Keith Washington saw the usual bullet points laid out in front of him when he took a visit to campus in April. Academics. Big Ten. Chicago. The ABCs (quite literally) of Northwestern recruiting are enough to leave most prospects with a positive experience, and they make preliminary interviews with NU targets as consistent as they are predictable.
This spring, however, we accounted for more variety. Expectations weighted, the Wildcats were coming off of one of the most disastrous seasons in program history, and union news didn't help the volatility.
But as Nick and I began making rounds and reaching out to a new list of recruits, we noticed another factor that kept coming into conversation. Ask Washington about that first visit and he doesn't give a whole lot; ask about the plans for Northwestern's new football facilities and you find out that a second visit is being planned.
"It's probably going to be one of the best in the country," he tells me. "Definitely in the top five."
Aside from promotional postcards, there's nothing tangible about the new facilities. There won't be here until 2015, when construction is set to begin. But as Northwestern builds on a nationally ranked recruiting class, the facility blueprints are becoming just as persuasive a factor as the skyline that sits beyond the mammoth glass walls.
"This is the glitz and glamour that gets you in the door," says Director of Player Personnel Chris Bowers.
And as expected, the appeal extends beyond a nice view from the weight room.
"Northwestern still lacks behind most major-conference programs," reads blurb No. 12. It comes from a ranking of the Big Ten Football facilities on ESPN.com back in 2012, and NU was dead last.
Two years later, the program climbed to No. 11 on BTN.com's blog that ranked the conference's members based on recruiting appeal.
"If you want a tradition-dipped program, keep looking. If you want a knock-your-socks-off game-day experience, keep looking," wrote Tom Dienhart. "If you want Taj Mahal facilities, keep looking."
NU's most touted commits have been described by outsiders as steals. It's a copout, of course, but it's not entirely misleading. Northwestern's Class of 2014 featured three four-star recruits — initially four with Dareian Watkins — each of who held offers from schools with more prestige and recent success. Northwestern wasn't stealing anybody, but recruitments did rely more upon forging personal connections and getting players to believe in a vision, rather than relying on what was already in place.
In a sense, the Wildcats were landing commitments from nationally ranked talents for more unconventional reasons.
The lakeside facilities become one of the program's first disregards for subtlety.
The two-building complex will sit on the shore of Lake Michigan, and will boast a price tag exceeding $220 million. The Chicago Tribune dubbed it a "365-day facility," one that offers players not only top-notch athletic materials but a sleek place to eat, study and spent down time.
"It's going to be two times bigger than the football field," Washington beams. "They took me out by the lake and emphasized how the glass windows will have Chicago right in the background. And the beach is the best part of the pitch. You want to know that you're practicing at the best possible place, and they remind you of that with a lot of mail with pictures of what the facility is supposed to look like."
The influx of mail is no surprise. Facilities were given the green light March 14, roughly three and a half months after The Season From Hell concluded and one and a half after Kain Colter announced that he and his teammates were filing for unionization. A month after word of the facilities broke, Northwestern had secured six pledges, including a pair of four-stars in Andrew and David Dowell.
Not every recruit has the excitement of Keith Washington. Depending on who you ask, the future facilities range from a game-changing recruiting tool to just another bullet point, if not a sub-point.
"It's definitely benefits them that they can pitch the facilities right now, and for me it was a nice bonus," says Andrew Dowell. "But I don't think it was a deciding factor."
Dowell, who hails from Lakewood, Ohio, used to spend summers training with friends in the sand by Lake Erie. He knows the appeal of beachside facilities, but he also emphasizes that there are many other aspects to football, even in the most structural sense. He's quick to point out that the Wildcats won't be playing any games in the place they're set to eventually practice in.
Three-star DE commit Zach Allen wasn't on the same page as the blogs in the first place.
"The quality looks surreal, but honestly, I already thought Northwestern had great facilities," he says. "They were definitely the nicest of any school I toured."
When Allen and his father visited campus in April, they were met by a BTN camera team covering the facility plans by the lake. Though he consents that he did enjoy the hype, practice space was near the bottom of Allen's priorities.
The correlation between new facilities and bigger recruiting classes remains to be seen. That same ESPN article has Wisconsin ranked below Purdue, Indiana and Illinois, though the Badgers landed more four-stars (four) than the other three combined last year. The UCLA Bruins have sub-par facilities. The program still landed 10 four-stars in its 2014 class, and has already received verbals two 2015 five-stars, including national No. 1 quarterback Josh Rosen.
Most likely, Northwestern's lakeside facilities will have a more distinct effect on recruiting when recruits can actually walk through it. But until 2017, the expected year of completion, the facilities will have potential sway.
Zach Allen does care about the facilities. It just reaches beyond the dimensions of the blueprint.
"I do believe these facilities will draw new players, because they show a commitment to the future," he says. "It shows how much they believe in the foundation they have and what our class can bring. Coach Fitz's contract goes until 2020, and if I redshirt, that's how long I would be playing there. Giving him these facilities shows how much the school is invested in him, and us."
Dowell adds that he's less excited about the prospect of moving into the facilities by his sophomore year than he is about what the program at large could look like when he's a senior. The aesthetic is what draws the attention of standout recruits like Keith Washington; the principle associated with spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a location to work out in is what lands Andrew and David Dowell.
Unlike a decade ago, Northwestern Football isn't vying for national attention or recognition. NU played four of its first seven games on the ABC/ESPN family of networks last fall, and the dwindling minority of those still using "NWU" as an abbreviation were corrected by SportsCenter's tedious union updates. The new priority is building upon and solidifying that recognition with an investment in the future. Half a year after the school hosted College GameDay, Northwestern sends another extreme message to the new eyes taking notice.
"If you visit the University of Alabama and you know nothing about the school, you can be on campus for five minutes and still realize that football is really important there. At Northwestern, you have a lot of academic entities that are priorities, and now we're showing that football is important as well," says Bowers. "A lot of programs talk about supporting football. Well, our head coach made a commitment of 10 years to us, and we're making a reciprocal commitment. That's something."
Bowers notes that like the University's deal with Under Armour, the new facility plans have more recruits "test driving our car." But NU is no longer worrying about getting big names to take test drives, and the only D-I program with its entire staff returning for a fourth straight year isn't worried about internal commitment, either. A $220 million pledge forces realization that Northwestern Football is taking itself seriously and ready to enter college football's perennial elites.
And that, more than any bullet point, turns a test drive into a sale.