Northwestern officially announced its $110-million renovations to Welsh-Ryan Arena on Thursday during a press conference. Our Sam Brief and Martin Oppegaard were there and took notes. Here are their takeaways from what was a very happy, exciting day.
Sam Brief: So Martin, there was a lot of positivity at the press conference today announcing the Welsh-Ryan Arena renovations. What was your biggest takeaway?
Martin Oppegaard: You know what Sam, I was about to ask you the same question. One of the big things that stood out to me was how genuinely happy Jim Phillips was.
Worth mentioning that Jim Phillips came up to us after the conference raving about how big this is. He's genuinely ecstatic.— Inside NU (@insidenu) June 16, 2016
He knows how crucial the Welsh-Ryan renovation is for Northwestern athletics and he couldn't stop talking about it. He even came up to us after the press conference, completely unprompted, and began raving about the impact that new Welsh-Ryan will have on both Northwestern, and the community in which it resides. He continuously thanked everyone at the press conference for their support; his positivity was contagious. What stood out to you?
SB: I agree, it was clear from the start that Phillips was beaming. The overall atmosphere was really positive — no doubt this was a bright day for Northwestern athletics. For me, it's the contrast Phillips, the Ryan family, the Wilson family and the coaches drew between Northwestern and other schools in terms of the funding. Phillips was actually really straight up about it — he said that, for other schools, a lot of funding for projects like these come from athletics revenues, Big Ten dollars, etc. For Northwestern, it's almost all comes from from the donations of the Ryan and Wilson families. To me, it was interesting that Phillips was so straight up about that, as Northwestern doesn't want to take the same path of Eastern Michigan, which jacked up the tuition price by about $1,000 per student.
MO: Couldn't agree more, it was really nice to see both the Wilson and Ryan family receive the recognition they deserve for making the renovations possible. I know you had the opportunity to speak with the Wilson's and Pat Ryan, what did you learn?
SB: I did. I had a chance to speak with the Wilsons and also with Pat Ryan after the presser. From the Wilsons, I learned that the project wasn't really a sales pitch from Phillips to the donors. Steve Wilson and Jim Phillips are actually very close friends, and he said that the idea to renovate was a pretty long-term idea that simply became a reality recently. Pat Ryan was really interesting to talk to. He's been a Northwestern basketball fan for 61 years now, and was adamant that this move will catapult Northwestern to a new level in Big Ten and in national circles. He, Phillips and Chris Collins all talked about how they want to retain the classic feel of Welsh-Ryan and that bigger doesn't mean better. They've drawn inspiration from Cameron Indoor (Duke), Pauley Pavilion (UCLA) and Allen Fieldhouse (Kansas). Seating capacity might not change. It might even decrease due to the stacked theater-style seating that'll be employed. Ryan summed it up perfectly when he told me: "It's not going to be the biggest. But it'll be the best."
Seems like another hot topic today was where Northwestern will play during the 2017-18 season. Martin, I know you wrote about this. What did you learn today?
MO: You know, I wasn't expecting Phillips to give away much about potential 2017-2018 homes. Unsurprisingly, he was very coy when talking about this, joking about how Northwestern will be like the Harlem Globetrotters and play each game in a different stadium. He didn't reveal a lot about Northwestern's plan for the 2017-2018 season and shied away from delving into the specifics, but he did say there is a lot of interest from different facilities in hosting Northwestern athletics for a season. Phillips also hinted at potentially using multiple venues, where one is the anchor facility and the other could host four or five games. Of course he mentioned his pride and joy, the "Chicago's Big Ten Team" slogan, which he would undoubtedly like to be able to advance in the 2017-2018 campaign. I wouldn't be surprised to see Northwestern bounce around at multiple venues.
Personally, I think the farther away you go, the fewer students you get. For that reason, I'm hoping the "anchor facility" that Phillips mentioned is somewhere close to campus and the "four or five game" host is the United Center.
SB: The "Chicago's Big Ten Team" slogan is a big sell. And playing games in Chicago during the 2017-18 season would advance that—it definitely seemed like that's what Phillips was hinting at. I'm pulling for Loyola because of the short drive—a game or two at the United Center would be fantastic. Worst-case scenario: Allstate Arena. So far away.
MO: Also, Chris Collins, Joe McKeown, Shane Davis, and Matt Storniolo were all there and fielded questions. Did anything they said stick out to you?
SB: Obviously, the No. 1 angle is recruiting. The most interesting note for me was from Collins, after the press conference. I asked him about how the perception of Northwestern basketball can change and he said, "There was always a perception that I heard quietly. Even when I took the job, I was excited, but I heard a lot of naysayers saying, ‘Why would you go to a place that doesn't want to be great? They're not going to give you the things you need to be an elite basketball program.' ... I saw right away that wasn't going to be the case. With this new facility, that only adds to it. People can say, ‘They do want to win. They do care.'"
To me, it was interesting because it echoed what Ryan said — that in the 1950s when he first attended Northwestern games at McGaw Hall, the school tried to be magnificent academically, but not athletically — they just wanted to be mediocre. That's changed. My biggest takeaway is that Northwestern is serious about athletic success, especially about basketball success. And the administration and donors want to show that.
MO: You're spot on. Each coach stressed the importance that the renovation has on recruiting. They felt like an elite, world-class facility was truly the only thing missing here at Northwestern and that the $110 million renovation is just as much of a statement of competitiveness and it is a commitment to excellence.
SB: Exactly. There were some good soundbites today. What's your favorite?
MO: So many good quotes, I don't know where to start. Maybe Shirley Welsh Ryan's hot take when she said that sports are "at the core of our democracy."
SB: I can't compete with that. Nothing better. I believe we had a response to that on Twitter with #MakeAmericaSportsAgain.
MO: How that is not trending yet is beyond me. Runner-up goes to Joe McKeown when he said "I think Pat (Ryan) wanted to get a better seat at our games."
SB: Also, I know this is under the radar, but I was a big fan of Pat Ryan starting off with "I go by Pat" after being introduced as Patrick Ryan. Nothing special, but it made me smile. He's a great guy.
MO: That just made my day. I was waiting for someone to laugh when he said that but the room was silent. Pat, if you're out there reading at home, we understand your sense of humor. I also feel like I learned too much about the Ryan family garden today.
SBf: I think this is a good spot to wrap it up.
MO: Before we go, we were promised "light refreshments" at the press conference. I know you were testing their weight all afternoon, which one was in fact the lightest?
SB: There was a tough choice I had to make between the lemon water and the watermelon water. I knew I wanted the watermelon water—nothing better on a crisp summer day. But I froze. I went with the lemon water and I must say it was extremely light. How about you?
MO: I have nothing but respect for that decision, you went with what you know, you took the easy two points. I chose the path less traveled and went with watermelon despite there being twice as much lemon water offered. Absolutely no regrets, best decision I've made in a long time.
SB: I'm still craving that sweet, sweet watermelon water. Bonehead move by me.
For all of your coverage of Northwestern's renovations to Welsh-Ryan Arena, check below: