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Northwestern is one of America’s foremost research universities, with an endowment that exceeds $11 billion.
It is a charter member of the Big Ten Conference, but has never been renowned for its athletic success and certainly not for the opulence of its arenas.
Which makes what happened Aug. 1, 2018, so startling. On that day, campus dignitaries gathered to dedicate the Walter Athletic Center, a gleaming newcomer on the shore of Lake Michigan north of Chicago. The building wrapped in glass is the centerpiece of a $270 million outlay by the university’s athletic department and a bold statement that Northwestern, with the smallest enrollment in the Big Ten, is intent on running with the big dogs in college sports.
“If you’re a student and you visit Northwestern and you walk into the libraries, it’s clear immediately that this is a place that cares about learning and books. And if you walk into the laboratories, it’s clear that this is a place that cares about research,” said Northwestern associate athletic director Paul Kennedy.
“Now, when you walk in to these facilities, it is a place that believes that we can be great in athletics. And when you’re recruiting against places that have beautiful facilities, particularly in the Big Ten, you want to be competing on a level playing field.”
The Walter Athletic Center anchors the north end of the Northwestern campus, offering stunning views of the lake and the Chicago skyline. It is where Wildcat athletes gather to eat, study and train. Next door is the other half of the $270 million project, Ryan Fieldhouse, a 94,000-square-foot building that contains an indoor football practice field and which hosted six lacrosse games last year.
The new buildings are three-quarters of a mile east of Ryan Field, where Northwestern (1-5, 0-4 Big Ten) will host No. 19 Iowa (5-2, 2-2) in an 11 a.m. Saturday football game. They were not there the last time Hawkeye football fans descended on Evanston in 2017. They are not open to the public, but fans might want to wander over to take a look. The fieldhouse and athletic center represent a trend on major-college campuses, where erecting glitzy sports facilities is in full bloom.
Iowa, other Big Ten schools spend for buildings that cater to football players
The money Northwestern spent was all privately raised, including a donation from Cedar Rapids native Mark Walter and his wife, Kim, sizable enough to have their name attached to the athletic center. Walter is CEO of the global financial services firm Guggenheim Partners and part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Walter Athletic Center houses all 500 Wildcat athletes who compete in 19 sports, not just the football team. That is a rare approach. Most college sports departments that are in the facility race are catering the construction to football, where the payoff is thought to be the biggest.
“It’s really changed everything for the 500 student-athletes we have. We used to have limited space and the facilities were spread out. It was difficult to go back and forth from class, the libraries and dorms,” Kennedy said.
“We never really had a central gathering place for the kids. Now, if you walk into our dining center, you’ll see four tables of football players next to two tables of basketball players next to a table of golfers and one with wrestlers and cross-country runners. It’s really the town square, for lack of a better term.”
Northwestern may be the biggest spender, but it’s hardly alone among Big Ten schools ponying up for new digs for their football players.
- Iowa opened the $55 million Stew and LeNore Hansen Football Performance Center in 2015 just west of Kinnick Stadium. It measures 178,000 square feet, 23,000 of which comprise the weight room.
- Maryland is in phase two of construction on the Cole Field House Performance Center, which will be 180,000 square feet and contain two Bermuda-grass football practice fields. The price tag is up to $196 million, but that includes a separate building devoted to sports medicine, including, interestingly, research into serious brain injuries caused by playing football.
- This year, Nebraska announced plans for a 350,000-square-foot home to its football team north of Memorial Stadium. It is scheduled to open in the summer of 2022 at a cost of $155 million.
- Illinois recently opened its 107,650-square-foot football complex, complete with a bowling alley, game room and barber shop for the players. It cost $79.2 million.
- Penn State is spending $69 million to renovate the Lasch Building, its indoor football facility.
- Purdue finished work on the Kozuch Football Complex in 2017, with a price tag of $65 million. Of its 112,000 square feet, 20,900 were set aside for the locker room.
- By comparison, Indiana went the frugal route, carving out 25,000 square feet beneath the west stands of Memorial Stadium for the Terry Tallen Football Complex this year. It spent only $8.5 million for a new locker room, training area and players’ lounge.
Lavish spending on athletics draws critics: 'This is all fantasy'
And that’s just the Big Ten.
Clemson upped the ante on amenities for its football players in 2017 with a $55 million facility that contains an indoor slide and a miniature golf course.
This year, LSU spent $28 million to renovate its football complex. The new wrinkle that caught everyone’s attention? Sleeping pods for each player, in case they want to nap in the locker room.
While college athletic officials view this all as providing luxury for their football players, others see it as lunacy.
“They feel that they have the money and the need to keep up. Whether you’re winning or you’re losing, the antidote is, of course, to construct more,” said John Thelin, a professor at Kentucky and author of “A History of American Higher Education.”
“I just can’t figure out where it’s going to end, because it seems outlandish.”
Thelin believes some university athletic departments will get left behind if spending keeps growing as it has.
“They’re going to try desperately to keep up,” he said. “But I think a lot of programs probably are financially precarious — and probably will be cross-subsidized by their universities.”
Gerald Gurney is a past president of the Drake Group, whose mission “is to defend academic integrity in higher education from the corrosive aspects of commercialized college sports.” He teaches courses about athletics in higher education at Oklahoma.
Gurney, who got his Ph.D. from Iowa State, routinely tours new college sports facilities and is dismayed by what he sees.
“There is nothing that is remotely connected to being at an academic institution. This is all fantasy. This is all about giant slides and laser tag and beach volleyball and other nonsense to distract athletes,” Gurney said.
“And it also begs the question as to, ‘Well, if you’re wasting all this money unnecessarily, why don’t you just pay the athletes?’”
Gurney believes universities are misguided in their attempts to keep up with the Clemsons. Spending lavishly on locker rooms isn’t necessary to gain a recruiting advantage, he contends; those decisions are still based largely on the connection athletes feel with the coaches.
“A nice locker is a nice locker. Does it have to be stainless steel? Does it have to have a 60-inch screen above it with their image on it? I don’t think so,” Gurney said.
“I would conclude that it is absolutely a folly.”
At Northwestern: 'We might as well try to be great in everything'
Kennedy, of course, doesn’t see it that way. He said Northwestern’s athletic facilities were long overdue for an upgrade, especially when compared to Big Ten peers. He said Wildcats athletic director Jim Phillips toured about 65 professional and college sports complexes before undertaking what would become Ryan Fieldhouse and the Walter Athletic Center.
The cost was so high in part because of the location, overhanging Lake Michigan with a residential neighborhood on the other side.
“Everything is first-class, no doubt about it. But there’s not a lot of frills. There’s no mini-golf courses. If it’s not necessary for the day-to-day student-athlete development experience, it’s really not in there,” Kennedy said.
“If we’re going to try to be great, we might as well try to be great in everything. You only get to build one of these things once, probably, and it was important to try to do it right.”
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.
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