Tom Kacich: 50-year-old inaction preserves Assembly Hall naming rights
It might be the luckiest $60 million indecision ever in the history of the University of Illinois.
If it hadn't been for the reluctance of the UI Board of Trustees, the UI Assembly Hall long ago might have been named for Robert Zuppke or John F. Kennedy or someone else.
And the university would have missed out on its hoped-for deal to sell naming rights for the landmark to finance a major renovation in the coming years. News-Gazette columnist Loren Tate reported last month that UI athletic director Mike Thomas hopes to sell the naming rights for as much as $2 million a year, or $60 million over 30 years.
That's $60 million more than the university would have received 50 years ago when students pushed to name the still-unopened building for Zuppke, a groundbreaking football coach who had led Illini teams from 1913 to 1941 and had died in 1957.
"The Daily Illini strongly urges that the new assembly hall be dedicated as 'Zuppke Hall,'" the student newspaper wrote in a front-page editorial 50 years ago today. "We believe that the beautiful and unique new assembly hall deserves better than an everyday, factual name. We believe it deserves a name that will link it immediately in the minds of thousands of Illini with a beloved Illinois legend."
The editorial said that the Assembly Hall's designers and builders "cannot be blamed for" its name. "Like Topsy, it just grew — from an architect's sketch into newspaper stories and finally into popular usage. Now is the time to abandon the old title, however."
Within days DI reporters had found other supporters for naming the building for Zuppke, including former players (as well as former UI trustees) "Red" Grange and Harold Pogue, plus UI athletic director Doug Mills.
"He did more for the university than anyone else," said Grange. "I could think of no other human being for whom you could name the building who would even be in his league."
The effort picked up more steam with a student referendum in February 1963 (about four weeks before the building opened with a UI-Northwestern basketball game). Students were given a choice of 14 possible names for the hall and Zuppke received 2,999 votes to 2,837 for the second choice, Illini Hall. Poet Carl Sandburg finished third with 1,930 votes (the 85-year-old Illinois native was the main speaker at the hall's formal dedication on May 3, 1963) and Grange got 1,645.
Other choices on the student ballot were the building's architect and UI grad Max Abramowitz; Nobel Prize-winning physicist John Bardeen, then on the UI faculty; Avery Brundage, a UI graduate and head of the International Olympic Committee; Ernest Hemingway; former UI President Edmund James; retired UI administrator and economist Lloyd Morey; historian Alan Nevins; New York Times writer and UI grad James "Scotty" Reston; UI physics Professor Frederick Seitz; former Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson; and Stephen Douglas, the Illinois senator from 100 years earlier. Notably, no one suggested naming the building for Abraham Lincoln, perhaps because Lincoln Hall had been dedicated 50 years earlier.
But there were a number of write-in votes, many of them irreverent and tasteless: Max's Mistake, Overpriced Abortion, Ping Pong Palace, Pleasure Palace, Corn Bowl, Illini Folly, The Mushroom and the $20 Raise-in-Tuition Building (student fees financed construction of the building). Oh yes, someone even suggested the "John Wilkes Booth Memorial."
Ten eventful months later, though, the Zuppke memorial idea obviously had sputtered. Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner suggested naming the building for President John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated a few weeks earlier. A December student vote found that "University of Illinois Assembly Hall" was the new No. 1 choice, followed by John Fitzgerald Kennedy Memorial Hall, Robert Zuppke Assembly Hall and Red Grange Assembly Hall.
UI trustees sat on the issue for almost another year before choosing to name the football field inside Memorial Stadium for Zuppke, and leaving the Assembly Hall with the same unimaginative name it has borne for 50 years. The consensus seemed to be that some time should pass before the grand structure was named for anyone.
The Daily Illini was not pleased. Sports columnist Larry Beaupre called the Zuppke Field idea "nothing more than a way of evading the old push to name the Assembly Hall after Zuppke."
And the editorial page was livid.
"What sort of homage is represented by the naming of a football field? The practice is unheard of! Surely Bob Zuppke deserves a monument more permanent; not a withered forget-me-not. We cannot imagine sports editors or anyone else referring to 'Robert C. Zuppke Field of Memorial Stadium,'" said a prescient September 1964 editorial.
In a "deep bow to banality," the editors wrote, the UI trustees opted for University of Illinois Assembly Hall. "That is to say, they decided to name it nothing at all. And now, with a thoughtless stunt, they have insulted the memory of a great Illini," the editors concluded.
But that perceived insult could help the UI pay a large share (along with student fees, again, and other naming rights) of the $160 million or so required to renovate a building that was built for about 5 percent of that amount ($8.5 million) 50 years ago.
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at email@example.com.