Tate: Illini can't afford renovation delay
Jud Heathcote’s Spartans had just absorbed a road pounding by Indiana’s 1987 national champions when he was advised that a roof/crane collapse would set back the opening of Michigan State’s Breslin Center (to November 1989).
In construction, stuff happens. More than a generation earlier, hotshot recruits Dave Downey and Bill Small were promised they’d play in the Assembly Hall as sophomores. Union strikes and steel shortages intervened. It was opened for two March games when they were seniors.
The best laid plans ... “gang aft agley.”
This is a subject for today because, when the UI announced the State Farm Center would not host basketball games in November 2015, it revealed how tight the timeline is. No mishaps here, please!
Imagine: No games in November when the Illini men usually pay a half-dozen lesser opponents for easy pickings. John Groce certainly wouldn’t want to travel to Valparaiso or Alabama State. What’ll they do?
If the women could conceivably spend November in Huff — it might be preferred anyway — there wouldn’t be nearly enough Huff seats for men’s season ticket-holders. So even if the two-year renovation is precise and everything clicks, Groce already faces a serious scheduling problem. Where else could they play? How many games can you stack in December? And, oh my, what if there’s a tiny delay? Alternate plan, anybody?
Tom Michael, project manager for the DIA, is dealing daily with 15 companies that have been awarded contracts. All have deadlines. How complex is that?
“We have 40 to 50 contractors here now, and this is a full construction zone,” Michael said. “Everybody is out of the State Farm Center. We’ll be doing a lot of preparation work for next year.”
The outside ramps and west canopy have already taken the wrecking ball, and Phase 2 demolition work is moving rapidly to prepare for a west grand entrance and a new east entrance. Blue cushioned seats (with railings) will soon replace roughly 10,000 seats in C Section. Two mechanical rooms are being set up for the air conditioning system.
The most intense work will begin next March when A and B Sections will be blown out and restructured.
One trick next year is to replace outside windows, extending them by 15 feet, and retaining the same spaceship look.
“If the windows were straight up and down, it would look like a cheeseburger,” joked Thomas. “So we’ll have angled windows and the same lighting as before.”
This is a monumental project, amounting to more than $10 million in loan payments (including interest) for 30 years. Annually, about $4 million of that will come in equal contributions from the State Farm Center and a student fee ($50 x 40,000).
With all the premium seating income, the finances will work. The DIA is a backstop as the annual budget will soon go over $80 million and is projected to top $100 million when new broadcast contracts top $40 million in 2017.
But for a guy who saw this multi-purpose masterpiece constructed for $8.35 million, it’s hard the fathom this expense ... and to understand the benefits.
It must first be pointed out that, with 12 suites planned, the attendance will decrease from 16,600 to 15,500 in 2015-16. There’ll still be 10,000 seats in C, so that doesn’t change. But in the lower bowl, with three-sided courtside seats for students increasing from 700 to 1,100, that leaves 4,400 for premium seating in the new bowl.
Speaking strictly from a basketball perspective, and discounting all the spring-fall income lost by closing it for two eight-month stretches, a critic might make a case that this $300 million investment is essentially for the benefit of 400 additional students and 4,400 premium seat-holders in the lower bowl.
If half of the 4,400 purchased four premium seats and the other half bought two, that would require less than 1,700 well-healed fans from the base of 7,500 annual DIA contributors.
That’s one way of looking at it. Not the best, but one way.
Hit the road, Jack!
The UI team will absorb its first SFC inconvenience by being forced to hit the road for the NIT.
Here’s a stunning stat in a ramble-scramble season: When we arose Saturday morning, with various conference tournaments still in play, 15 top-seeded teams were already eliminated. Kansas and Villanova got bumped. So did St. Louis, Davidson and Cincinnati. And Vermont, High Point, Robert Morris, Utah Valley, Boston U., Irvine, Southern, Belmont, Iona and Green Bay.
The significance is that many of the teams above, as regular season champions in minor conferences, will receive NIT bids. This reduces the number of also-rans — like Illinois and Indiana — from the big conferences.
Not to worry, Illinois (19-14) will get the nod tonight. But heaven only knows where the team will be sent. The last NIT trip in 2010 found the Illini beating Stony Brook, 76-66, in New York.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.