NEWS

Mr. Guenther's Neighborhood: Outdated dorms a hurdle for Illinois recruiting

John Supinie

The competition between the Haves and Have-nots in college athletics extends outside the lines, all the way to the living arrangements.

Student housing has become the latest recruiting tool in the competitive world of college athletics, said Illinois women's basketball coach Jolette Law. While some schools have dormitories with apartment-style living and air conditioning, Illinois students live in residence halls built in the 1960's or earlier.

"If I'm recruiting the top kids in the country, that's the main question that's coming up with women,'' Law said. "When they go to one school, they look at the dorm and it's not upgraded as the next school and you're neck and neck in recruiting with them, females weigh that heavily.

"That's not the main thing. That's not going to make or break this program, but it's an important piece. We have a great academic and athletic experience. Housing plays a major part, definitely with females. With the recruiting game, you never know sometimes.''

Coaches also like the possibility of keeping athletes in dorms longer rather than watching them move to apartments where the supervision is virtually non-existent and interaction with other students often uncommon.

Considered a university-wide issue at Illinois, upgrading housing is a slow undertaking. The school hasn't built a new dorm since 1966, before air conditioning, cable TV and Internet access became regular amenities. Cable access and Internet availability are now part of dorm life, but air conditioning can be found in only roughly 25 percent of the dorms.

A dorm wing for handicapped students will open in 2010. A proposal awaits approval by the unversity's board of trustees to tear down existing residence halls and build new dorms in the Ikenberry Commons, an area that also includes dorms commonly known as ''the six pack'' just north of Memorial Stadium, said Kirsten Ruby, spokesman for student housing.

Room size will increase by about 30 percent, and a cluster of rooms will share a bathroom. Studies showed new construction cost about the same as renovating existing buildings, Ruby said.

Law saw the advantages of upgraded campus housing while an assistant at Rutgers before taking over at Illinois. In some instances, Rutgers dorms were essentially a three-bedroom apartment, including a kitchen. Other larger dorm arrangements had separate bedroom spaces with a common living room and shared bathroom.

Other schools, such as powerhouses like Tennessee, have already improved student housing, Law said.

"Any time you can show something new and neat and renovated, it sends a message to everybody that we're making progress and keeping up,'' said Illinois men's basketball coach Bruce Weber. "If you have a house that's 30- or 40-years old, it needs sprucing up. These dorms were built when schools exploded in the 1960's and 70's. These dorms are still there. Think about that house that's 30- or 40-years-old. It's the same thing.''

College athletes, who are bigger and stronger than decades ago, like to have a little more space.

"They want big rooms, all the same things everybody else wants,'' said Illinois football coach Ron Zook. "I have yet to find somebody who has lived in the six pack, including my daughter who lived there, that when it's all said and done didn't love it. Was it the Taj Mahal? Maybe not.''

But the recruiting game, like the college experience, sometimes begins with the dorm room.

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.