CHAMPAIGN — When the Ubben Basketball Complex opened in 1998, Illinois’ practice facility was the talk of college basketball.
First-year Illinois coach John Groce was an assistant at North Carolina State at the time and was aware of what was happening in Champaign.
“It was a huge deal. I was at N.C. State and everyone was talking about it,” Groce said. “Everyone wanted to come in and see it and take a look at it.”
In the 15 years since, the rest of college basketball has caught up and then some, most flying by Illinois in the facilities arms race. When the Illini take the court at the recently renovated Crisler Center today against seventh-ranked Michigan (noon, ESPN), they’ll get an up-close look at just one of many examples.
The House That Cazzie Built seats fewer fans than it once did — 12,693, down from 13,751 — but everything else about the gym seems bigger and better. The centerpiece of the upgrade is a $23.2 million practice facility.
“You take a look at the last 15 years of practice facilities, everyone keeps getting better and improving,” Groce said. “The facilities deal is no different than running a business or coaching a basketball team or any organization. If you stay the same, you’re gonna get lapped; that’s just reality. People are always looking for ideas. They want to be on the cutting edge; they want to get better and be headed on an upward trend.”
At Illinois, the Assembly Hall turns 50 next month. In Groce’s office at Ubben, displayed prominently on an easel next to Illinois’ Maui Invitational championship trophy, is a rendering of the proposed Assembly Hall renovation, which tentatively is scheduled to begin in March 2014.
“You’re trying to keep up with the Joneses,” Groce said. “If we have aspirations of our program being among the best in the country consistently, then we have to shore up some areas, and one of those is facilities. It helps with everything. It helps with recruiting.”
Michigan’s arena looks nothing like the drab Crisler Arena of yesteryear. Purdue reworked Mackey Arena. Iowa and Wisconsin added practice facilities to their arenas the last two years. Even Nebraska is moving into a brand-new arena next season.
“We have to take care of Step 1, and that’s the Assembly Hall,” Groce said. “That’s been the priority since we got here, and we just want to take care of that.”
Illinois is well behind its Big Ten competition. For now.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt, when this project comes to fruition and we open the doors, we’ll have the best facility in the conference, I really do,” athletic director Mike Thomas said. “Taking a building that’s really iconic and bringing it into the 21st century and what it will do not only for the fan amenities but the revenue generating, but also from a recruiting standpoint.”
Thomas and members of his staff have toured various venues in the Big Ten and nationally to get an idea of what measures they want to take with the Assembly Hall project.
“When you do that, you have a general idea in mind how you shape what your venue looks like, and you continue to mold that clay by seeing what others have done. You look at some things and say, ‘Boy, that’s something that we should have done and incorporate that into our design,’ ” Thomas said. “The best question you can usually ask is, ‘If you had the chance to do it over again, what would you do? Where do you feel like you went wrong? What would you have done differently?’ ”
When Groce took the Illinois job 11 months ago, part of the selling point was the renovation project. He had a vision for the building, understanding it was more than just a basketball venue.
The Illini hosted Penn State there on Thursday. Dierks Bentley and Miranda Lambert headlined a concert that Groce’s wife, Allison, attended Friday night in the Assembly Hall. On Saturday, the Illinois women hosted Indiana.
“I like that it’s multi-purpose, and the community should take pride in that,” Groce said. “Whether it’s concerts or the circus or Elmo or Sesame Street, convocation, commencement — the end of your time here at Illinois as a student — it should grab the student body, it should grab the community. It should be a sense of pride for Champaign-Urbana, and that’s our vision. We’ve still got a ways to go, but that’s our long-term hope for the building and for people to say those things when it’s finished.”
The upgrades don’t stop with the Assembly Hall project. Groce and Thomas speak frequently about that, but they also discuss plans for improvements for the other athletic facilities on campus.
“He thinks regularly about wanting to improve so the student-athlete experience is better, and we’re on the cutting edge of what’s going on in athletics with facilities. I love that,” Groce said. “I said that when I took the job, I like the people that I’m around. I feel like, for me, the most important thing when I get up every day that I’m working for people that are like, ‘OK, where (are) we going here? How are we getting better?’ I think that’s how Mike thinks, and that’s huge.”
Plans include an outdoor golf practice facility. Not long ago, the Demirjian Indoor Golf Facility was the finest in the country. That opened six years ago.
“We do audits with all our programs about how we can make upgrades to all 19 sports, whether it’s facilities or staffing to operations or scholarships, whatever the case might be,” Thomas said. “The priority right now is Assembly Hall, but that doesn’t mean we’re not thinking about other projects.”