CHAMPAIGN — Illinois set an initial fundraising goal of $30 million toward the completion of its $79.2 million football performance center.
Wednesday’s $15 million donation — part of a larger $20 million gift to the university — puts the athletic department within about $4 million of that goal.
Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman said there’s no question they’ll exceed the goal. Fundraising also won’t stop.
“Every time we’re able to generate additional resources for the building, those are dollars we’re able to reallocate away from the building and into something else,” Whitman said.
Illinois has multiple athletic facilities projects on deck, including a new soccer and track stadium, basketball practice facility and the potential for adding hockey as a Division I sport.
“It’s a project that will be ongoing for us, and we’re excited about continuing those conversations,” Whitman said. “We think we have a number of other significant gifts out there that are still possible.”
Wednesday’s gift from the H.D. Smith Foundation, led by Dale and Chris Smith, is the largest philanthropic donation in the history of the Illinois Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. In recognition of that donation, the newest football facility, slated to open in August 2019, will be named the Henry Dale and Betty Smith Football Center.
While the majority of the gift will go toward the construction of the football performance center, $3 million has been allocated for scholarship opportunities for former student-athletes to return to campus and compete their degree. Another $2 million will be donated to the new Illinois Carle College of Medicine.
“This is the nature of contemporary philanthropy, out-of-the-box thinking,” Illinois Chancellor Robert Jones said. “I’m glad to see it play out at this university, where the donors’ primary interests are honored, but you also honor the other parts of what they want to invest in.
“The fact they’re interested in what we call degree completion, that’s a critical agenda for all of higher education. Far too many of our young people get very, very close to finishing their degrees but don’t have quite the resources or opportunities to wrap up those degrees.”
Whitman said the additional allocation of funds toward scholarships and the College of Medicine are both impactful in their own right.
“I think they’ll be overshadowed just by the dollar figure that’s going toward the building, but the reality is any other day we’d be dancing in the streets over a $2 million gift for the College of Medicine or a $3 million gift toward student scholarships,” he said. “For them to broaden their gift and look to make an impact in other portions of our program and of the university is a testament to them and a great reminder of, ultimately, the mission of our institution, which is education.”
The Smith family gift is the latest of more than a dozen six- and seven-figure donations announced by Illinois for the football performance center. It’s also the second this month after a gift of $1.2 million by Mark and Bonnie Goldenberg. Whitman intends to keep capitalizing on that fundraising momentum.
“In our experience, most donors want to be around other people of significance,” Whitman said. “They want to be a part of a group of people who get together and make a decision to make a true change. We’ve seen that start to happen around our football program.
“People have recognized the direction that we’re headed, and they want to be supportive of that. Every time we’re able to put a gift like this one out into the public, I think it adds a layer of credibility for other people in a position of means to potentially step forward and help us continue with that momentum.”
Illinois coach Lovie Smith likened his rebuild of the Illini football program to the ongoing construction of the performance center he has more than once called a game changer.
“It’s got to be about consistency — just day after day doing your job,” Smith said. “We know this is a special time for Illinois football, and we know the direction we’re heading behind the scenes. That eventually leads to a relevant team that’s competing for championships.”
There is something special brewing for Illinois. Illinois is finally investing money into the football program and its athletics in general. We have a 5-star QB comign to campus next year. We have a new football training center opening up in 2019. We should finally be making moved and building a program to be successful year in and year out. In the last 25 years, Illinois has only had a handful of good teams, followed by years of 1 to 3 win seasons. To build a program that has continuous success like Wisconsin, Iowa or Penn State, Illinois needs to start somewhere. This $20 million donation helps us get there.
I am proud to be an Illini. I-L-L