EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third in a series of four stories looking into the state of the Eastern Illinois University Athletic Department.
CHARLESTON -- Murray State built a new basketball arena in 1998. Austin Peay remodeled part of its football stadium recently, as did UT Martin. When it comes to facilities, schools want to add new bells and whistles, whether it's remodeling the locker rooms or weight rooms or having a new training room. Sometimes it's having the track resurfaced or making improvements to a baseball field.
O'Brien Field seats 10,000 fans, but there are improvements that can be made to the stadium. Lantz Arena is a 5,400-seat facility and it could also use its upgrades.
That presents a challenge for Eastern Illinois University. The Illinois budget crunch doesn't allow EIU to direct millions of dollars to renovation projects for O'Brien Field or Lantz Arena at the moment. At one point, there were big plans for renovations, but EIU Athletic Director Tom Michael has focused on smaller projects that are just as pressing.
"I think that we know there are some facility challenges here, and there were some drawings somewhere," Michael said. "What I noticed when I was here, we needed to show some progress in some areas opposed to having this big monster plan and not getting anything done. It was really critical that we needed to finish the men's basketball locker room and that's been a great opportunity there.
"Then we were able to do the baseball locker room and we had a significant donor to get that going."
Michael does have a list of facility renovations and projects to work on. He knows not all of the projects will get done right away, but he does know that schools have to stay ahead of the curve on facility upgrades.
"If you aren't consistently working on the facility piece, you are falling behind," Michael said. "With the financial times, it's difficult, but also good to get in front of people and talk about the projects and the impact of them. We've got some ideas of what we need to do that are manageable projects. We are working toward those things to get projects going and move on to the next one."
While the new bells and whistles may not be seen by fans, like improvements to the locker rooms or potential improvements to the weight room, the players and coaches see the changes for the better. Most importantly, recruits see the improvements to those areas, specifically the new locker rooms for men's basketball and baseball. In order to draw some recruits, an updated locker room is important as they weigh their decision on what school to choose.
Michael knows that impacts recruiting decisions, too.
"I think there's things we need to improve like the weight rooms at Lantz Arena and things we need to do at O'Brien Field to spruce things up. Some locker rooms need to be addressed," Michael said. "Stuff from a recruiting standpoint are important. We can function with what we have, but in the recruiting circles, it is about materialistic things and bright and shiny things. It's not that those are necessary for success, but they are necessary to get those kids.
"It shows how committed are you to the program or the department and such. Those are some things and areas where we need to look at doing some things."
EIU has two different weight rooms. There's a facility at O'Brien Field close to all of the football offices and there's another weight room at Lantz Arena. EIU has two full-time strength and conditioning employees. Joe Niehaus is the head strength coach and was hired in that role in 2014. Jordan Davis is the football strength coach. It's his first year as the full-time football strength coach and his second year at EIU. Casey Akenberger and Derek Stein are both graduate assistants for the EIU strength and conditioning program.
Niehaus isn't going to say it's a perfect situation with the strength and conditioning program. The facilities could use an upgrade or there could be better equipment. There could be another full-time employee, too, but Niehaus knows the financial situation and has made the necessary adjustments.
"I am not going to say it's ideal, obviously. It's been an adjustment and at the end of the day, you have to make the adjustment, remember what our goal is and giving the student-athletes what they need," Niehaus said. "It's not ideal, but we are still able to operate within the budget constraints and get them what they need to get them bigger and stronger."
While the situation isn't as good as it could be, Niehaus said Michael does all he can to help out the strength and conditioning department.
"They do a good job of, if we really need something, they find a way to get it for us," Niehaus. "Tom does a great job of supporting strength and conditioning and I've had a lot of meetings with him. (The department) is really key in supporting what we do. It's a foundational piece of what we do here at EIU. It's neat to see people come in and develop and that's what we try and do. They do a great job."
The main problem Niehaus and his staff works around are the facilities.
"It's not ideal, but the administration is trying to get out in front of it and fundraise and try to get us something that's more ideal," Niehaus said. "But what I tell everyone is 200 pounds is 200 pounds, no matter if it's a 10,000-square-foot weight room or a 2,000-square-foot weight room or if you have brand new bars and weights or stuff that's 20 years old. It's still 200 pounds and at the end of the day, we have everything that we need here to get what we need done."
Even though the facilities aren't currently the perfect space, Niehaus does what he preaches and makes adjustments. He fits the schedules so each athletic program at EIU has time to use the weight room.
"That's one of the biggest challenges -- scheduling all of the teams. It's a challenge to get everyone in there," Niehaus said. "When volleyball is in the weight room, that's their time in the weight room. When football is in the weight room, that's their time in the weight room.
"As much as we can, we try and avoid having two or three teams at the same time. Scheduling is always an issue and a big challenge."
Last year, some of the strength and conditioning equipment was moved to Lantz Arena. That allows some teams to be trained at Lantz Arena and not just at O'Brien.
"For the first time, I am comfortable training any team out of either weight room," Niehaus said. "In the past, we would make as many teams as we could train out of O'Brien because it had better equipment. Now I am more comfortable having the Olympic sports teams training out of Lantz. That's opened up the schedule quite a bit."
The sports medicine department has about the same issues as strength and training. Jim Nave is the head athletic trainer at EIU and he has four full-time assistants -- Jehan Ayap (women's soccer and women's basketball), Jason Heiar (football), Jen McCann (volleyball and softball) and Michael Nordgren. He also has three graduate assistants -- Michaela DeSantis, Rayna Murphy and Shane Caudill.
Despite the budget constraints, Nave said he has at full staff.
"I have a great staff. Jason is a great football trainer and my other three are young and very enthusiastic," Nave said. "That makes a big difference to the student-athletes and how we handle any adversity."
Nave has two different facilities, one in O'Brien and one in Lantz Arena. Even though things could be better, Nave has no complaints about the support his department receives. Nave said both facilities meet the student-athletes' needs.
"We get what we need and we stay modern and we stay cutting edge on the machines and what we need to do for our student-athletes," Nave said. "It's very comparable (to the other Ohio Valley Conference schools). I honestly think facility wise and the things we have, we are comparable or ahead."
Nave said the main reason the sports medicine department is able to operate the way it has is because of the commitment Michael has with the program.
"Through all of this, we've done pretty well. Tom and the administration have made a big commitment to the department," Nave said. "This is starting my third year and Tom has a big commitment to the health and wellness to the student-athletes and that's the forefront of everything that we do. One of our goals as a department, even if the budget affected us, we never let it affect the student-athletes. We've done well with getting them what they need to take care of them."
While there are a facilities that can be spruced up in certain areas, EIU still has good facilities, officials say. EIU has a good baseball, softball and soccer field and the tennis courts were just resurfaced a few years ago. The swimming pool is located in Lantz Arena and EIU has its own cross country course. The golf teams practice at Bent Tree Golf Course.
The high school state track and field meet is held at O'Brien Stadium and the EIU track and field program has both an indoor and outdoor facility. The OVC indoor track and field championships will be held at EIU in February.
EIU track and field coach Tom Akers said the program is fortunate to have the facilities that it has.
"Our facilities are obviously top notch because of the state meet being here, which helps us," Akers said. "Our athletes sometimes take it for granted because they work out on it every day. Then when we go to the away meets and see the facilities and see how nice ours are -- I know we are very well off and very thankful for that."