CHAMPAIGN — I stopped by the new place Monday. Just to check it out.
Illinois’ under-construction Henry Dale & Betty Smith Football Performance Center isn’t done yet. But it’s close.
The $80 million building is scheduled to open later this month. The current Illini will be the first ones to take a look. As they should.
It’s very fancy. A bowling alley and a barbershop are in there. Along with a state-of-the-art weight room. Plus, an expansive sports medicine area and a beautiful auditorium.
And the locker room will be the envy of the Big Ten.
Did Illinois need to do this? Did the program have to add another building?
Simple answer: Yes, if it wants to compete in the Big Ten.
When the Smith Football Center is complete, Illinois will be on a level playing field with the rest of the Big Ten. Not ahead, but even.
The new building doesn’t guarantee success. It doesn’t mean Lovie Smith and friends will win the Big Ten West and go to their first bowl since 2014.
The building is a start. It’s a way to help Illinois lure better players.
I can make a reasonable guess that rival coaches used the Illinois facility shortfall in recruiting. Not in a good way.
The conversation might have gone something like this:
“Why do you want to go to Illinois? That school doesn’t care about football. Look at its lack of stuff.”
Or something like that.
Bottom line, the rival schools had a point. Illinois wasn’t keeping up with the Joneses. Now, thanks to the Smiths, it can offer everything a player will find throughout the Big Ten.
By paying up, Illinois gave itself a chance. And eliminated a reason for top players to say no.
The bad old days
Don’t let anyone tell you that football was better before all the modern equipment and conveniences. That’s just wrong.
When I came to Champaign in 1989, there was no Irwin Indoor Practice Facility.
WHAT'D THE BUBBLE LOOK LIKE? Click here
When it snowed in winter, the team went inside the Memorial Stadium Bubble. It was a temporary solution for bad-weather workouts.
Honestly, I dreaded going in there. It was dimly lit. And you had to use a revolving door (which I loathe) to even get in the room.
If you opened the wrong door, you might deflate the roof. Nobody wants to be that guy.
Thankfully, the Bubble was no longer needed when the team moved into Irwin late in the 2000 season.
The next year, Illinois won its first outright Big Ten title since 1983. A coincidence? Maybe. Having Kurt Kittner and Brandon Lloyd certainly helped.
But access to a building to use each time the weather turned gross gave the Illini a mental boost.
Irwin isn’t perfect. Trying to keep the cost down (it went up for a economic $7.5 million), the field is just 80 yards. In hindsight, it might have been wise to pay for the extra 20 yards. Oh well.
The Smith Center combines with Irwin to give the Illini an easy-access facility that will be good enough for decades.
Putting the long-overdue Dick Butkus statue nearby is a nice touch.
Work to do
Yes, the Ubben Basketball Complex needs an update. And the baseball training facility is in line.
But football isn’t done with its rebuild.
The north and west sides of Memorial Stadium are good to go. The fans there will be thrilled to be able to buy a beer this year.
But the east stands and the horseshoe need updating. At one point, there was talk that the new training facility would be part of the horseshoe renovations. That idea was discarded. The need for south end zone work remains.
It doesn’t have to be anything too elaborate. Just get that part of the building equal or close to the rest. More bathrooms. Increased concession options.
Illinois has a blank canvas and there are no rules. The program needs to take advantage of the free space in my favorite building on campus.
It won’t cost another $80 million to spruce up the place. Maybe half that. Well worth the trouble.
As college football celebrates its 150th birthday this season, Memorial Stadium, when everything is done, should be good to go for at least the next 100.
Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.