I saw the beginnings of the Assembly Hall. I attended Ray Eliot's last football game in November of 1959, and I could look out to the South from my end zone seat to see a construction area composed of a few concrete posts and piles of dirt. Once I moved to C-U in 1961, I could watch the continuing construction of this unique building that was to house the University of Illinois basketball team.
There was a common rumor that the Assembly Hall was being built on top of quicksand and would soon sink into the earth. You would be amazed at how many people believed that. The actual construction was a marvel in itself. I don't remember how many miles of cable were used to wrap around the middle of the Assembly Hall to hold the roof onto the bowl, but the process was a unique and fascinating one. The 176 concrete pleats in the roof were to provide strength and durability, which they have done.
Everyone was excited to move Illini basketball games from small, cramped and hot Huff Gym to the glorious and unique new facility, one of a kind in the world. The first game was delayed repeatedly until March 4, 1963, near the conclusion of one of our best ever seasons. Our team that year was composed of Dave Downey, Bill Burwell, Bill Small, Tal Brody, Skip Thoren, Bogie Redmon and company, and it went on to win the Big 10 and finish ranked 8th in the country after losing to eventual National Champion Chicago Loyola in the NCAA tournament. It was hard to tell whether everyone was more excited about the team or the Assembly Hall. It was to be the answer to our prayers.
That first game was anything but a triumph. The Illini defeated Northwestern and Rich Falk 79-73, but it was a lackluster, anti-climactic game near the end of the regular season. The first baskets were attached by thick, curved poles that fitted into the floor and were steadied by crossover guy wires attached from the top corners of the backboards to the catwalk high above. This arrangement made the rims so tight that imperfect shots would bound high and far away from them.
Perhaps a bigger problem was the depth perception for the players. There were no fans on the floor, so there was a tremendous amount of open space behind each basket. It made the players feel uncertain about their shots since they were accustomed to having a wall or seats right in back of the baskets. Shots that were normally easy for them became total guesswork. It took many games before the team became accustomed to them.
And the Illini players felt almost alone in the Assembly Hall, even with a large crowd. The accoustics were so good that sound would be absorbed by the roof and would not reverberate back to the floor. This was wonderful for concerts, but it was a stark contrast to the bedlam of Huff Gym. The fans higher up in C section felt self-conscious making loud noises because sound absorption made them feel alone even with other fans near them. It is always easier to yell for your team when others near you help create a symphony rather than a solo act. The loss of fan noise made it difficult for the Illini players to generate enthusiasm and confidence, especially when challenged by their opponents.
For many years now, the Illini Pep Band has helped to arouse the fans and team by creating a steady stream of musical enthusiasm and entertainment for them to enjoy. But it wasn't always this way. When Mark Hindsley was Director of Bands and Everett Kissinger was head of the Marching Illini, the only contribution the bands department would make was a concert band to play the Star Spangled Banner before the game and a brief concert at halftime. They would not play during timeouts, they would not try to get the fans fired up, and they left once the halftime ended.
You see, the band leaders believed a band should be heard only when it was performing concert pieces and marches, to allow for the great musicianship of the band members to shine. The notion of a pep band like we have now was abhorrent to them. When a volunteer pep band was organized to play for the freshman-varsity exhibition game in the fall of 1968, the band department sabotaged their efforts and punished their leaders. The concert-only band continued until the mid to late 1970's (I am uncertain of the exact date) when Gary Smith took over as director of the Marching Illini and brought us into the twentieth century.
Little by little, fans and players became accustomed to the Assembly Hall, and they found ways to make some noise despite the inherent problems. Exciting teams and plays always helped, and the booing of officials' calls and opposing coaches (i.e. Bobby Knight) and players showed the fans that loud was a possibility.
The Assembly Hall has seen many such times over the years. The list is too long to duplicate, but the cheering for Harv Schmidt when he came onto the floor during his glory years was deafening at times. There was rarely a louder moment than when Eddie Johnson made his baseline jumper to defeat future National Champion Michigan State and Earvin "Magic" Johnson on January 11, 1979, 57-55. Derek Harper's overtime bomb against Minnesota in 1983 can never be forgotten, and the great Lou Henson teams of 1983-85 and 1988-89 provided constant excitement. I thought the roof would fly off when Andy Kaufmann made his last-second bomb to defeat Iowa 78-77 on February 4, 1993. And our great teams of recent years have been assisted for special games by concerted efforts to "Paint The Hall Orange".
The Assembly Hall, little by little, has evolved into a decent home for the Illini. At this time, Illini teams have won 63 of their last 66 home games, so it now appears to be a true home court advantage. I say "appears" only because we have had outstanding teams who could win games in many venues under many circumstances.
Floor seats have been added to get enthusiastic fans closer to the game. The Orange Krush has become an awesome force for good by needling opponents, working the fans, and raising funds at record-setting levels. And after much resistance from Assembly Hall officials, the temporary cloth coverings around the Hall have added a spash of necessary orange and blue to an otherwise drab gray background.
Over the years, the Assembly Hall image has taken on almost epic proportions and is looked upon with reverence by many people. Even the IHSA acknowledges the special value for high school basketball players to play championships in the Assembly Hall, despite the fact the complacency of the U of I and the greed of local businesses forced the IHSA to move their championships to Peoria. Of course, they forget the half-filled arenas and lack of consistent crowd noise in the cavernous building.
If I have not been inside the Assembly Hall over 1000 times, then the figure is close to that. Besides Illini games and practices (men and women), I have attended numerous concerts, plays, musicals, comedy acts, ice shows, Harlem Globetrotters' performances, circuses, commencements, Illinois High School Association (IHSA) state basketball tournaments, and other special events. And I have also been there many times to purchase tickets, pick up press guides and posters, and attend meetings. Going to the Assembly Hall has long been a consistent part of my life.
All that being true, then why do I hope the UI builds a new arena for basketball? The answer to that is complex, but the discussion is necessary given the upcoming decisions by the U of I and the Division of Athletics regarding the future of the Assembly Hall.
From the beginning, the Assembly Hall has been managed by an organization that is apart from the Division of Athletics. The only way we could affort its construction was to share it with the students of the UI, with sports being only a small part of its mission. This caused the DIA (called Athletic Association back in 1963) to pay rent for the use of coaches' offices and the retractable basketball floor. We have always had to pay the Assembly Hall for each day of practice and games, possibly the only major university in the country to do so. And we have not benefitted from parking and concession revenues as we would with our own facility.
In my mind, the Assembly Hall staff was not always willing to respect the needs of the DIA. Over time, it appears that relationship has improved. But even now, the Assembly Hall people are in charge of what happens in the facility. Thus, no banners or signs of any kind are allowed. No painting of seats or concrete anything but gray will ever be permitted as long as they are in charge. And any hope of scheduling NCAA championships or other special sporting events in the facility is dependent on what other attractions have already been scheduled.
All coaches from Harv Schmidt on have sought ways of getting fans closer to the action and increasing sound volume. While we see many improvements combining to make the facility what it is today, these improvements have been extremely slow in coming. After all, putting up and taking down more seats and risers on the floor for each game requires more work from Assembly Hall personnel, which then causes more salary expense for the Assembly Hall. And no change can be made unless it is consistent with the needs of the overall entertainment package offered by the Assembly Hall. There are limitations that continue to the present time.
There is speculation that the Assembly Hall might undergo major renovation to put more fans closer to the floor. This would require a massive overhaul and extreme expense, and there is no guarantee such changes would suit the needs of the Assembly Hall's other attractions. Personally, I cannot imagine the Assembly Hall staff being excited about these changes, although they would appreciate the addtional amenities such as escalators and more bathrooms.
More basic than that, from the beginning the Assembly Hall has been one of the least functional basketball facilities ever devised. It is big and beautiful, but it is a white elephant. Many of its seats are too far from the floor for fans to see well. There is a ton of empty space that is unnecessary and counterproductive. And the wonderful acoustics are the exact opposite of what is needed for consistent crowd noise for basketball games. All the improvements in the world may help incrementally, but they cannot eliminate these problems.
In my mind, the biggest consistent problem of continuing to play basketball in the Assembly Hall is the lack of sound reverberation. Sure, on special occasions when capacity crowds are aroused to a fever pitch to support a championship-caliber team against a big-name challenger, the sound created is sufficient to provide a major home court advantage. But most top teams have great crowd support and noise for all their home games, including those between semesters when the students are absent, games against weak opponents, and when their favored teams are struggling. By comparison, the Assembly Hall can be almost morgue-like at these times.
Ideally, I would like us to build a facility designed specifically for basketball. After all, the cost of renovation is nearly as big as the cost of a new facility, and renovation still cannot solve all of the Assembly Hall's problems. Then, I would like to see the UI pay the expense of air-conditioning the Assembly Hall so it can be used for summer events. This would help them make income that could help defray costs of losing the basketball games.
I don't know if this would be enough to make the Assembly Hall a profit, but it would help. Of course, if the new multi-event building being planned for the Sports Complex area reaches fruition, that and a new basketball facility might compete against rather than compliment the Assembly Hall's mission. Our new interim chancellor has already commented that three venues would have trouble all making a profit, so that may limit our options.
But I will be saddened if the UI always has to compensate for a less than ideal situation while our rivals continue to create state-of-the-art facilities that are perfect for basketball and attractive to recruits. Maybe we can't work out the problems. Maybe we cannot afford a new facility. Maybe those fearful of change or intractable in their emotionality and stubbornness win the day and force us to maintain the status quo. But what an opportunity we could have if we have far-sighted leaders who care about our long-term future and are willing to put in the effort to make it happen.
A new facility would become a huge home-court advantage that would be superior to anything we have at the Assembly Hall. If you think those "Paint the Hall Orange" days are special, just wait until they occur in a facility designed for that purpose. If you get tired of seeing the fat-cats in A section sitting quietly while the Illini rally, then imagine a new facility where students ring the floor and the big supporters are entombed in their private, enclosed boxes where their lack of enthusiasm won't hurt the team or be an eyesore for TV due to one-way glass. If you tire of paying high prices for parking and consessions, at least the profits will go to the Division of Athletics instead of the Assembly Hall. If you tire of waiting in long lines for the bathroom or climbing a mountain known as the top of C Section, then look forward to a day with more and better facilities and easier access.
Many decisions lie ahead for the UI and DIA, and there is much political and financial juggling and compromise that must be accomplished before a final concensus can be reached. I will accept a continuation of the Assembly Hall for basketball if I have to, but I don't prefer it. I know there are powerful forces who are diametrically opposed to my view, and they have a right to their opinion, just as I am entitled to mine.
What I want more than anything is for the UI to keep an eye to the long-term future and what is best for everyone concerned. If they keep selfishness, pettiness, and unconscious emotionality out of their deliberations, I am confident they will make the best decisions for everyone concerned. Of course, that is asking a lot.
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