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April 29, 2013

Iconic arena renamed State Farm Center

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

- "Romeo and Juliet" by William Shakespeare

I'm no Shakespeare scholar - high-school me hated the tedious task of interpreting his beautiful prose - but he sure hit the nail on the head with this one.

Many Illini fans took to social media Monday to express their displeasure about the Illinois athletics department's announcement that the facility known as the Assembly Hall for the previous 50 years of its existence will now be known as State Farm Center for the duration of a 30-year naming rights deal with Bloomington, Ill.-based insurance giant State Farm.

Change always is met with resistance, even with something as ornamental as a name.

Yet, what's in the name State Farm Center for Illinois? Oh, just an additional $60 million in funding to boost the renovation of its basketball facility, one that is inferior to most of its Big Ten competitors.

"I think this is just another statement that State Farm has made with Illinois that, 'Hey, we're moving this thing forward,'" Illini men's basketball coach John Groce said. "This is a reality. We're taking steps in the right direction, and we're moving forward. The momentum of the decision to partner with State Farm is going to create even more momentum with the project."

As a White Sox fan, I wasn't thrilled when Comiskey Park - the name of the White Sox ballpark (both of them) since 1910 - was dubbed U.S. Cellular Field as part of a 20-year, $68 million naming rights deal.

Some of my foolish thoughts then: "You're taking away tradition! What a sellout! I'll never call it that!"

But then I figured out that it didn't matter. I still often refer to the White Sox park as Comiskey. Sometimes, I call it U.S. Cellular Field. Sometimes, I get lazy and call it The Cell. Other times, I even mix them together and call it Comiskular.

The fact was that the White Sox naming rights deal helped the club give its stadium much-needed more fan-friendly upgrades, which in turn helped the club improve by increasing its payroll.

Like the White Sox ownership, the Illini leadership simply wants to boost its resources.

Call the Illinois basketball arena whatever you want to call it, if it makes you feel better. You've called it the Assembly Hall for your entire life? Keep calling it that.

Maybe you wish it was a name more tradition-inclusive The State Farm Assembly Hall? That's a little awkward and long. The State Farm Hall? Sounds a little small.

Regardless, State Farm is fond of the name State Farm Center, and Illinois, upon seeing the $60 million figure, correctly said, "Sure."

This isn't about trashing tradition. This is about preserving it and improving upon it.

Illinois may not be a blue-blood program, but it's been a premier program for most of its existence. Yet, the Illini have fallen behind in the college basketball arms race.

Wisconsin and Ohio State each opened arenas in 1998. Purdue finished an almost $100 million renovation of Mackey Arena last year. Michigan also recently completed a $56 million renovation of the Crisler Center before last season. Indiana has at least discussed building a new arena to replace its Assembly Hall.

State Farm's 30-year, $60 million naming rights deal with Illinois - in comparison, Nebraska's naming rights deal with Pinnacle Bank amounted $11.25 million over 25 years, while Maryland's naming rights deal with Comcast cost $20 million over 25 years - helps ensure the Illini will have the means to keep up with the college basketball Joneses.

Thomas, who picked up the Assembly Hall renovation project from his predecessor Ron Guenther, has a big-time vision for the Illini program. He knows Illinois fans care more about wins than the name of a hunk of concrete and glass. Like most 21st century athletic directors, Thomas thinks that luxury suites, state-of-the-art and a raucous court-level atmosphere will help Illinois accrue those wins.

Groce, another relative newcomer to Illinois athletics, shares his boss's vision.

"To do things you haven't done, you have to do things you haven't done before," Groce said. "In college athletics, you're either moving on an upward trend or you're staying the same. I tell our players if you're staying the same then you're really getting worse because there's people on an upward trend passing you by. In this case, for us to get to where we want to go - to restore and renovate this iconic building for the multi-purposes that it's used for - this was a huge, huge move in the right direction."

Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 93.5, 95.3 in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at www.espncu.com. You can contact him at jeremy@espncu.com or follow him on Twitter @WernerESPNCU

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