Rossow: UI''s choice is renovate, not rebuild

   At Wisconsin, the Badgers are about to move into a $72 million arena named after a senator. The Kohl Center will seat 16,500 and guarantees what architects like to call excellent sightlines.

   At Ohio State, the Buckeyes are about to move into an $84 million arena named after either the coach of the Kansas City Chiefs or some folks who own a bunch of deparment stores. The Schottenstein Center will seat 19,500 and guarantees excellent sightlines.

   At Penn State, the Nittany Lions last year moved into a $53 million arena named after a former university president. The Bryce Jordan Center seats 15,300 and offers excellent sightlines.

   At Michigan State, the Spartans still are getting comfortable in a $43 million arena named after a former athlete and donor (money, not body part). The 7-year-old Breslin Center seats 15,138 and offers excellent sightlines.

   At Illinois, the Illini .... are staying put. No need to worry about purchasing personal seat licenses for another half-century or so.

   "The Assembly Hall is not going to be replaced," said Lou Henson, who coached a few games at the UI''s home gym. "It''s too good of a structure."

   The Assembly Hall, built for the cost of a middle infielder ($8.35 million), is about to celebrate its 34th birthday, and the gray hairs are starting to show.

   There aren''t enough restrooms. The concession stands interfere with fan traffic in the concourse. More than half the seats are located in the faraway C Section. The acoustics stink. And the locker rooms are the size of a bedroom closet.

   These are problems not found in centers Kohl, Schottenstein, Bryce Jordan or Breslin. Check back in 30 years.

   "When the Assembly Hall was first built, it was supposed to last 100 years," Assembly Hall director Xen Riggs said. "Now I don''t know if it''s going to last that long, and we''re getting to the point where some of the components have to be replaced, but the structure is as good as the day it was built."

Getting up there in years

   Once Wisconsin exits UW Field House, once Ohio State bolts St. John Arena, the Assembly Hall becomes the third-oldest arena in the Big Ten.

   Minnesota''s Williams Arena, recently renovated, opened in 1928, and its atmosphere remains as electric as ever. Northwestern''s Welsh-Ryan Arena was finished in 1951, the Wildcats still waiting for a basketball team to arrive.

   The Big Ten trend is to raise (money) then raze (arena). Since November 1989, the conference has planned for more new gyms (four) than it has fielded Final Four teams (three).

   Illinois has produced neither, although a Final Four berth likely will come sooner than a sequel to the Assembly Hall.

   "We wouldn''t be sinking $12 million for major renovation if we were planning to do anything different," Riggs said.

   Later this spring, workers will swarm the place to make the Assembly Hall more accommodating. Riggs said the price tag will be around $11.6 million, covering:

    Work on the ramps outside the Assembly Hall.

    Construction of underground storage space.

    Addition of a three-truck loading dock.

    Renovation of locker rooms and media areas.

   

Change for the better

   The fans do not benefit directly. C Section still seems miles away from the floor, and the halftime lines to the restrooms still seem miles long.

   They may see a better brand of basketball, though. Recruiting certainly won''t suffer from the makeover.

   "We desperately needed to do something because we were at a tremendous disadvantage recruiting," Henson said. "We''d bring recruits to the locker room area and the press area, and there was nothing to show them."

   Henson enjoyed playing in the Assembly Hall. When his team was good, the stands were packed and the pep band played on the floor. It wasn''t always that way.

   His first home game in 1975 drew 5,007. It sounded like 507.

   The Assembly Hall, like most multipurpose arenas, does not intimidate. Intimacy is not part of the circular, staid package. And intimacy can''t be renovated, no matter how many bulldozers are brought in.

   Unless the UI is willing to raise and raze, the Assembly Hall is home for a while. Average sightlines and all.

   Jim Rossow is sports editor of The News-Gazette.

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