. The plan is for the spaces to have enough room for infield activities, as well as for additional areas to use hitting tunnels.
As of now, the bleachers at Illinois Field and Eichelberger Field do not have seatbacks, which is something Whitman said would be added as part of renovations. He also included enhanced concessions and the construction of a more formal, grand entryway and fencing around the stadiums. The early estimates for each project are about $8 million for Illinois Field and $5-6 million for Eichelberger Field.
When Illinois baseball was ranked in the top-25 during the 2018 season, it was the only program that allowed free admission. Whitman said that would be looked at as the renovations come about, but any change in the department’s policy would not be for economic purposes.
Philosophically, Whitman said any consideration to changing free admission to any number of the athletic programs would not be in order to bring in more revenue, but instead would be to help improve and provide a better fan experience.
With no exact timeline set for fundraising and completion of renovations for the two programs — which each had winning seasons but were left out of the NCAA Tournament — the details remain to be seen.
Progress expected in year three for Lovie Smith amidst facility construction
With the construction of the approximately $80 million, 107,650 square foot practice facility east of Memorial Stadium starting to make visible progression, Whitman expects his football team to do the same on the field this fall.
The Illini are 5-19 in Lovie Smith’s first two years, though the experience of his first recruiting class and high expectations from his second class are factoring in for what both Smith and Whitman look to as a year of visible, significant improvement.
“If (this class is) anything like the first one was, there’s a lot to be excited about,” Whitman said.
He stressed the importance of having high-level facilities for establishing a program quality players want to come play for. He also noted how Illinois has begun to compete with elite programs for talent valued higher than what Illinois was going after in past years. Showing positive results on the field will help the Illini be able to lock down some of the recruits it’s after, especially with the construction of the new facility carrying along on schedule.
“You want to find a place that is home for (the players),” Whitman said. “I know as well as anybody how much time they’ll be spending in that building. We want to be sure it’s something that is comfortable, some place that they want to be with their teammates and where they want to put in extra time.”
On display at the meeting were renderings of a two-lane bowling alley, which Whitman said he was shocked at how excited players have been for, and a rooftop terrace that will become a “highlight piece” of the new building. Additionally, Illinois will be expanding the practice facility out east toward Fourth Street to allow for more room Whitman said could be used by the offensive and defensive lines to break off and work as a unit. He said it can also be used by baseball and softball as more space during the cold months for hitting tunnels and practice.
Reaffirming what has already been known, Whitman said Illinois will fulfill the remaining two years of its contract to play a game at Soldier Field. After the contract expires, Illinois will look to maintain its presence in Chicago, potentially by playing at Soldier Field again, Wrigley Field or even Guaranteed Rate Field.
Sexual abuse discussion, prevention in the aftermath of the Michigan State scandal
After Larry Nassar was exposed for abusing a large number of athletes and Michigan State was shown to be fostering his ability to do so, the issue of abuse in college sports has become a focus.
Illinois’ athletic department will take a hands-off approach if issues of sexual abuse and misconduct surface, Whitman said, looking to the University and legal authorities to conduct investigations independently instead of the athletic department, which he said has been a problem in cases that have arisen in the collegiate world.
“Sometimes — and this is hard — athletic programs, they want to control everything,” Whitman said. “Whether it’s the coach or the athletic director, they want to conduct the investigation, they want to make the decision about what’s going to happen. I felt like that’s a real problem. All of a sudden, you’re susceptible to accusations that you put your thumb on the scale or that you swept something under the rug.”
After news of the Michigan State scandal broke, Whitman and athletic department officials met with every program to talk about it. He emphasized continuing to speak on issues of sexual abuse and said discussing it, making expectations of athletes known and ensuring they feel comfortable reporting abuse and/or misconduct as a way to stop it from happening and to identify it when it does.
Basketball expected to show similar improvements to football
The Illinois basketball team is going to be far different than what fans watched all of last season, with a number of players transferring or graduating and a wealth of new faces arriving. Whitman said the process of getting Illinois back to where it once was is not going to be a quick fix, something most Illini fans already expected, but that the culture of the program has improved. With that, he said the team will be more competitive, though his expectations are tempered.
This season, for the first time, Illinois will play a Big Ten Conference game at the United Center in Chicago instead of the usual non-conference game.
Whitman hopes a matchup with a traditional rival will help draw more interest and a better crowd than recent matchups have, as Illinois has struggled to schedule well-known opponents. This is partly due to most schools wanting to set up “home” and home matchups, either with the away part for Illinois coming on their campus or at a “home” venue in a larger city.
It will be in the early part of the Big Ten schedule in December. Whitman said he doubts the opponent will be nearby Northwestern, though it is possible.
Demirjian Park promises soccer-specific stadium, new track
Though renderings are not yet out, the Illinois soccer program is expected to have its new, soccer-specific stadium built in time for the 2019 season. That means 2018 will be the last time the program plays inside the track. Additionally, Whitman expects the track and field development to be finished in time to host the 2021 Big Ten Championships.