Move over Clemson, Oregon and Alabama ... Northwestern's ridiculous new practice facility is on another level

Northwestern’s opulent Ryan Fieldhouse and Walter Athletics Center was built on the shore of Lake Michigan and cost $270 million. (Northwestern Athletics)
Northwestern’s opulent Ryan Fieldhouse and Walter Athletics Center was built on the shore of Lake Michigan and cost $270 million. (Northwestern Athletics)

EVANSTON, Ill. – On a sun-splashed spring morning scripted by the local chamber of commerce, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald hops into his Lincoln Navigator and flips on his Under Armour sunglasses. He’s driving from Northwestern’s current antiquated football facility to its resplendent new one, a mile expanse from the program’s musty past to its glistening future.

Fitzgerald tells the story of his favorite reaction to the new $270 million athletic facility, Ryan Fieldhouse and Walter Athletics Center, which opens next month. The facility looks as if a rendering from “The Jetsons” dropped on the shores of Lake Michigan, with 45-foot floor-to-ceiling windows that run the expanse of the entire practice field overlooking the water. The father of a recruit called it “The Infinity Pool of Indoors,” a nod to the honeymoon-caliber panorama. It’s an apt nickname for a building that percolates with possibilities as vast as the views. “Why do you need waterfalls inside,” Fitzgerald says while chuckling, “when you have waves outside?”

Fitzgerald flips on a construction hat, zips up a florescent yellow vest and practically skips through a two-hour hard hat tour for Yahoo Sports.

Fitzgerald is entering his 23rd season as a player, assistant or head coach at Northwestern, all of which have been housed in a facility that would be considered mediocre in the MAC. With the move to Ryan Fieldhouse, Fitzgerald is now experiencing the aesthetic upgrade equivalent of Shawshank to Santorini or Section 8 to 90210.

The fact that Northwestern, which for decades alternated between being a Big Ten punch line and punching bag, now leads the college football facility race can be considered one of the biggest upsets in the history of college athletics. When the Wildcats move in next month, they’ll have the nicest athletic facility in all of college football. The comparisons are a bit askew, as five other varsity teams will also occupy the 425,000 square feet of the entire athletic center. It will serve as the hub for the department’s administration, medical care and academic services and also host intramurals and campus events.

But I’ve been in virtually every football building of note in America, witnessing all the Ferrari leather, barber chairs and nap rooms from Clemson to Eugene to Tuscaloosa. In terms of size, spectacle and spending, Northwestern has sprinted past the biggest names in the facilities arms race.

Phil Knight should stare with envy. Nick Saban should hop his private jet to take notes. Dabo Swinney should start another round of fundraising, as Clemson’s ode to extravagance – replete with a slide, mini-golf course and bowling lanes – cost more than $200 million less. Oregon’s football palace – considered the gold standard until Northwestern – cost just $86 million, or $186 million below Northwestern’s multi-sport palace. The only thing comparable in the football world is the billion-dollar facility that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones built in Frisco, Texas. And while they’re difficult to compare, Northwestern’s beach-front location trumps the aesthetics of Jones’ landlocked strip malls for me.

Northwestern’s Ryan Fieldhouse and Walter Athletics Center. (Northwestern Athletics)
Northwestern’s Ryan Fieldhouse and Walter Athletics Center. (Northwestern Athletics)

In the collegiate space, Northwestern’s facility makes the University of Texas look three decades behind, sends taunting echoes to the facilities at Notre Dame and out-Hollywoods both USC and UCLA. “When you see that football field laying beautifully inside that incredibly designed structure, it takes your breath away,” said Pat Ryan, the Northwestern donor and trustee for whom the football fieldhouse is named.

The improbability of this all happening at Northwestern can’t be overstated. This is Northwestern, a school with football facilities so bleak that Fitzgerald hosted Junior Days across campus to avoid showing them to recruits. This is Northwestern, a school with three times as many winless seasons (6) as outright Big Ten titles (2). Two of those winless years came under Dennis Green and Ara Parseghian, coaches who later showed that their X’s and O’s likely weren’t holding the school back. “We chose striving for mediocrity,” says Ryan of the lean decades. “When you strive for mediocrity, you generally fail.”

This is Northwestern, where the football players eat in a trailer that appears swiped from the set of “Breaking Bad,” the meeting rooms have cement-block designs inspired by the Martha Stewart Prison Collection and practices are held on a field so Spartan that Fitzgerald summons the classic movie “National Lampoon’s Vacation.”

“Real tomato ketchup, Eddie?”
“Ohhhh nothing but the best [Clark].”

The institutional desire for Northwestern purple to intermingle with the bluebloods includes a $400 million athletic building boom on campus, as the growl of bulldozers and “beep-beep-beep” of trucks provides the soundtrack to a basketball arena renovation and new practice facility.

The opening of Ryan Fieldhouse, though, comes at a particularly captivating time for Fitzgerald’s program. Northwestern football is coming off a 10-win season, and Northwestern’s 27 wins the past three years rank as the best stretch in school history. It also puts them No. 15 overall in college football in wins over that time, a sign of perhaps a new standard now that the setting is catching up with the results.

Northwestern returns star quarterback and all-time win leader Clayton Thorson, who projects to be ready for the season coming off ACL rehab. They also host Michigan, Nebraska, Notre Dame and Wisconsin this season for what school officials are billing as the best home schedule in school history. “We’ve been a winner,” Fitzgerald says during the tour. “Now this is a commitment to becoming a championship contender.”

Northwestern’s upward football construction trajectory can be traced back to a singular day – Jan. 6 of 2011. Officials from the University of Michigan, including athletic director Dave Brandon and a search firm representative, came to Chicago in an attempt to lure Fitzgerald to replace Rich Rodriguez.

Ryan, the longtime donor, trustee and the most benevolent benefactor in university history, flew back from Florida to meet with Fitzgerald. Then-board chair William Osborn also few back from Arizona. They met with athletic director Jim Phillips, president Morton Schapiro and Fitzgerald, who described to them the level of commitment necessary from a facility perspective to change Northwestern football’s paradigm. “It was a pivot point,” Phillips said in a phone interview. “It was never contentious, it was nothing other than being receptive and figuring out a way for this to work for everyone.”

Fitzgerald agreed to not interview with Michigan. Northwestern agreed to, essentially, support football at a level that brings the school closer to Big Ten brethren like Michigan. “Pat didn’t want to leave,” Ryan said. “Pat also knew what it required to really get to the next level.”

The mention of the day makes Fitzgerald slightly uncomfortable. He acknowledges it as a “catalyst” for the new facility, but admits he’s never spoken about it publicly. “I was very humbled to have somebody want to talk to me, but I’m a Wildcat,” Fitzgerald says. “That commitment, the commitment to the program first and foremost [was the most important thing].”

Northwestern’s Ryan Fieldhouse and Walter Athletics Center. (Photo credit: Northwestern Athletics)
Northwestern’s Ryan Fieldhouse and Walter Athletics Center. (Photo credit: Northwestern Athletics)

Fitzgerald ended up signing a 10-year contract soon after. (He’s since done another.) Included in it were deadlines that would waive his buyout if the facility wasn’t finished, a common contractual nuance when schools promise new facilities. Ryan, 81, has been around long enough to recall Parseghian leaving for Notre Dame and Gary Barnett for Colorado. He didn’t want to lose another top-shelf coach, calling the day Fitzgerald decided to stay, “a historical moment in time for the university. Not just the athletic program, but the university in total.”

As the facility was built, each phase came with a new wave of emotion. It took three years to break ground, as Phillips toured 64 collegiate and professional facilities to borrow the most applicable concepts. Phillips kept a yellow Post-It with the word “Shovel” in purple ink on his phone in his office. (His staff surreptitiously framed it for him, and the plaque will hang on the wall in his new office.) Phillips says opposing recruiters chided the effort as the “Fake By The Lake” as Northwestern went through the design and fundraising phases.

Fitzgerald grew up in a blue-collar family on Chicago’s South Side, played at Northwestern as an undersized linebacker on their last Big Ten title team (1996) and has resisted endless overtures over the years to leave. (That includes calls from six different NFL teams and interest from USC, Michigan and Penn State. Fitzgerald never spoke directly to any of them.) When the steel finally went into the ground, he admits he got “really emotional.” And when Northwestern held its first practice on April 7, he says “it just smacked me in the face.” As his team went through drills, Fitzgerald looked around and became so overwhelmed he began to cry. (Phillips and Ryan both did as well on Ryan’s first tour of the near-completed facility.)

The joy from Fitzgerald’s first practice spills over to his tour. He greets at least 37 different construction workers by thanking them for their hard work. (He jokes with a few about putting them in pads for a practice.)

Fitzgerald revels in all the details – “his blood is in the bricks,” Phillips says of Fitzgerald. There are black dots on the glass walls to be sure migrating birds don’t accidentally smash into the oversized windows. There’s a sound system intense enough to replicate the Big House. There’s a push-button barrier that can instantly divide the team room in half – offense on one side and defense the other. Fitzgerald had say in every phase of designing the building and boasts about the choreographed flow from locker room to meeting rooms to the practice field. “How can we squeeze every second out of the 20 hours [players are allowed to dedicate to football]?” he says of the building philosophy. “That was the whole process behind it.”

There are curtains to diminish glare by remote control, video cameras to tape practice run by joystick from inside the building and a massive room dedicated to virtual reality screens for the Wildcat quarterbacks. There are 188 seats in the team meeting room (up from 120), 31 coaching lockers (up from 14) and an extra set of lockers for the program’s NFL alumni who can train there. There’s a barber chair, a hot/cold tub that seats 40 and a nutrition hub that includes a kitchen to teach players to cook once they move off campus. There’s also space for a bevy of university functions, as the facility has already hosted “Starry Night” with Stephen Colbert and will hold everything from convocations to Dance Marathons to intramurals. (There are three massive basketball/floor hockey courts in the basement, and the fact that they feel hidden may be the ultimate testament to the breadth of the building.)

Northwestern’s Ryan Fieldhouse and Walter Athletics Center. (Northwestern Athletics)
Northwestern’s Ryan Fieldhouse and Walter Athletics Center. (Northwestern Athletics)

The main athletic benefit, Phillips points out, should be recruiting over the next three to five years. The Fake By The Lake turned out to be an original, and the spectacular views from a porch outside Fitzgerald’s office include both beachfront seascapes to the east and the Chicago skyline twinkling in the sunshine to the south. “Twelve miles,” Fitzgerald says with a smile, “never seemed so close.”

As the tour concludes, Fitzgerald is left to ponder the potential of a new reality on the horizon. Twice in recent seasons Northwestern has been one victory away from winning the Big Ten West, and consistent contention in the league will eventually evolve from a blip to an expectation.

He’s also confronted the first-world problems that seemed unfathomable when Northwestern inhabited a leaky practice facility that had all the charm of the basement of an airplane hangar. The sparse surroundings helped embody Northwestern’s underdog ethos, a blue-collar program at a white-collar school. “The thing that will not change as long as I’m the head coach is the people,” he says. “That’s what we’ve really been able to be a consistent winner with, we’ve recruited and developed the right kind of people.”

With the tour complete, Fitzgerald climbs back into his SUV and spins through campus, the same one he walked as a student. He points out Lou Malnati’s pizza shop, the Sheil Catholic Center and the novelty of different academic offices housed in old Victorians on Sheridan Road.

Fitzgerald’s morning was a study in artful deflection. He credits athletics officials, university administrators and donor families like the Ryans, Walters, Wilsons, Slotnicks and many others. But the central figure in Northwestern pulling ahead of the rest of college athletics in the facility race is, in actuality, driving through campus with the grin of a man who is witnessing the impossible become tangible.

“No one has done more for the athletic program than Pat Fitzgerald,” Ryan says. “The 23 years he’s been here, I expect it to be 43. What a great thing that is for our university.”

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