Move-in date for new football facility set for late July


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CHAMPAIGN — Before Illinois football holds its first practice on Aug. 2, they'll get the chance to enjoy the new amenities offered at the newest athletic facility on the UI campus.

Coach Lovie Smith and his staff are set to move into the $80 million Henry Dale and Betty Smith Football Performance Center in late July, Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said on Tuesday, with the players viewing their new facility on the east side of Memorial Stadium on Aug. 1.

"A lot of exciting things still to happen around that building," Whitman said.

A public dedication of the facility, along with the unveiling of a statue to recognize former Illini great Dick Butkus, which will go outside the buildling, is planned for Oct. 11, a day before Illinois hosts Michigan for the first time at Memorial Stadium since 2011.

"They will probably be in staggered ceremonies," Whitman said. "I don't think it'll all happen at the same moment. We want Dick to have his moment and the Smith family to have their moment as well, but certainly, it's a big day in the history of our program."

Whitman said he has visited roughly 20-25 different college football facilities around the country and said he wouldn't trade any of them for what Illinois will have with the Smith Center once it opens.

"I'm excited for our team to get in it," Whitman said, "and I'm really excited to share it with the people who have decided to share so generously with it."

Brett Stillwell, Illinois' senior associate director of athletics for capital projects and facilities, has helped oversee construction of the Smith Center from the start.

"Through design and construction with this project, it's going to end up being a project of 19 months, which for a building of this size, is extremely fast," Stillwell said. "I'm really pleased with everyone's efforts there."

Stillwell said the project is on budget and on schedule.

"The bones of the building are all complete," Stillwell said. "We're deep into the finishing touches with the ceramic tile, the carpeting, the wall coverings and the painting. Most of the lighting is in, but some of the creative and special lighting is still being worked on."

One aspect of the new Smith Center is it will allow other Illinois athletic teams to take advantage of space inside Memorial Stadium that is currently used by the football team. All of the team's meeting rooms, coaches' offices, sports medicine facilities, weight room and other amenities currently located inside the northeast part of Memorial Stadium will be shifted to the Smith Center. The team will still use the locker room inside Memorial Stadium, but only on gamedays. Included in those plans is for the weight room that the football team typically uses at Memorial Stadium to become one used by all Illinois sports.

"That creates a lot of new square footage for us," Whitman said. "As you can imagine, there's been a lot of ideas on how to use that real estate. What we intend is to make that really a space and a hub for all of our student-athletes with a lot of our support services in that space."

"When we transition out of that part of the building in August, we'll shut as much of it down as we can for a few months while we paint and clean it," Whitman said. "The thing hasn't been emptied in 30 years, so we want to do it right."

Stillwell said in conversations he's had with Smith since the project started, he can tell the Illinois coach is eager to get into the new facility.

"Every time I see him, he asks me about it and gets a big smile on his face," Stillwell said. "I can tell he's excited about it. I was starting with athletics when he first came on campus. We've had discussions from the inception on what he wanted it to be, and we've moved down that track towards where we are now."

Along with the Smith Center, Whitman provided updates on several other athletic facility projects on the UI campus:

— A patio that exists outside of the football team's current coaches offices in the northeast part of Memorial Stadium will be added to the gameday experience starting in 2019.

"We're actually going to tear a wall down and make that a student space, so the students will be able to move from the north stands into more of a social area," Whitman said. "We'll have high-top tables there, grills, bars, umbrellas and a place for them to really socialize and enjoy the game from a different perspective."

— No firm timeline exists yet for when $30 million worth of renovations to the Ubben Basketball Complex will be complete, but fundraising is ongoing.

"We've made some significant progress on the fundraising path," Whitman said. "We expect that to continue to move forward in relatively short order."

— Whitman said construction on the soccer field at Demirjian Park, the new facility that will go up along St. Mary's Road in Champaign to house both soccer and track and field programs, is going well, but the team's new field might not be ready in time for the start of the 2019 season.

"Looking forward to getting soccer out on there this fall," Whitman said. "We'll get the sod laid at some point this month and we'll have soccer out there competing as we head through the fall. I don't know if they'll be ready for the first soccer game, but at some point mid-season, we'll transition them over to the new field, which is important because come September and October, we need to start on the second phase of that project, which is reconstruction of the track facility. Before we can do that, we have to get soccer on to their new field."

— Volleyball, wrestling, men's gymnastics and women's gymnastics currently call Huff Hall home. If a new arena is built in downtown Champaign to serve as the home venue for a new men's hockey team, those sports would move away from Huff.

"The university is always looking for new real estate," Whitman said. "Obviously, Huff has the distinction of being one of the few facilities we share with campus. My expectation is that we would turn a lot of that square footage back over to the campus to use at their discretion. Ultimately, what they would choose to do with that is out of my wheelhouse. Eventually, we'd like to transition all the strength and conditioning functions, all the sports medicine facilities, all the equipment that we have there into the new north Memorial Stadium facility. That will all take time to come to pass, but our hope in the long term is to have track and field locker rooms in Huff, and that's about it."