The $270 million Walter Athletics Center is spectacular … but can it help Northwestern win?

Credit: Chris Walker

Credit: Chris Walker

There's a virtual reality room that allows quarterbacks to watch 3-D film on a screen large enough for drive-in movies. An outdoor lounge where players can nap to the sound of Lake Michigan's crashing waves. A massive weight room that can accommodate all 110 players at once.

"Like going from the Bates Motel to the Ritz-Carlton," said Jay Hooten, Northwestern's director of sports performance for football.

Yes, NU's new Walter Athletics Center is spectacular. A ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday for donors marked NU's rise from the worst football facilities in the Big Ten to some of the best in the nation.

But here's what alums are wondering: Will this section of the $270 million Ryan Fieldhouse actually help the Wildcats rise to the top of the Big Ten standings? Northwestern football has been winning at a nice clip, producing three 10-win seasons since 2012. But the last conference title, a share of it anyway, came in 2000.

Here are five reasons to think that the new facility, described by the Tribune's Blair Kamin as a "distinguished, sometimes-breathtaking, work of architecture" will have value beyond the obvious wow factor:

1. Time-saver

Forget about the romance of towering glass walls and million-dollar views. The Walter Athletics Center is all about efficiency. From the moment the players complete practice either indoors or at the neighboring fresh-air field, they enter an area with cubbies to place down their helmets and then stop at a nutrition hub (aka "fueling station"), where snacks are arranged to be grabbed in order, left to right.

NCAA rules limit in-season athletes to 20 hours per week of required activities, so it's a race against the clock. Before Ryan Fieldhouse and the Walter Athletics Center were built, players had to be shuttled a mile and a half from campus toward Ryan Field.

NU officials estimate a daily savings of 22 minutes, though NU coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the first day of workouts, "it felt like we got an hour back."

2. Pump you up

The joke was that after NU enhanced its weight room in the mid-'90s, it went from the worst in the Big Ten to the worst in the Big Ten. Now? It's the greatest Gold's Gym you've ever seen. The "performance center" is 13,000-square feet. And by the way, "The Walt" also has a jaw-dropping 14,000-square foot weight room for "Olympic sport" athletes — lacrosse, field hockey and cross-country, plus men's and women's soccer and swimming and diving.

Hooten said the "functionality" of the new football space allows him and his staff to break up the team into four groups to maximize their strength-training.

The "freaks" like Rashawn Slater, who started 12 games on the offensive line as a true freshman, use resistance apparatus — bands and chains. Group 2 is on the "power program." Group 3 contains the "young bucks" who focus on volume lifts. The newbies start slower, learning the basics.

"We have it all," said Hooten, who joined the program in 2009. "This was the missing piece of the puzzle. The morale is at an all-time high right now."

And Hooten, borrowing a line from athletic director Jim Phillips, promised this: "Our motto is: We're a white-collar school keeping that blue-collar mentality."

3. Care to join us?

You're more likely to see a great white shark in Lake Michigan than a 5-star recruit on NU's practice field. Even 4-star signees are rare. That might change. Fitzgerald's office is modest but next door is a lounge with the feel of a living room with views of NU's outdoor practice field, Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline.

"Being in the backyard of Chicago speaks for itself," Fitzgerald said. recruiting analyst Josh Helmholdt predicted in 2016 that the facility will help attract high-level recruits for campus visits, and CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming put it like this: "The three things kids mention to me most: How many players you're putting into the NFL, facilities and girls. Parents do look at academics, especially if you're a Northwestern-type kid."

4. To your health

NU's locker room contains a giant cold tub that can fit 40 players and a hot tub that perhaps could accommodate, but will not, an entire cast of "The Bachelor."

A technologically advanced sports medicine center has specialized tables and stations for water and "cardio" therapy to promote recovery. NU basketball player Barret Benson popped in Wednesday, saying: "It's incredible to see the effort, time, resources and top technology have been put into this amazing building."

NU's basketball teams still will practice in or near Welsh-Ryan Arena, but Benson said the new on-campus facility is a "hub" for weight-training, meals, academic services and career-path advice.

5. An NU lifer?

The most important figure in NU football is Fitzgerald, who turned down Michigan in 2011 after mega-donor Pat Ryan committed to fund this A-through-Z lakefront facility. "Fitz Mahal," is what quarterback Clayton Thorson calls it.

Fitzgerald and Phillips toured 64 pro and college football facilities and incorporated their favorite design elements. Three examples: The locker room contains a smaller space to be used by NU alums in the NFL; the 188-seat meeting room/auditorium can be split in half at the touch of a button, so offensive and defensive players can remain seated, saving time; the linebackers and defensive line meeting rooms have adjoining doors, allowing coaches to flow from one to the other.

With a salary believed to be approaching $4 million (and generous salary pool for assistants), supportive administrators and donors and now a facility to be envied by every coach in America, Fitzgerald has everything he needs to build a powerhouse program.

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