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Date Posted: 18:08:08 08/20/03 Wed
Subject: Project under way to upgrade facilities at Western Illinois (Journal Star)
Leathernecks aim high
Project under way to upgrade facilities at Western Illinois
August 19, 2003
By KEVIN CAPIE
of the Journal Star
MACOMB - Athletes at Western Illinois University could not help feeling light years away from the present, let alone the future. Antiquated facilities simply didn't provide a hospitable environment for a four-year athletic career.
"It was tragic that kids had to work out of there," WIU football coach Don Patterson said of the old cinder-block building the Leathernecks used as locker, weight and meeting rooms until 2000. "More often than not, recruits rejected the program because they just don't want to have those facilities."
The Leathernecks football team eventually received new locker and weight rooms, but the rest of the department lagged.
So Western Illinois launched a facilities campaign in the fall of 2001. Target: Western Forward was set up to bring about $15 million in improvements to campus athletic facilities over the next eight to 10 years.
"When we came up with this, the tagline was going to be 'Target: 2010.' Then I thought: 'What do we do in 2011?' " said Western athletics director Tim Van Alstine. "We simply need to maintain the pace (of improvements) with our competition and keep moving forward."
So far, $1.1 million in improvements have been made, including a new track at Hanson Field, refurbished women's basketball and volleyball locker rooms and improvements to the baseball field.
On the drawing board are renovations of the men's basketball and non-revenue sports' locker rooms, a new baseball stadium and a new training room.
The training-room project received a boost last week when McDonough District Hospital announced a partnership with the athletics department that will earmark sponsorship funds at Western events.
"I think it does a lot for the morale of staff when they see the improvements, even not directly (related) to football, but indirectly," Patterson said. "The half-a-million dollars we spent on the track is something for the entire community."
The cornerstone and largest project of Target: Western Forward is renovation of Hanson Field, which primarily serves as the home of the WIU football team. That project is being tied into the university's next capital campaign, which also will bring a $45 million performing-arts center to the campus.
"It's going to be the showpiece of our facilities," Van Alstine said of the new Hanson. "We have a (football team) that is No. 1, 2 or 3 in Division I-AA. We should have a facility that is one, two or three as well. They go hand in hand."
The Hanson Field remodeling will include seating refurbishments, the addition of concession and restroom facilities, a new press box and offices for the football coaching staff, now based in Western Hall. The preliminary design is expected to be unveiled Oct. 25, during celebration of the football program's 100th anniversary.
The Hanson Field renovation, estimated to cost about $10 million, will cap the football-facility overhaul that began in 2000. When Patterson was hired before the 1999 season, he knew the upgrades were needed.
"(Hayden Fry) gave me some good advice," Patterson said of his mentor, whom he served as an assistant coach for 20 years at Iowa. "He said not to demand new facilities until they offer you the job. I listened to that, (and the administration) was able to build the new locker rooms."
That addition and the building of Mary Ellen McKee softball stadium marked the start of the upgrades, but nothing else was on the radar.
In the beginning
The genesis of Target: Western Forward came in the summer of 2001, when Van Alstine was hired to replace retiring Helen Smiley.
Larry Mortier, WIU vice-president of advancement and public services, arranged for Van Alstine to meet with the university's board of trustees shortly after his hiring. That meeting led Van Alstine to a top-to-bottom analysis of his department.
In putting together his presentation for the board, Van Alstine determined facility upgrades were necessary if WIU was to improve its overall athletics program.
"There have been some significant facility improvements, but what I realized was that there was so much more potential there," Van Alstine said. "Larry Mortier got the ball rolling, but there was so much more to be done. It needed something that would put its arms around the entire facilities endeavor."
Primarily, Target: Western Forward serves as a checklist. But it's also a mission statement regarding a commitment to student-athletes. The two-page, single-spaced document details goals for supporting those student-athletes and how new facilities will further that objective.
"I try to work from a position-paper perspective: This is where the position is now, this is what we want to have movement forward," Van Alstine said. "With a strategic plan, sometimes you get boxed in and still have things that need to get done."
Although many current athletes won't benefit directly from the initiative, the benefit still can be seen.
"This is kind of saying we appreciate the hard work that you bring to put Western on the map," junior women's basketball player Erica Zielinski said.
Until Target: Western Forward focused the fundraising efforts for the facilities, new building was a catch-as-catch-can venture for each sport, as evidenced by McKee Stadium.
"It was something we wanted to do for quite a while," WIU softball coach Kathy Veroni said of replacing an antiquated facility. "We didn't have a fence. There were no dugouts and no side fence."
To make the stadium a reality, it took donations from two of Veroni's friends - including the stadium namesake, who donated the proceeds from the sale of her Macomb house - along with other fundraising efforts.
The softball stadium was largely Veroni's project.
Almost all of the money for Target: Western Forward has, or will, come from private donations. The only state money the school has received came in the form of a $150,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce's Bureau of Energy and Recycling for the Hanson Field track resurfacing, which was completed in October 2002.
"I'm glad that they're getting out there and getting it done," said Macomb insurance agent and WIU booster Cathy Early, who with a $25,000 gift kicked off the drive for new women's team-sport locker rooms that was the first Target: Western Forward project. The only difficulty with Target: Western Forward, in the mind of Van Alstine, is that it can't be accomplished overnight.
"The one thing we have to do is do it slowly and right-minded," he said.
Man with the plan
While Van Alstine didn't develop the actual Target: Western Forward plan until after he started working at WIU, the administration knew what it was looking for when Smiley announced her retirement in January 2001.
"There's no question about that," Mortier said. "We felt that with the response received in the initiatives (for the football and softball improvements) it was really important to attract an athletic director with the background, energy and skill to continue that."
Enter Van Alstine, who was senior associate athletics director for external affairs at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.
"When (Western) looked at my background, there was a proven track record of that kind of success," Van Alstine said. "We had that kind of success in Ohio in the Mid-American Conference. It was at the bottom end of the conference in facilities, but look at what they've accomplished since 1995."
Ohio has completed 34 facilities projects since then.
Van Alstine believes this drive can be more successful than Ohio's, which generated $2.2 million in his last school year there (2000-01).
"The communities are similar in terms of size, but because Macomb is so accessible to Chicago and St. Louis, we get pretty good coverage," Van Alstine said. "At Athens (located 75 miles southeast of Columbus), Ohio State just dominated. So Ohio, Miami and the other state schools in the MAC didn't get the coverage."
Van Alstine's energy for shaping the athletics department has been recognized by the contributors as well.
"Tim has been really instrumental to even contemplating doing anything with the program," said Ted Pawlias, a Macomb dentist who contributed to the women's locker project. "He's got some big ideas, but they'll come to fruition."
Among those ideas is for Western to challenge for conference titles in each sport, whether in the eight-team Gateway Football Conference or the nine-member Mid-Continent Conference in other sports.
"When I came in, I said that you have to ride the fastest horse and at the time - and still is - the fastest horse is football," Van Alstine said. "Women's basketball is another program that has really taken off for us.
"That's generally the yardstick by which you measure, but . . . we've proven we can win at women's basketball, we've proven that we can win in football, so men's basketball (and the other sports) can't be far behind."
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