Push to name court for Henson gaining steam
CHAMPAIGN — When the University of Illinois unveils its $165 million renovation of the State Farm Center at the first home game in 2016 and members of the band pick up their sousaphones, when Orange Krush members lock arms, and when the announcer welcomes everyone to the State Farm Center, Fighting Illini basketball players will sprint down the tunnel toward ...
Lou Henson Court?
The Harry Combes Floor?
Or The Company-That-Paid-The-Highest-Bid Floor?
What would you name it? Tell Tom Kacich here
Since the UI Board of Trustees last year signed off on architectural plans and a $60 million, 30-year naming rights agreement with State Farm, donors like Mannie Jackson, John Giuliani and others pledged millions for different areas of the building, such as the hall of fame and private lounges.
Next month the renovation starts in earnest after the last men's home basketball game and UI fundraisers have been in serious campaign mode for the pricey project, bringing in almost $95 million so far, according to Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas.
Still up for grabs, though, is the playing court, which university marketing materials describe as the place where "Eddie Johnson's last-second shot took down No. 1 Michigan State in 1979. ... where on February 7, 2013, Tyler Griffey made the biggest shot of his career with 0.9 seconds to play to give Illinois a 74-72 victory over then No. 1 Indiana."
"There is no greater opportunity to connect to the excitement of Fighting Illini basketball than by naming the floor. The donor's name will be displayed on the court, allowing for visibility throughout the arena on a daily basis and on television," read promotional materials.
In an athletic conference where most courts, if they carry a name at all, honor a former coach, the university's decision to market the floor's naming rights has raised some eyebrows, even rankling some athletic boosters. At the same time, however, the author of several books about the business of college sports said it was inevitable colleges would begin offering up their playing courts.
The UI has not yet signed an agreement on the floor's naming rights, said Thomas, who described the status as "a fluid situation."
His top development official, Rick Darnell, declined to disclose the value the campus has placed on the playing court.
According to its contract with State Farm, the university can name the court for a person as an honorary designation or sell the rights to a third party, as long as the business or organization is not in the insurance or financial services industry.
"I wonder about the wisdom of this," said David Dorris, a Bloomington lawyer and former UI trustee. "I don't agree with the commercializing of college athletics," he said, including the renaming of the building and other areas inside it. "How much did Lincoln pay the university to have a building named after him?" he said.
If you consider the UI's peers or basketball programs to which it aspires, like the University of Kansas, you will not find a court named after a company, Dorris said.
Former Indiana Coach Bob Knight said he "never paid much attention" to the issue of the naming of playing courts. (Indiana plays on Branch McCracken Court, named after the coach who took the Hoosiers to national championships in the 1940s and 50s.) But in a brief interview with The News-Gazette Knight did have this to say about marketing in basketball arenas.
"I've never been big on advertising. As long as I coached, I tried to keep it out" of Assembly Hall, Knight said.
"My personal opinion is the State Farm Center has been commercialized to the maximum. Everything is getting a name now," said Tom Scaggs, a member of the Illini Rebounders, the local basketball booster club. "I think it would be nice to take the court, and instead of commercializing it, actually name it after someone."
"I totally understand it from a business sense that you need donations and one way is to appeal to people and say 'we'll name this after you,' I totally get it, but I think we're getting to the point where ... they need to put the brakes on it a little," Scaggs said.
Instead of "a straight advertisement," on the floor for a company, Bill Nugent has another suggestion for those running the fundraising operation at Illinois.
The former president of the University of Illinois Foundation said the UI could assemble a committee of alumni, former players and other supporters who could raise money for an endowment.
"My personal opinion is that there's an opportunity to endow the athletic department and to honor the tradition of the basketball program with the name of a person who has been very much a part of the legacy," Nugent said.
And just who should that person be?
Lou Henson, of course, said Nugent, Dorris, Scaggs and others.
When asked about the possibility of naming the court for Henson, the UI's Thomas said, "anything is open for discussion."
"No doubt Lou Henson is an iconic coach. For him to have a presence somewhere in the building when we're done, when we're open, would be important," Thomas said.
As for Henson, he said the State Farm Center renovation is "such a big project that we have to get revenue from a lot of different sources."
"If we can get good money by naming the floor, I think that's a good idea. I would be happy with that," Henson said.
Keady, Stewart weigh in
A few former college basketball coaches contacted by The News-Gazette did not oppose the idea of naming courts after businesses or donors ("I don't think there's anything wrong with it," said former Purdue coach Gene Keady) and acknowledged the need to continually raise money for new buildings.
However, it is an honor to have a court named after you, they said. And if Illinois were to honor someone, Keady and former University of Missouri basketball coach Norm Stewart supported the selection of Henson.
"I think it'd be great if they put 'Lou and Mary Henson' on the court," said Keady, who said he hasn't paid much attention to Illini sports since the university in 2012 fired Bruce Weber, one of Keady's former assistants.
"I'm sure (Henson's) name would be in the mix and should be rightfully so," said Stewart, who also mentioned as a possibility Harry Combes, a former Illini player and coach who oversaw the construction of the State Farm Center then known as Assembly Hall. Missouri named its basketball court after Stewart in 1999.
The naming of courts, fields or other places honors not just the person whose name appears but those who worked with him during his years as a coach, Stewart said. And a person's name can carry significance for fans who remember games they attended or watched during that coach's tenure.
"It all comes back to what each institution and what each group thinks they should have," he said. "All or some of it is predicated on money," Stewart added.
"If enough money is donated by a company to the university for the rights to have their company's name on that floor, I could see that happening," said Jimmy Collins, who played for Henson at New Mexico State University and was an assistant coach for Henson at Illinois. He went on to coach the Flames basketball team at UI-Chicago.
"But if you're going to name it after any individual mortal, it would have to be Lou Henson," he said.
"I don't know what the criteria is, regarding a donation, but I will say this. Is there anybody else? If you're going to name it after anybody, who else could it be? Who else but Lou Henson, who has meant so much to Illinois basketball," Collins said.
There's Branch McCracken Court (Indiana University), Gene Keady Court (Purdue) and James Naismith Court (University of Kansas). Wisconsin plays at the Kohl Center (named after donor, businessman and senator Herb Kohl) but the court is not named. Ohio State's team plays in the Value City Arena (whose logo is on the floor) within the Jerome Schottenstein Center.
Offering the naming rights of courts to companies is becoming more common, the UI's Thomas said, citing for example, the University of Iowa's announcement in 2011 to name the floor of the Carver-Hawkeye Arena as Mediacom Court.
In recent years Nebraska also has named its basketball court the First National Bank Court.
"Corporations want to share their brand," Thomas said.
The UI may have had a few scandals over the years but the fact is "it's an institution thought of highly by the public and certainly people in Illinois love the U of I. ... If you associate with (the UI) as closely as State Farm for instance, you get a tie-in effect," said Murray Sperber, the author of several books about collegiate athletics and a visiting professor in the Cultural Study of Sports in Education program in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley.
Naming the basketball court after a famous player or coach has been the tradition at some schools, but because college athletics are such commercial enterprises, more and more universities are selling the naming rights of the court, said Sperber, who admitted that 10 years ago he would have said, "this is horrible."
People are very reluctant to see traditions change, he said. For many, the Assembly Hall will always be Assembly Hall, not State Farm Center. There was a time when there were no advertisements on the scoreboard, when there weren't ads between plays.
"I'm not in love with the signs," he said. But the fact is he and others, particularly those 30 years old and younger, have become "oblivious" to them.
Nugent said he does not see a trend; each institution of higher education is different.
"Some institutions don't have the legacies that others have," he said. "Kansas and Kentucky have rich basketball traditions so there's no way those institutions would put General Electric or another corporation on their floor. They want to perpetuate their legacies, which is a nice thing to do, I think," Nugent said.
"I understand the need for naming rights to gather money for the project," said Tim Bachman, president of the Rebounders. He also favors a court named after Henson, who has remained involved with the club since his retirement. "But I don't think that's going to happen. Obviously, they want the dollars. ... And that's the way things are these days," he said.
Bachman said he's not sure how much money would need to be raised or if the club could raise that kind of money.
"Ideally what would be nice is that some alum would say I will donate X amount of dollars, but do not put my name on it. Have Henson on it. That would be in an ideal world, but I'm not sure if that's going to happen," Bachman said.
UI student Ryan Grant with the Orange Krush declined to discuss the court naming rights but did say via a written statement that the student organization "is extremely excited about all of the opportunities surrounding the renovation."
"We can't wait for the project to begin and our basketball home to get a facelift. Students are excited about all of the new features this building will include, especially the expanded student seating it will offer," he wrote.
Lou Henson ranks 11th all time in NCAA Division I wins. Of the 10 college basketball coaches ahead of him, eight have a court — or an entire building — named in their honor.
1. Mike Krzyzewski: Duke court
2. Jim Boeheim: Syracuse court
3. Bob Knight: None
4. Dean Smith: North Carolina arena
5. Adolph Rupp: Kentucky arena
6. Jim Calhoun: None
7. Jim Phelan: Mount St. Mary's court
8. Eddie Sutton: Oklahoma court
9. Lefty Driesell: Georgia State court
10. Lute Olson: Arizona court