Tate: When Hall's hoppin' it's the place to be

Tate: When Hall's hoppin' it's the place to be

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.

Moving target
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 ltate@news-gazette.com.

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butkus50 wrote on January 27, 2013 at 7:01 am

Here we go again; decrease capacity to accomodate the fall in Illini sports.  The assembley hall was not a good basketball facility when first built, I was there and Huff gym was a fantastic basketball arena but too small.

If the University of Illinois is truly a quality institution, why can't they built a brand new state of the art basketball arena?

The administration is to blame for the fall of Illinois sports and that trend continues under Thomas.

FloridaIllini wrote on January 27, 2013 at 8:01 am

I lived near Champaign when the "hall" was built and from my perspective and recollection it was never a good place for basketball- it always had great acoustics for concerts but was mausoleum like for basketball.  I don't recal anyone believing it was a good basketbal arena and it certainly hasn't gotten better.  I'm an Illini grad and lived in central Illinois most of my life. I find no sentimental value in the "hall".  Huff gym-yes.  Tear it down and build a real basketball arena on the model of Huff gym.  I can still see Jerry Colangelo with that left handed jumper from the right of the key.  

myattitude wrote on January 27, 2013 at 5:01 pm

I don't blame Thomas for this situation as he inherited it from the earlier UI administration. Unclear to me how Guenther felt on this issue. My impression is the previous administration did not want another fight similar to the one on the Chief so they decided to stay with the Assembly Hall. Their argument is that there is not enough activity to support the Assembly Hall and a new basketball arena which may or may not be true. A new arena to them meant tearing down the Assembly Hall.

If the Assembly Hall is kept, I agree with adding air conditioning, restrooms, and some other items. However, I worry that the "damage" planned for A and B sections may hinder the place long-term. Adding AC means it can be used in the summer which might offset some of the issues related to usage.

I would prefer and have not met anyone who seems to disagree that a new basketball arena with a larger searting capacity with properly designed suites and seats closer to the floor is what should be built. I have long advocated it should also have ice capability (the Assembly Hall had it too but the floor was too small for hockey and they may no longer have the refrigeration equipment) so that a proper ice arena is available. Interestingly enough UI has a good ice hockey club team and next year ice hockey becomes a sanctioned Big Ten sport which has the ability to be a money maker like football and basketball.

When it comes to naming rights two arenas could also give them twice the opportunity. At some point it might also be possible to move other sports from Huff (is the money spent there worth what we are getting) to the Assembly Hall such as volleyball which has the ability to fill Huff. Perhaps there is a better use for the Huff space on Campus and keep in mind parking is not nearly as good at Huff.

A new arena might also give UI a chance to eventually bring the high school basketball championships back to C-U if they can clean up the issues with the hotels and restaurants.

It seems we are now locked into a short-term view instead of looking at the long-term requirements and improving the future for UI athletics. I fell Thomas is moving ahead with what he was told to do instead of doing what the vast majority of the UI Alums and fans would prefer to see done.

JimOATSfan wrote on January 28, 2013 at 5:01 am

I vote to implode it. Mad Max had his fun and got a saucer built.

Time to move on and move smartly. Everyone raves about the Pacers Arena and plenty of loyal Illini love Huff Gym.  Blend the two and build it for $144 million.