Illinois changes Memorial Stadium renovation plans

21 June 2017

Illinois has changed plans for a multimillion-dollar football facilities project, athletic director Josh Whitman said Tuesday.

The university has postponed plans to renovate the south horseshoe of Memorial Stadium with an attached football training facility and grandstand. Instead, it will build a stand-alone facility attached to the indoor practice facility behind the stadium.

Construction on the new facility is scheduled to begin in early 2018 and be completed in the summer of 2019. The plan awaits various committee and board of trustees approvals.

Whitman said the Memorial Stadium renovations are on hold for now. The new facility is expected to cost between $60 million and $80 million, Whitman said, which is significantly less than the $135 million plan initiated under former AD Mike Thomas and announced in October.

Whitman said cost was not the impetus for changing plans. "You're not constrained by the footprint of the stadium," he said.

Whitman toured facilities at programs such as Wisconsin, Nebraska, Penn State, Oregon, Texas A&M, Clemson, Kansas State and Tennessee.

Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska have some of the most lavish football facilities in the Big Ten. Purdue is finishing a $60 million complex. Minnesota's $166 million Athletes Village project that will house two football facilities is expected to be finished in January 2018.

Northwestern's $260 million lakefront facility, which will also benefit other athletic programs and the general student population, is slated to open in the spring of 2018.

Illinois' football facility will include offices for coaches, a training room, locker room, weight room and meeting rooms. "It will be incredible," Whitman said.

The athletic department operated at a deficit last year, Whitman told the university senate executive committee in May, bringing in $91.6 million with expenses of $97.8 million.

"I really shy away from the term arms race," he said Tuesday about athletic programs competing to build the best facilities. "I don't necessarily disagree. It demonstrates an institution's commitment to a particular sport, and that matters (in recruiting)."

Whitman noted he is considering other facility upgrades for baseball, soccer, indoor track and gymnastics. The university will explore a new or upgraded basketball practice facility "at the right time," he said.

"I don't think it's a disadvantage, but I also don't think it's an advantage," Whitman said of the current basketball facility.

He said he hopes fans can see seeds of change within the football program under coach Lovie Smith, whose team went 3-9 last year in his first season.

"We are in this for the long haul," Whitman said. "We're developing a plan here that is going to yield long-term success. Let's not panic.

"We've told donors, we've told ticket holders, we've told fans: We need that buy-in now. You can't just wait to buy tickets until after we're good. We need you to support us now in the moment and help us make the change and flip the switch. It's happening."

Illinois will host a gala Friday night at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago to announce its inaugural Athletics Hall of Fame class. The event will include Illini greats Dick Butkus, Dee Brown, Nick Anderson and Mannie Jackson.

The 28-member class will be inducted at the State Farm Center in Champaign on Sept. 30. The inductees also include Jerry Colangelo, George Halas and Deron Williams.