McKale Center opened in 1973 with 46 offices, five handball courts, a storage area for the drama department and a playing surface made essentially of rubber.
After struggling for three years to arrange financing, it was built on the cheap, for $8.4 million. How cheap? About 1,200 yellow plastic chair backs were installed in the upper deck.
Maybe nobody would notice.
Now, McKale Center has more than 90 offices, a Hall of Fame, an academic center and a travel agency. Those yellow seats? Still there.
On Monday, school president Ann Weaver Hart took particular glee to announce “those beautiful, iconic yellow seats have to go.”
It is going to cost the UA about $30 million to redo all the McKale Center seats, the playing surface, the video board, the locker rooms and do a few other touch-up jobs. By comparison, the school is spending about $13 million to redo Old Main.
You don’t spend this kind of money — eventually, the UA plans to spend $80 million for a total re-make of McKale Center — unless your commitment to excellence is matched by community devotion.
“This is only Phase I,” Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne said. “There is more to come.”
Despite the team’s No. 1 ranking, isn’t that the working theme of Arizona basketball? There Is More To Come.
Washington State’s Beasley Coliseum (1973), Utah’s Huntsman Center (1969) and ASU’s Wells Fargo Arena (1974) are contemporaries of McKale Center, all showing their age, all in need of tens of millions of dollars in renovations.
Only Byrne has taken prompt action. While his competitors are concentrating on football projects, Byrne opened the doors to the $72 million Lowell-Stevens Football Facility in August and then punched the accelerator on the McKale project.
Nobody in this league does that unless you have Oregon/Nike money.
“We’re starting to look into modernization of Wells Fargo Arena,” former ASU athletic director Steve Patterson said before he became Texas’ AD.
WSU athletic director Bill Moos recently said a makeover at Beasley Coliseum is “part of our long-range strategic plan.”
The difference is that Arizona can’t afford to wait; it must keep McKale Center as a showplace. It is the front porch of Tucson, the building through which hundreds of thousands of Wildcat fans view themselves as winners.
“McKale Center is an iconic building, and that can be a little bit of a problem,” Hart said. “We want it to be an iconic building with a face-lift.”
Can you imagine how difficult it is for Craig Robinson to build Oregon State into a Top 25 basketball operation?
OSU was the league’s top basketball program when Arizona hired Lute Olson was hired in 1983 and Gill Coliseum was the best game-day experience. Olson soon supplanted the Beavers, who have struggled to win for 25 years.
Just to get back on the map, OSU last year spent $15 million on a basketball training facility and a $3 million more sandblasting and sealing the exterior of 64-year-old Gill Coliseum, replacing all the windows and doors.
Slow on the draw, slow to protect their investment, the Beavers have never recaptured the long-ago magic. On Sunday, Oregon State drew 2,404 at Gill Coliseum.
Neither Byrne nor Hart were in office when Olson departed Arizona and his work put into jeopardy by two transitional seasons of theatrics. Byrne inherited Sean Miller, which should forever assure former AD Jim Livengood’s legacy, but Hart’s arrival created some uncertainty.
As the president of Temple, she did not act to set that school’s athletic department on a full-speed-ahead course. Indeed, Temple last month eliminated seven sports, including baseball and softball. The school does not have a flagship sports identity, lost in a jumble of Philadelphia pro sports.
At Arizona, the only game in town, Hart has obviously seen the merit of a basketball program around which the community identifies and embraces.
“I’m committed to making available to our student-athletes the highest qualify facilities,” she said Monday.
In recent years, Colorado built a basketball practice facility; Washington spent $40 million to remake Alaska Airlines Arena; Stanford paid $30 million for a redo of Maples Pavilion; UCLA spent about $140 million to modernize Pauley Pavilion; Oregon and USC erected sparkling new basketball arenas.
McKale isn’t a relic — it still has the Pac-12’s most raucous game-day atmosphere — but it was no longer singular, alone at the top.
Two years ago, while recruiting prep All-American Kaleb Tarczewski, Miller was eager to show off the UA’s locker room.
“How does it compare with the others you’ve seen?” he asked.
“Very similar,” Zeus said.
It was a signal that McKale Center was showing its age, a wrinkle here, a yellow seat there.
This is one face-lift that shouldn’t hurt a bit.