Werner: Another big-boy step for Illini football

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner gives his thoughts on the Illini football facilities renovation plan

Josh Whitman is smart enough to know that he probably shouldn't invest unprecedented resources into a splash head coaching hire without giving him the ammo to compete in the Big Ten arms race. That's why Whitman gave Smith a $4 million staffing pool that compares to Ohio State and Michigan. And that's why during his pursuit of Smith, Whitman sold the former NFL coach on the $132 million football facilities upgrade he announced publicly on Monday.

"It was a big part of the conversation," Whitman said. "Certainly if I was Coach Smith, I would want to understand that there's an institutional commitment to the program that I'm considering coaching. So when I went down to Tampa and met with Lovie that first conversation, it was a major part of the discussion. I wanted him to understand that we understand what's necessary to build a championship program and that we were going to give him the resources necessary."

This is big-boy football investment. Obviously, Illinois and Smith have a long way to go. They're 1-3 this season -- though those losses are to the Nos. 12, 17 and 26 programs in this week's AP Poll -- and will likely have a bottom-three roster in the Big Ten next season. But this project is meant to help Smith change that in the long-term.

"One (of the reasons for the project), most importantly, is to attract good people," Whitman said. "Again, people are most important. The facilities attract the people. They demonstrate an institutional commitment from our athletic program, our institution, our university to field and sustain that championship football program. That goes for attracting coaches. That goes for attracting student-athletes. That certainly is a primary driver for us."

John Groce said it best. Facilities probably won't win you a recruitment. But if you aren't up to par with your conference competitors, facilities certainly can lose you a recruitment. Whitman admitted Illinois was in the "bottom quartile" -- how many ADs drop quartile in normal conversation? -- and they're probably worse than that. This project fixes that issue.

Saturdays at Memorial Stadium will be improved for the fans, but this project is mostly about Sunday through Friday. The football operations building in the northeast section of the stadium was built in 1985. Despite some enhancements at the entrance of the football staff offices and the recruiting offices, the building still looks like it was built in 1985. There's even a room with wood paneling. The position meeting rooms are tiny and out-dated. The coaches' offices are unimpressive, including the head coach's space. The Illini not only need more space for flash, they need more, better space for utility purposes.

Whitman made sure to re-iterate twice that taxpayers don't pay for this project. Rather, it is paid for by donations, ticket revenue and the fat media-rights deals negotiated by the Big Ten. Knowing "highest-paid state employee" lists (always populated by football coaches) always cause a fervor to the uninformed, Whitman tried to remind the public that the DIA has a separate, self-funded, independent budget from the university. But that didn't stop the trolls from coming out Monday night. Whatever gets you noticed...

Mike Thomas deserves some credit here. He and his staff did a lot of the groundwork on this project, including the commissioning of the initial renderings. Thomas had some good ideas in his time at Illinois. He thought bigger than his predecessor. He understood national branding and marketing. What he failed to do was attract the coaches necessary to build that national brand and connect with the fan base enough to create excitement despite on-the-field struggles.

Whitman speaks Illini. Reaffirming that Memorial Stadium will never have a corporate sponsor was the latest example. As well as, "There's a commitment here to building a championship football program at the University of Illinois. We believe that that program is necessary for us to achieving our goals as an athletic program, in order for us to achieve our opportunity and realize our full potential as a university."

The Dick Butkus statue makes too much sense. Except that statues can cost a quarter to half a million dollars. Got a rich friend?

Next on the facilities improvement priority list? Whitman wouldn't divulge those on Monday. But it has to be a new Illini basketball practice complex. Illinois has looked into a new facility attached to State Farm Center (probably to the north side). Such a project would probably cost around $40-50 million. Yes, baseball needs a new stadium (about $15-20 million?). Yes, some of the Olympic sports need some upgrades. But football and basketball are the moneymakers. When those two programs are doing well, the other programs should flourish as well (look at Ohio State).

Take a look at the latest Golfweek.com collegiate individual rankings. No. 2 -- Nick Hardy, Illinois junior. No. 3 -- Dylan Meyer, Illinois junior. No. 32 -- Bryan Baumgarten, Illinois freshman. No. 49 -- Michael Feagles, Illinois freshman. No. 66 -- Eduardo Lipparelli, Illinois freshman. Yes, Illinois is the No. 1 team in the country. As I wrote last month, Illinois golf is better than ever. Oh, and how about alum Thomas Pieters? After a 4-1 mark at the Ryder Cup, Pieters has proven he's one of the best in the world.

And Illinois women's golf appears to be benefiting from the Illini men's rise to prominence. Renee Sloan's team -- which has access to the elite Illini golf facilities -- currently ranks No. 19 in the country.


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