Nearing its half-century birthday — the March 2 game against Nebraska is the exact date — the state’s most venerable and eye-popping sports facility is viewed from varying perspectives.
When Assembly Hall events don’t draw C Section viewers, it comes off lifeless and as dull as the gray seats. But when archrival Michigan arrives with its youthful basketball legions on the cusp of the nation’s No. 1 ranking, watch the joint start jumping.
Under circumstances like tonight, it can truly be a “House of Paign” for rivals. Five times between 1985 and 2005, the Illini went undefeated there as visitors felt the jolt of intimidation from a feverish fandom.
It has always been thus. But 50 years ago there was insufficient room at Huff Hall. Viewers were packed like sardines. In the upper sections, posts blocked fans’ view.
That’s when late architect Max Abramovitz stepped forward with an incredible engineering feat, setting a dome of reinforced concrete over a column-free “flying saucer.” It was the wonder of the age and, when viewed from a distance at night with lights emanating from the portals, it still is.
Age takes its toll. But on those special occasions — like tonight — excitement surrounding the event overwhelms modern inconveniences. It is, after all, a date with MEESH-igan, as Bob Zuppke would say. Nothing matters except putting the cocky visitors in their place. And there have been just enough fallen elites around the country (Syracuse, Louisville, etc., Saturday) to make a true believer carry hopes it can happen here.
Razing the issue
But the Hall is, first and foremost, an all-purpose building. For basketball, the top row is a long way from center court, and the spacious lower surface isn’t conducive to good viewing for all.
Many critics — including Illini grad and Olympic basketball’s lead man, Jerry Colangelo — have recommended the Hall for the “endangered list” and believe it should be replaced. If it costs $160 million to spruce up an old building, imagine what could be built separately with that much money.
In this case, pulsing hearts overcame practicality. Advocacy groups and university leaders prefer renovation, and won out — it’s now in the fundraising phase — as they cite its iconic status and structural soundness.
Moving past conceptual drafts through the period of schematic design, they’re now in what Warren Hood calls the “quiet phase” in which design development is linked to corporate and donor fundraising. Naming rights alone will require multiple millions per year.
Hood, senior associate director who oversaw the Memorial Stadium renovation, said the long-term goal is to break ground after next basketball season.
The plan is to brighten it up, inside and out, with air conditioning, concourse expansion and additional restrooms (there are currently none on the upper level). Every seat will be replaced, with C Section remaining the same and Sections A and B receiving a rectangular restructuring. Students will occupy some 1,200 sloped retractable seats bordering three sides. For both men and women, the locker rooms will be improved.
On the outside, there’ll be a grand west entrance, and all the glass will be replaced.
Athletic director Mike Thomas emphasizes that renovation will be done in phases during basketball’s offseason, thereby allowing home games during the process.
All this will be carried to the UI Board of Trustees in May for approval.
You’ve heard the positives: Air conditioning for year-round operation, an upgrading of 50-year-old underpinnings, a glistening new entryway, a Hall of Fame area, suites and boxes for major donors, orange and blue seating, a team merchandise store, and large student sections down low.
But longtime fans are worried. By installing boxes in front of suites at the top of A Section and reshaping the two lower sections into rectangles, there will be more than 1,000 fewer seats. That brings up the dreaded word: displacement.
Fans who have enjoyed the same seats for decades will be moved. Those in lower B could wind up in upper B. Those in upper B might be moved to lower C. Such movement breeds unhappiness, and UI ticket manager Jason Heggemeyer already is preparing for that onslaught. Outcries of displeasure are automatic when changes of this nature are made.
No fade to the finish
But tonight, concerns for the future will take a back seat. National Player of the Year candidate Trey Burke leads a dashing 18-1 Michigan squad that rebounded from a 56-53 loss at Ohio State with decisive wins vs. Minnesota and Purdue.
“You have to embrace these challenges and moments,” Illini coach John Groce said. “Obviously Sunday is another opportunity to do that. In college basketball, on any given night ...”
Groce noted that “at this time of year, teams can go one way or the other.”
This is a point of emphasis because Illinois has seen recent promising campaigns turn sour. The Illini finished 2-14 last year, 7-11 in 2011, 4-7 the year before and 8-15 in 2008. Fans become wait-and-see wary after seeing a February-March record of 27-36 over the last five seasons.
“Our job is to get better each day and let things take care of themselves,” Groce said.
“It’s always possible to play well and lose, but we felt a lot different after the hard-fought losses to Missouri and Minnesota than we did after the Wisconsin and Northwestern games.
“We are a lot more concerned with what we do than who our opponent is. We need efficient, quality possessions. We’ve shown we’re good enough to defeat any team, but we can also lose to any team.”
This marks the fourth straight UI sellout. Heggemeyer hopes to extend the streak with $15 tickets for faculty and staff for the last 2,000 seats when Wisconsin plays here next Sunday.
The push is on. UI fans are clamoring for a late-season run. Now it’s up to the team.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.