By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) The 76th edition of the men’s basketball NCAA Tournament begins today, and for the 76th straight year, the Northwestern Wildcats will honor the event in the only way they know how.
By following it from home.
As the only major conference school in America to never reach the Big Dance, Northwestern exists in a realm that perhaps only Cubs fans can understand, and even they know what the postseason feels like.
Like the Cubs, Northwestern also plays in an aging venue that’s in need of work. But unlike Wrigley Field – which is slated for a massive overhaul (eventually) – Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston isn’t due to get any more than a touch-up in the foreseeable future. However, if Northwestern really wants to become a perennial player in the Big Ten basketball race – and even the occasional qualifier for the NCAA Tournament – it needs to do more for its home court.
Last week, Northwestern announced that it’s embarking upon a record-setting $3.75 billion fundraising campaign, of which much of the cash is earmarked for the construction of new buildings, including an athletics and recreation complex along Lake Michigan that’s expected to cost more than $220 million.
The facility, scheduled to open in 2015, has been called a “game-changer” by Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald, who believes it will help boost his program by offering the opportunity to impress recruits with Chicago skyline views while also providing the current players with a new dining hall, film rooms and practice fields.
Last fall on national signing day, Fitzgerald said of the complex: “A lot of other universities have made the decision just to do the stadium. We’ve put the priority on student-athletes with a 365-day facility. We already have everything we need to win, but now we’ll be able to compete facility-wise with anyone in the country.”
That’s great for Wildcats football. But when it comes to Northwestern’s moribund basketball program – which just completed a 14-19 season and is in need of help even more than the pigskin product – I guess the university has made the decision to not even do the stadium.
Not significantly, at least.
Last November, the Chicago Tribune did report that during this offseason, Northwestern has plans to replace the much-mocked purple-stained court at Welsh-Ryan and will also install a new video scoreboard to replace the arena’s woefully outdated model. The school also will put purple-cushioned chair-backs in place of the bench seating on the side of the court behind the benches.
For an arena as cramped, outdated and unattractive as Welsh-Ryan, however, those measures amount to little more than putting lipstick on a game of P-I-G.
According to the Tribune, Welsh-Ryan has largely been neglected by the school since a $6.75 million renovation way back in 1984, when Northwestern coach Chris Collins’ dad, Doug, was drawing up plays for a Chicago Bulls rookie named Michael Jordan. The newspaper reported that beyond the impending touch-ups for Welsh-Ryan, there are no current plans to renovate the concourse, bathrooms and concessions, all of which fall below the quality you’ll find at many high schools along the North Shore.
For a Big Ten basketball program, doing so little just doesn’t cut it. Especially not when a school like Nebraska just unveiled a new arena, while in-state rival Illinois has begun work on a $165 million renovation of the State Farm Center.
Northwestern also hasn’t enhanced its football facilities since 1997, when it spent $30 million to renovate Ryan Field and build an indoor practice facility nearby. And once the new athletics and recreation complex is built along the lakefront, it will allow Northwestern to turn the old indoor football facility into a practice center for basketball – if it decides to make the investment.
A year ago, Northwestern made a smart investment in hiring Collins and his Duke pedigree as head coach after finally cutting the cord with Bill Carmody following 13 lackluster seasons in Evanston. But there’s little sense in investing in Northwestern upgrading its basketball coach if it isn’t interested in also upgrading its basketball facilities, which should involve looking into constructing a new arena.
Northwestern has nicknamed its $3.75 billion fundraising campaign “We Will.”
But with none of that money clearly targeted for Collins’ program, the drive is more “Will We?” when it comes to Wildcats hoops.