State finals--Peoria or Champaign?

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State finals--Peoria or Champaign?

The finals of the boys state basketball tournament should be played at Assembly Hall in Champaign.

The Illinois High School Association's signature event belongs in the state's most celebrated venue this side of United Center.

That said, it won't happen until the folks in Champaign-Urbana get their act together and decide that they really want to host the tournament, as they did from 1919 to 1995.

The University of Illinois' new athletic director, Mike Thomas, said he wants to host the tournament once again, and new men's basketball coach, John Groce, said he wants to see the tournament in Assembly Hall.

"The first question that coach John Groce asked me (after he was hired) was about having the state tournament back in Champaign. I think that's critical," said Thomas, who hopes to tie the completion of the Assembly Hall's renovation to a bid for the tournament.

But Thomas already is aware of the issues involved. Former coach Bruce Weber also wanted to return the tournament to Champaign. But neither Weber nor former athletic director Ron Guenther had enough clout with local businessmen to make it happen.

"We also have to remember, to do that, it's not just a University of Illinois event--we can certainly do our part--but it's also a community event," Thomas said. "So everybody in the Champaign-Urbana area has to be on board as it relates to hosting those events and putting in attractive bids that would make folks want to come here."

We've heard that song before. Until Thomas, Groce and university officials persuade the businessmen in the Champaign-Urbana...the hotel and motel owners, the gas station owners, the restaurant and bar owners...to stop gouging the people who attend the event, it will never happen.

For years, I beat a drum for Champaign. Assembly Hall, I wrote repeatedly, is an architectural masterpiece. Carver Arena in Peoria is just another gym. Even 50 years after it was built, Assembly Hall is a one-of-a-kind facility that still awes visitors.

If you can't hold the state finals in Chicago's United Center, then the best place in the state is Assembly Hall. You don't display the Mona Lisa in a convenience store. The state's showcase event belongs in a 16,000-seat arena that is unlike any other in the country.

Sure, Assembly Hall needs to be renovated, and it will be. As a Illinois student, I remember when architect Max Abramovitz' version of the Taj Mahal was a big hole in the ground in 1959. I was awed to walk in for the first time to attend the first game played there, then the first state tournament in 1963. It was build for 8.35 million or 63.4 million in today's dollars.

Last November, a 2.2 million proposal to renovate Assembly Hall was approved by the University's Board of Trustees, calling for the installation of air conditioning, expanded restrooms and corporate luxury boxes.

Trivia note: There are only two sports facilities in Illinois that are on the list of endangered historic places--Assembly Hall and Wrigley Field.

The state tournament was a big-time event when the dome-shaped Assembly Hall was originally opened. Scalpers abounded outside old Huff Gym, which sat only 6,000. But they still found takers outside Assembly Hall in the early years. In those days, the high schools supported the tournament. You saw dozens and dozens of basketball players wearing their varsity letter jackets. And radio stations from Carbondale to the Quad Cities covered the event live.

Not anymore. The last time the IHSA put up the site of state tournament finals for bid, Champaign-Urbana proposed 200,000. Peoria proposed 450,000 and a pact with local hotels not to gouge visitors or force a three-night minimum stay. Guess who won the bid?

Give Peoria credit, they have done a marvelous job of hosting the state finals. The city has financial support from Caterpillar and its riverboat casino. Without the University of Illinois, it has been argued, Champaign-Urbana would be another Tuscola or Paxton.

Another plus for the tournament in Peoria is the March Madness Experience, a collection of fun and games that draws hundreds of basketball fans and just plain folks and their kids to the large exposition hall adjacent to Carver Arena. Some visitors spend all their time at the Experience and never see a game.

The last time we checked Champaign-Urbana or any other community in the state, even Chicago, doesn't have a comparable facility to hold such an event, a fact I'm sure the IHSA takes into serious consideration whenever the tournament comes up for bid. The IHSA's current contract with Peoria runs through 2014-15.

Originally, the IHSA never dreamed the tournament would leave Champaign-Urbana. After 77 years in Champaign, even Steve Kouri, the Peoria lawyer who conceived of the plot to steal the prize, had doubts that the heist could be pulled off. But constant complaints from schools and fans opened the door and Peoria charged in with a well-organized and well-funded game plan that blew away the committee chosen to evaluate the proposals.

Kouri met with Jim Flynn, an assistant executive director of the IHSA, and was stunningly surprised when Flynn informed him that the IHSA didn't think it was appreciated in Champaign, that if Peoria could offer a financial incentive, it might be accepted. Yes, Kouri said to himself as he left the meeting with Flynn, "we can get this thing if we do it right."

"They (Champaign) never believed the tournament would leave the town," Flynn said. So nobody blinked when the Assembly Hall raised its rental fee, demanded a higher percentage of merchandise sales and gross receipts and began charging for parking. For years, tournament visitors had been complaining about rising prices for lodging. Tournament attendance had declined dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s.

"We had to find a way to get people back and generate more interest in the tournament," Flynn said. "It got to the point where Champaign-Urbana didn't budge and the other communities said: 'Give us a chance to show you what we can do.' I knew Peoria's bid would be a good one."

The Peoria package was too good to pass up. Civic leaders and businessmen pledged support. Caterpillar, the city's biggest industry, made a financial commitment. The hotels, always the biggest hangup in Champaign-Urbana, jumped on board.

It got even better when they organized a Fan Jam or March Madness Experience in the 66,000-square-foot exhibition hall adjacent to Carver Arena. "A light bulb when on. We could do it. We could enhance the tournament and give the IHSA something that Champaign-Urbana couldn't," Kouri said.

The final decision was a no-brainer. After examining bids from Peoria, Champaign-Urbana and Illinois State University in Normal, the IHSA unanimously awarded the tournament to Peoria.

The IHSA surveyed its membership and concluded that the overwhelming majority favored the move. "The only minus was Carver Arena (compared to Assembly Hall). But there were so many pluses," said then IHSA executive director David Fry.

"People said the tournament isn't about the arena, it's about players, games and fun. Peoria had everything except the Assembly Hall. But not too many people seemed to mind. When I went into the March Madness Experience for the first time, it blew my mind."

It is hard to imagine that the IHSA will opt to return to Champaign-Urbana. But, remember, nobody thought the state tournament would leave Champaign-Urbana in the first place.

For Notre Dame, prepare like a champion maybe 'should be our new mantra’

For Notre Dame, prepare like a champion maybe 'should be our new mantra’

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The “Play Like a Champion Today” sign in the cramped stairwell from the home locker room to the tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium has been a staple of tradition on this campus for decades. But at 1-3, maybe the 2016 Irish need to change that slogan a bit. 

“You have to put everything that you can into each drill, each snap, each everything in this game,” offensive lineman and captain Mike McGlinchey said. “You can't overlook any detail. You can't leave any stone left unturned. It's so important that you prepare as a champion just as much as you want to play like one. And maybe that should be our new mantra.”

Notre Dame has had 10 underclassmen or first-time starters make starts this year, with a host of other inexperienced players seeing significant playing time, too. Right now, the team’s 1-3 record — with that only win coming over an entirely overmatched Nevada side — is a stern reminder of how sub-standard practices during the week can affect what happens on Saturday. 

“You wake up pretty fast when you're 1 and 3,” McGlinchey said. “… What we have felt that good preparation is hasn't been good enough, and we will continue to ramp that up and continue to fight for the best play that we can. And it's about getting that understanding throughout the entire football team, whether you're a freshman or a fifth-year senior, that preparation is the most important thing in this game, and games aren't won on Saturdays in September. They're won in January in the weight room or in the summer doing your drills. And then each week it's won Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday when you're on the practice field. So if you can prepare the right way, prepare harder with the guys that we have on our team, I'm pretty confident that we can get our jobs done a little bit better.”

Linebacker and captain James Onwualu agreed with McGlinchey’s assessment. 

“We've always tried to prepare to the best of our ability,” Onwualu said. “We practice hard. I think it's just the fact that we need to start practicing a little bit smarter, and the coaches have made a couple of changes, like I said, so practices are a little bit different. Still practicing with great intensity and continuing to push these younger guys to focus in on their job.”

For Notre Dame, everything is on the table when all of a sudden bowl eligibility could be at stake. Including even tweaking, for themselves, one of college football’s most famous sayings. 

Cubs, Theo Epstein agree to five-year contract extension

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Cubs, Theo Epstein agree to five-year contract extension

PITTSBURGH - On the verge of what could become a historic run through October and a period of sustained excellence at Wrigley Field, Theo Epstein has signed a five-year contract extension that will keep him overseeing baseball operations for the Cubs.

While no one expected Epstein to bolt from the best team in baseball and a comfortable family situation on the North Side, the president could have become a free agent and disrupted what's now regarded as a model organization in professional sports.

Epstein initially signed a five-year deal worth $18.5 million in October 2011, seeking a new challenge and a fresh start after building two World Series winners for the Boston Red Sox.

Through a series of shrewd trades, first-round picks and free-agent megadeals, Epstein has turned around a 101-loss team in 2012 and constructed a World Series favorite that has already won 101 games and a National League Central title this year.

Epstein and chairman Tom Ricketts are expected to speak with the media before Wednesday night's game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park.

“In the five years under Theo’s leadership, he has brought in a strong executive team and acquired and developed some of the best players in the game," Ricketts said in a statement. "Now, the results are on the field.  My family and I have no doubt that we have moved closer to our goal of delivering Cubs fans the World Series championship they deserve.

"(This) ensures the baseball operations team assembled by Epstein will continue its remarkable tenure of building a consistent championship contender.”