Ex-Illini football captain leads way again with $5M gift for performance center

Ex-Illini football captain leads way again with $5M gift for performance center

CHAMPAIGN — When he played on the offensive line for Bob Blackman's Illinois teams in the mid-1970s, Stu Levenick didn't have access to state-of-the-art training.

"We had winter conditioning when I was here and it was under the west side bleachers," Levenick said. "There were tennis courts under the west main balcony and we'd take the nets down. It was about 60 yards of concrete and that's where we did all our winter drills.

"The weight room was under the south horseshoe, and I don't think it was heated. It's night and day."

Now retired after a long, successful career at Caterpillar, Levenick can do something about it.

The 1975 team captain is donating $5 million as the lead gift for the football team's performance center.

Work has started on the building, which will be adjacent to the Irwin Indoor Practice Facility.

"It will be an absolute game-changer for us," Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said.

The performance center includes a new weight room, coaches offices, meeting rooms and locker rooms.

And it will be the home of Levenick Auditorium, named in honor of Stu and his wife, Nancy.

The players are excited about the two-lane bowling alley and barbershop.

Before Levenick talked at a Thursday afternoon press conference, he took a tour of the current setup.

"I hadn't been in there since I've left," Levenick said. "Needless to say, a whole lot of changes. But if I close my eyes, and then open them, I'm still being interviewed by Loren Tate."

Illinois is following a facility-building trend across the Big Ten and nationally.

"Today, there's a bit of an arm's race in sports," Levenick said. "That's just the reality. That's your table stakes. Illinois needs to be there. From what I see, the investments we are making here are prudent. But they're going to put us in a first-class position to not only recruit, but develop big-time college athletes."

Levenick first considered a gift to the football program during Ron Guenther's tenure as athletic director. Levenick and his family endowed a scholarship earmarked for former walk-ons.

He stayed in contact with Mike Thomas and current AD Whitman.

"I said, 'When you're ready, let's talk,'" Levenick said.

"I got a lot out of this place. In a lot of ways, I didn't have a whole lot of expectations when I came here. I wanted to get the best education I could, and the University of Illinois is a first-class academic institution. And so that was my first priority."

The Washington native wanted to play in the Big Ten, but was not recruited.

"In the end, I got to do both," Levenick said.

Levenick remains close to several of his 1970s Illinois teammates.

"We've all been successful in one way or another," Levenick said. "Not necessarily financially, but just in life.

"They're all good fathers. They're deeply involved in their communities or churches. They're all really good, solid citizens. That all came from the experience they extracted while on campus here, playing a sport and getting an education."

Levenick, who recently turned 65, splits his time between the Peoria area and Breckenridge, Colo.

The former lineman is a fan of third-year Illinois coach Lovie Smith.

"I've watched him from a distance and admired him," Levenick said.

During a visit with Smith a year ago, Levenick asked the coach his philosophy.

"He said, 'Stu, first you build the man, then you build the player,'" Levenick said. "That says it all right there. That says who Lovie Smith is."