July 11, 2007
What makes up a winning program?
After the championship trophy has been lowered from exuberant outstretched hands to its final resting place behind locked glass doors, the question inevitably arises. Often it is the coaches and players that reap the praise of a successful year that was marked by countless hours spent practicing and conditioning in various gyms, pools, courts and fields.
It is these athletic sanctuaries that the blood, sweat and some tears are shed in efforts to hone skills in attaining the ultimate goal.
With the initial creation and continual expansion of women's athletics in the last 25 years, Big Ten universities have done an extraordinary job of constructing and renovating its state-of-the art facilities for its women programs. Whether it is golf, tennis, softball or ice hockey, conference schools such as Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota are among the schools that have recently renovated their dedication.
"At Illinois we try to give all our sports and all of our student athletes an opportunity to be successful," said Illinois associate athletic director Dana Brenner. "Just like we provide all the necessary tools and assistance for their academic support, we want them to be prepared to compete for championships on the athletic side."
Brenner's sentiments can be easily translated to other Big Ten schools who understand the importance of the continued success of its women's programs.
At Michigan, tucked between Oosterbaan Fieldhouse and Ray Fischer Stadium, this year's renovation of Alumni Field seemed quite deserving for one of the Wolverines' most successful programs. Michigan's softball team has dominated the conference scene over the years, racking up 10 conference titles while claiming the 2005 national title, as well as hosting a number of conference championships and regional competition.
Assistant athletic director Rob Rademacher and 23-year head coach Carol Hutchins were hands on in a project that sent them across the country to figure out what exactly Michigan wanted and needed.
When the dust has settled in the next year or two Alumni Field will bloom 6,000 gross square-feet with new grandstands for additional seating as well as new public restrooms, concession area, media facilities and an indoor practice facility.
While it may have seemed like a logical upgrade for the Maize and Blue, some universities have run into some of their own challenges.
Minnesota boasts the first ice hockey rink solely devoted to its women's hockey team, however monetary and political opposition threatened to derail the project initially. As construction started on Ridder Arena, the percentage of inflation in the Twin Cities shot up to its highest point. Since the rising price of inflation was neglected in the initial plans six years before, the university found itself having to go back to the state legislator for more money on the historic project.
In addition, then-women's athletic director Chris Voelz had the complex task convincing people why it was important for the newly formed women's hockey team to have their own sheet of ice.
The 3,400-seat "mini Mariucci" sits proudly on the corner of Fourth and Oak Street in the heart of the Gopher campus, a testament to Voelz' commitment to see the project come into fruition.
Now, embarking on its 10-year anniversary, Golden Gopher associate athletic director Scott Ellison recounts his favorite moment in Ridder as Oct. 19, 2002, when the first game was played.
"It was a pretty proud moment considering all the fighting we did to get the rink built," said Ellison. "A lot of hard work, sweat and angst went into Ridder and it all came together when that puck was dropped."
Such a facility has created a great impact on the league and other schools as it has set a president for others to attain to. Ellison explains how he sees the competition disparages between schools starting to diminish,
"One can see that the women's Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) has really taken off and interest in women's hockey is growing steadily. In the past there has been such a great difference between Minnesota and other teams we played, but now the level of competition has grown dramatically."
The concept is similar to the steps Illinois has taken for its men's and women's golf programs. The newly built Demirjian Indoor Golf Practice Facility is an impressive building, allowing its student-athletes to practice on all aspects of their game.
"This conference has a strong and rich history in golf and we just hope to emulate that strength and tradition of excellence in the future," said Brenner.
The facility offers a chipping and putting room that mimics the various rolls and lies of anything one might find on a course. Six heated and lit hitting bays can be opened up onto a driving range equipped with up-to-date computer technology for swing analysis. In addition, locker rooms, coaches' offices and a central lounge add to this truly spectacular facility.
Perhaps the true beauty of a project like this can best be seem from the outside. The 16,000-square foot facility rests in the heart of Champaign's historic district where three beautiful round barns are nationally registered. Rather than detract from the landscape, Illinois chose to take its surroundings into context when constructing this rather unique facility. The lines and curves of the building might have been an architectural challenge, but in the end the facility settles nicely into the backdrop.
Not only was the goal for student-athletes to hone their skills, but to do so year round rain or shine. This is particularly important and unique to Big Ten schools that need areas to practice in the colder months.
Iowa is another great example of this need, evident when it opened the Hawkeye Tennis and Recreation Complex just last year. The necessity for such a building came after losing courts to the south side renovation of Kinnick football stadium. Like many Iowa athletic facilities on campus, the athletic department along side recreational services came together to plan an all-inclusive tennis facility on the West side of campus. With 12 outdoor and eight indoor tennis courts in addition to locker rooms on site, Iowa has found the recruiting aspect of such a facility extremely worthwhile.
"The impact the facility has on the women's tennis team has been tremendous," said Jane Meyer, senior associate director of athletics at Iowa. "From a recruiting perspective I think it has been extremely positive. This coming fall we will be welcoming some top-50 American players into our program."
Indeed, the value of recruiting was a common theme in the benefits of constructing and continually renovating athletic facilities on campus.
"Anytime you can get a facility that meets the needs of the team and the program you really add to the recruiting aspect. In addition, it adds to the fan atmosphere and involvement and any team would feed off that which creates an advantage," adds Ellison.
The home field advantage that Ellison explains coupled with the adequate preparedness an athlete would receive can and should be used in answering the loaded question of what makes up a winning program.
As women's athletics continue to grow into the future, it will be within the walls and in between the lines of these facilities that will be the bedrock of that success.