Thursday, February 04, 2010

Stegeman Coliseum: It Aint Much But It's Home


With the University of Georgia men’s basketball team doing unexpectedly well under new coach Mark Fox, with upset victories over ranked teams Georgia Tech and Tennessee, it is time to revisit one of the issues that emerged during UGa’s coach search last spring.

The home of Bulldog basketball, the 10,500 seat, 45-year-old Stegeman Coliseum, is widely regarded as a drag on the program. An article at espn.com referred to Stegeman as an “outdated” facility that has received “plenty of cosmetic band aids over the years.” Bloggers routinely refer to it is a “barn,” referencing the days when the College of Agriculture sponsored rodeos in the old building (I attended one or two). Evidently, Georgia’s continued use of this arena as an athletic facility is supposed to signify that the Dogs aren’t serious about basketball. The theory is that until UGa replaces this too old, too small, too dark building with something new, big, and shiny to attract fans and recruits, our basketball team will never become elite.

These critiques of the Stegosaurus strike me is short-sighted. They sting, too, but I say that as someone with some nostalgic feelings for the old building. I have a soft spot for Stegeman. We go back pretty far, back to the days when it was just “the Coliseum” (Stegeman was the old indoor pool – when they tore that down a few years ago, the name got appended to the arena). I graduated from high school and college in there. It was the scene of my most memorable brush with greatness to date, bumming a light from Dean Rusk (President Kennedy’s Secretary of State) during halftime of a basketball game in 1983. I also think it is a beautiful building (at least from the outside), a massive, white flying saucer that seems to have landed gracefully in the middle of the campus.

But aesthetics and nostalgia make a pretty poor case for Stegeman as home of a first-rate basketball program. The real problem, according the building’s detractors, is that it is just a dead place. If that is so, the problem has been with the building’s inhabitants, not the building itself. When the men’s team is mediocre to poor (as it has been for most of the Coliseum’s life) the students don’t come. When the team is hot, the place fills up; it gets loud and raucous. It becomes a great place to see a college basketball game – intimate, intense, uproarious.

My most vivid basketball memories of Stegeman come from the early years of Hugh Durham, the first coach to lead Georgia hoops to anything approaching prominence (the 1983 Final Four appearance was the high water mark). During the three years of Dominique Wilkins’ tenure in Athens, the Coliseum was electric, fans yearning to see him execute one of his spectacular dunks. But the really great season was the year after Wilkins left, 1982-83. My favorite game that year was a home victory over Kentucky, lordly Kentucky, the unbeatable Wildcats. From my seat in the upper reaches, I saw our point guard Vern Fleming make a steal in the lane, then drive up the court past the Kentucky bench. In his haste he dribbled the ball out of bounds, almost striking Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall in the foot. The ref didn’t see it. Fleming took it all the way for a lay up, leaving Hall so hot with anger that he drew a technical. The Dogs didn’t look back. The Coliseum rocked, thrilling the heart of this fan and many others too, I’m sure. It is difficult to imagine what more people could want from a college basketball experience.

Now maybe I am getting carried away with Stegeman-love based on an extremely limited set of experiences, like a Waffle House devotee who refuses to believe that there could be a better breakfast in the world without really knowing. As a matter of fact, I do have a basis for comparison. When I went to graduate school at the University of Tennessee in 1988, the Vols had just forsaken their old Stegeman-era athletic center for a whopper replacement: the Thompson-Boling arena, a 21,000-seat behemoth that has all the personality of a Wal Mart. If hugeness is the measure of adequacy for the current college sports venue, I suppose the Tommy Bowl is more than adequate. But it fails miserably in the atmosphere department. If that is the sort of arena that Georgia basketball fans are supposed to long for, then no thanks.

And in the end I contend that the Dogs won’t even need hugeness to succeed in basketball, provided they have a team that can bring Stegeman to life. Their little antique dome, for all its presumed shortcomings, will do just fine. As Coach Fox said after Saturday’s victory over Tennessee, “We just had a great college game in Stegeman that was sold out, and we had a great home court advantage. That’s what college basketball is all about.”