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Boyd: Illinois football's $80 million Smith Center lives up to the hype

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Henry Dale and Betty Smith Football Performance Center

Illinois football players react to their new locker room during the Henry Dale and Betty Smith Football Performance Center grand opening in August 2019.

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This wasn't here before.

As a 2018 Illinois alum, I covered the Illini football and men's basketball teams as a student reporter for The Daily Illini and the Associated Press. I've been inside Memorial Stadium and the State Farm Center several times, and I even had the chance to play on Lou Henson court during an intramural basketball championship as a senior.

The Henry Dale and Betty Smith Football Performance Center, however, didn't exist when I was a student. Construction began December 2017, which was the halfway through my senior year, and the doors weren't officially opened until August 2019.

Thursday was my first opportunity to finally get a peak inside the $80 million facility as the Illini reporter for Lee Enterprises, during what the Illinois athletics department dubbed a "media recruiting visit." We didn't get all of the bells and whistles that come with an official recruiting visit that spans across 48 hours, usually from Friday to Sunday.

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However, the abbreviated version was still worthwhile. It included stops in the weight room, indoor practice facility, the fueling (food) station, locker room, players' lounge, equipment and laundry room, photo shoot room, rooftop dinning area, first-year Illini football coach Bret Bielema's office and the team meeting room.

At the beginning of the tour, Bielema met the media in the lobby, which has huge cartoon-like figurines of Illinois football players hanging from the ceiling and a large screen coming out of the ground that displayed the silhouette of an Illini football player. Bielema warned us not to take pictures of any current student-athletes or recruits that were on campus for visits, citing NCAA violations, and we were all happy to oblige.

"I entered the building for the first time (in December) when (Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman) offered me the opportunity, and the first thing I did when I walked in this building was I said, 'Wow!' just like I'm sure everybody else has when they walked in here," Bielema said. "It jumps. It has an eye-pop to it that we all can see, but when you walk through the building, the functionality of it is off the charts."

Weight room

Bielema then handed things over to Pat Embleton, Illinois football's executive director of personnel and recruiting, and he took us to the Illini's state-of-the-art weight room.

Personally, I'm only 5-foot-10 and 140 pounds and I haven't lifted weights since I graduated high school in 2014, so obviously I'm not familiar with what weight rooms usually have or don't have. However, I'm fairly certain Illinois' weight room is about as good as it gets.

Embleton introduced the media to Tank Wright, the Illinois football head strength and conditioning coach, and he gave us a quick rundown of what the Illini have to offer.

Wright explained that each player in the program has a weight-lifting regimen that is tailored to their specific body, thanks in large part to the tedious measurements and tests athletes go through when they enter the program, and it follows them for their entire career.

With that in mind, the Illini have attached tablets to every squat rack, and when an athlete comes in for a lift, all they have to do is enter their name and their curated workout will pop up on the screen. Additionally, during every exercise the player's progress is tracked on the tablet, and when an athlete finishes, there's even a video replay available that will show them what they just did.

Wright said that component is essential.

"Instant replay, just like football," Wright said. "We teach you, we coach you right here at the rack. This is a major tool that we use to give guys an instant feedback on how good you did or how bad you did and how we can get you better."

Fueling station

After the weight room and a quick look at the indoor practice facility, Embleton took us to the fueling station, which is wedged between the weight room and the locker room. This area looks a bit like a grocery store with three refrigerators on each side that are labeled, "Gain, Maintain and Lean." There's also racks on each side filled with handheld snacks.

Jade Brinkoetter, the director of Illinois football nutrition, is the team's full-time dietitian. She greeted us with smoothies and stood behind a long island while explaining the importance of her job.

Of course, lifting weights is a huge part of being a football player, but she's the one who makes sure every athlete receives the proper amount of fuel to complete those workouts and perform well on the field.

"Some schools you go to, you step on a scale and you have to be at a certain number," Brinkoetter said. "That's not something that we preach here. We're more about  making sure that you find an area that you're more comfortable with and that you play well at and that you're safe at, where you're not going to get injured."

Locker room

Once we finished our smoothies, Illinois defensive backs coach Aaron Henry guided the media through the locker room, and his enthusiasm simply added to the overall impressiveness of this area. Before entering the locker room, though, Henry had us take a look at the wall just outside of the front door, which has a Rose Bowl symbol on it and the years the Illini appeared in that game.

He said it was a reminder to every player of where the program has been and the status it would like to return to.

On the inside, the locker room itself is shaped like the letter I, with lights resembling football field hash marks placed in the ceiling. Each locker has a name plate on it with where the player is from and a display area for their helmet, as well as the typical locker essentials such as hooks and drawers.

The top part of the lockers is perhaps the most unique.

"We have guys that obviously sweat playing football, (or) if it's raining out and they get all wet — this is a state-of-the-art drying system up top," Henry said while pointing inside star linebacker Jake Hansen's locker. "So obviously you can throw your shoulder pads in there 5-10 minutes and those bad boys will be super dry."

Each corner of the locker room leads to another area of the facility, most notably the players' lounge, the equipment room, the practice field, the bathroom and showers and, yes, even a barbershop.

I was hands off during most of the tour, but I caved and sat down in the barber's chair when Henry asked if anybody wanted to try it out. He joked about how hard it is for players to get "chopped up" in Champaign (which I totally relate to) and said the team has a barber come every Thursday for haircuts.

"Look good, feel good, play good," Henry said. "If you play good, everything else takes care of itself."

Players' lounge

From the locker room, Henry led the media into the players' lounge. Unlike some of my peers, I'd never looked online to see what is included in this area, and I was blown away!

There's a bunch of TVs mounted on the walls, just like in the locker room, complete with gaming consoles. There's also areas for arcade basketball, ping-pong, pool, shuffle board, foosball and even bowling.

It's probably been a couple of years since I last bowled, so I didn't want to embarrass myself when Henry asked if any of the media wanted to give it a shot.

However, he did emphasize the importance of having these amenities not only for current players but future athletes, too.

"The last thing we want to do as a program is eliminate ourselves because we're not equal," Henry said. "I just want a fair shake, and I think with these facilities, in comparison to some of our counterparts, I think we got a fair shake. ... Just give us a level playing field and we can sort everything else out."

Wrapping up

The tour wrapped up with short stops in the equipment and laundry room, the photo shoot room, Bielema's office, which overlooks Illinois' outdoor practice field, the rooftop dining area that has a putt-putt golf course and finally the team meeting room as Bielema went through a brief presentation while media members ate dinner.

Bielema broke down what a "four-point play" means, explaining that when a team is in the red zone, they're almost guaranteed three points with a made field goal, but the momentum of the game can change if a team is able to punch it in for a touchdown, which usually results in seven points and therefore a "four-point" swing.

Bielema also spoke about the importance of having Whitman back him during recruiting visits. Since Whitman was a tight end for the Illini from 1997-2000, he can speak directly to the progress the athletic department has made in regards to its facilities. Aside from Memorial Stadium, the Smith Center is the football team's headliner.

"He's spoken to every one of our groups," Bielema said of Whitman. "He gives up (time), and whenever we ask him, he comes. And I'm not just saying that because he's our AD, but the power of that message is (invaluable)."

At the end of it all, and unlike the recruits, Bielema did not ask me or any of my peers if we'd like to commit. But, because of my job and the cool perks that accompany it, I'm sure I'll see him again soon as he gets ready to begin a new era of Illinois football.


Follow James Boyd on Twitter: @RomeovilleKid

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