Collins dreams the Welsh-Ryan Arena dream
Of all the tricky questions Chris Collins had to answer, the one everyone was sure they would hear involved the ever-present building Collins’ press conference was being held in to begin with.
Welsh-Ryan Arena is a pressing concern for many Northwestern fans. It is seen as the biggest impediment for the Wildcats in the never-ending arms race for recruits. Northwestern does not have much to sell in the way of facilities. The basketball stadium is often called a glorified high school gymnasium and it has not been renovated since 1983 (the locker rooms were renovated in 2008-09) and is the only stadium in the Big Ten which holds less than 10,000 people. It does not even have a full video board like many modern facilities.
Then you add on the crowd factor with opposing teams often outdrawing Northwestern fans (particularly when Northwestern is struggling and the usually boisterous students elect to stay in their warm dorms rather than venture down cold, dark Central Street) and you have something less than a home-court advantage.
When it comes to attracting recruits, Northwestern is not using Welsh-Ryan Arena as a major selling point. As the Wildcats were searching for a coach, the apparent neglect of the basketball facilities was the biggest concern fans had when candidates were brought in for interviews. The fear was that a high profile coach would ask for a promise of facilities improvement before accepting the job.
Collins dispelled any thoughts of that and turned the negative into a positive.
Collins said he believes in the vision Jim Phillips has for Northwestern’s facilities plan. Phillips confirmed to BTN after the press conference that Ryan Fieldhouse is just the first phase of the facilities master plan and that the Central Street facilities — including Welsh-Ryan Arena — are next on the list.
But Collins also said something else important about the old stadium.
He shared his memory of playing a Super Sectional game in the Illinois State Playoffs at Welsh-Ryan Arena and being in a stadium that was packed and raucous. He talked about how Duke does not have the greatest stadium in the world — and if you have been to Cameron Indoor Stadium, you know it is a Gothic Welsh-Ryan Arena and equals W-R in its lack of size — but it is the ambiance and atmosphere within the stadium that makes it special.
Collins asked in his first day on the job: Why can’t we have that here?
My goal is to make Welsh-Ryan the best home court advantage in the Big Ten, and it’s not gonna be easy. We’ve gotta put a product on the floor that people will get excited about. The last time I was in Welsh-Ryan, this is not a joke, was 1992. It was an unbelievable atmosphere. I know there’s been a lot of talk about what we don’t have and what we need. Let’s make this a heck of a home-court advantage. Let’s get everyone in the building and let’s get everyone in purple. Let’s see what it’s like to get 8,000 people going crazy.
That is a big dream. It is one of the dreams that formed this blog — albeit purple at Ryan Field instead, but it could and should easily spread to Welsh-Ryan Arena.
And Collins is absolutely right, it is a dream that he has to strive to accomplish in building a successful program. This is not the kind of quote that gets stuck in the media guide to pump up the program — my 2008 media guide says this about Welsh-Ryan Arena:
Bill Carmody: “Welsh-Ryan Arena, when filled with the band, the fans and particularly the students, is an intimidating place for visiting teams. Our players have been really energized by these crowds and have been able to play well here at home. Through the combination of our team’s success an the tremendous atmosphere surrounding a game, we have reached a point where other teams don’t want to come here to play.”
Kevin Coble: There is no better atmosphere in the Big Ten than Welsh-Ryan when it is packed with Northwestern fans. Coming out and seeing the seats full of people there to support us is a special feeling that truly is important. It definitely creates a sense of confidence for the team and can intimidate our opponents. It makes such a difference when our fans are there making Welsh-Ryan a tough place to play.”
This is something that can really happen. Even the media guide quotes note that when full Welsh-Ryan Arena is a great place to watch basketball. The atmosphere can be absolutely electric, as Collins experienced back in the early 1990s. The building is built like an airplane hangar and noise reverberates off the walls. It can be a crazy atmosphere.
The caveat as always is “when full.”
Filling the stadium falls on Collins now to put a team on the floor that will get the Northwestern fan excited and draw in the casual Chicago basketball fan. He is tasked with the same thing Pat Fitzgerald task is — win games so the marketing department can do its things and fill the stadium and grow Northwestern fans. This was one of the things Bill Carmody could not do. He could not rally a fan base behind him even when he was winning (by moderate standards, maybe, but winning nonetheless).
Without even coaching a game, it seems like Collins has brought a new energy to the program. Just by audaciously turning the Welsh-Ryan Arena argument on its head and boldly proclaiming that a purple-filled, raucous Welsh-Ryan Arena can happen he has changed the conversation and energized the program.
These are the kinds of things Collins was expected to do. Maybe the dream is closer to becoming a reality than we realize.