Northwestern basketball did a very big thing yesterday.
Ryan Northwestern University is spending 9 figures worth of money to spruce up Welsh-Ryan Arena. Seriously.
It even came with fancy drawings!
Northwestern is running out a lineup of Tre Demps (he's in the paint), JerShon Cobb (that's his number 23 and shooting pose), Nate Taphorn (chilling in his right wing hot spot), a white dude wearing No. 3 (which has to be Mike Capocci) and a No. 11 (which is probably Reggie Hearn). The fans are holding John Shurna heads. This is a bizarro world of Northwestern basketball, and I am entirely here for it. But back to my original point.
Welsh-Ryan Arena in its current iteration is the second or third worst stadium in the conference (good looking out, Penn State's Bryce Jordan Center and Rutgers's RAC). From a fan perspective, Welsh-Ryan sports horrifically uncomfortable benches with dramatically outdated concourses that sell terrible food from too few concession stands. Bringing all of those aspects — basic elements of any arena — into the 21st century will be great, even if having a third deck that is four rows deep in a stadium that holds only 8,000 people looks objectively ridiculous.
It'll be even better for the players. The depth cues will (almost undoubtedly) be better. The stadium will actually look and feel like a college stadium, not a high school gym. That is a selling point. Heck, anything better than a giant, neon, red sign saying "go anywhere else" is a step up from the facilities Northwestern is selling right now. Ask anyone who deals with Northwestern recruiting and they'll let you know how big of a deal this is. Here's what Luke Srodulski, who joined us a few weeks back on Pound the Talk, thinks.
If all goes well, the Welsh-Ryan renovations will shore up what has been Northwestern's biggest recruiting weakness. https://t.co/6zNyzJhLvQ— Luke Srodulski (@lsrodulski) June 14, 2016
I've talked to recruits who have given glowing reviews of Northwestern. Then when I ask about the facilities, it's, "Um yeah, they're good."— Luke Srodulski (@lsrodulski) June 14, 2016
The new stadium is another step on Northwestern's road to legitimacy in basketball. A redoubled effort in recruiting under the Collins administration was one step. Simple things like chartering flights, of which Chris Collins alluded Northwestern hadn't done previously in an interview with the Washington Post, were others. Ever since Collins has come to Evanston, the basketball program has been modernized and rejuvenated, thanks in no small part to Mr. Benjamin Franklin, the deep pockets of Northwestern alumni, and the deepening pockets of the Northwestern athletic department.
Read More on the Renovations
Read More on the Renovations
Are there still institutional barriers keeping Northwestern from being a legitimate Big Ten basketball contender right now? Sure. But during the past four years, the administration has worked tirelessly and spent generously to knock down as many of those barriers as they possibly can.
This latest move is not the move of an athletic department that has any worries about the direction of the men's basketball program. This is a move that screams "We are going to be legit on and off the court, dammit, and soon." If you're an athletic director who doesn't completely believe that your men's basketball program is close to real on-court success, you don't spend this kind of money. Extending Chris Collins and giving him a raise before this past season was perhaps as much a show of good faith than it was a statement of full-fledged support. This is a $110,000,000 statement of "This basketball program is good and will be even better soon."
Jim Phillips is playing the futures market, and he's feeling bullish. He's looking at a team that just won 20 games (however legitimate you think that tally may or may not be) and a coach who continues to rake in recruits. It may just be a happy coincidence that the first season in the new arena will be the season after Chris Collins' first recruiting class — leading a team many think could have the talent to finally make the NCAA Tournament — graduates, but that fact is hard to ignore. Could there be a more dreamlike scenario than opening up a new arena and christening it by hanging a "WE FINALLY MADE THE NCAA TOURNAMENT" banner? On the other hand, if Northwestern ends up on the darker, sans-tournament timeline, the new stadium could be a $110,000,000 weight tied to the head coach. It could also be a $110,000,000 chip for a different coach. Whatever strange futures you wish to imagine, you come up with one takeaway: The administration is more invested in basketball now than it has been ever before.
With the stroke of a pen and emptying of the coffers, Northwestern has largely fixed its biggest recruiting negative. That should mean hitting on bigger targets, putting out a better product, and, hopefully becoming a program that can consistently hang with its Big Ten peers.
That's what Jim Phillips just put a $110,000,000 bet on.
Northwestern fans will be waiting anxiously to see whether it was a good one.