SOUTH CAROLINA need only look to Lexington, Ky., Chapel Hill, N.C., and Raleigh, as it determines the future of Carolina Coliseum, the iconic 46-year-old landmark at the corner of Assembly and Blossom streets.
The universities in those cities made a concerted effort to respect their past and preserve their history by converting aged and revered men’s basketball arenas into palaces for women’s basketball.
The same transformation can happen with Carolina Coliseum, a 12,400-seat arena that can be downsized by 4,000 seats to make for both a comfortable women’s basketball home and a venue more suitable to today’s smaller concert market. It can be funded initially by diverting about $35 million already earmarked for other athletics department facilities projects.
There is little debating the value of Carolina Coliseum to the USC and Columbia landscapes. The landmark was constructed in 1969 primarily to house the Frank McGuire basketball teams that soon thereafter gained national prominence while capturing the fancy of a statewide audience.
The venue also earned a reputation nationally for its terrific sight lines made possible by a steep grade of seating that gave fans the sense they were on top of the action. Concert bands raved about the building, which over the years attracted top talent from Elvis Presley to Bruce Springsteen.
Even today, a decade after primary events moved out of the Carolina Coliseum and into the 18,000-seat Colonial Life Arena, performing artists such as the Dave Matthews Band and Lil Wayne use the old building for private practice sessions before going on tour.
“When you look at the building, it has a level of cultural significance because of what has occurred in the building, what it was erected for, what it represents for USC and for the community in general,” says Robin Waites, executive director of the Historic Columbia Foundation. “There is a large architectural significance because of the style of architecture in vogue in the 1960s and 1970s. It certainly has a lot of value from that perspective.”
That line of thinking led the University of Kentucky to renovate venerable Memorial Coliseum, the 11,500-seat home to Wildcats’ men’s basketball from 1950 through 1976. It has served as home to the Kentucky women’s basketball program ever since, with renovations in 2007 and 2008 reducing the size to 8,000 seats.
“We’ve had a real good record at Memorial,” says Kentucky women’s coach Matthew Mitchell, whose club is 47-2 at home the past three seasons while averaging 6,083 fans. “We like that venue. It’s a great venue.”
The North Carolina State women’s basketball team has been the primary tenant at Reynolds Coliseum since the 1999-00 season. Reynolds Coliseum was the original home of the ACC men’s basketball tournament and its shoebox-shape still makes it one of the unique buildings for basketball in the Southeast.
A permanent playing surface, women’s basketball practice court and a court for volleyball were added in the latest Reynolds renovation, in 2005 at a cost of $7.3 million.
“Reynolds is a good facility to play in because of the close proximity of the fans to the court,” says N.C. State women’s coach Kellie Harper. “Because of that, we do enjoy a strong home court advantage.”
In Chapel Hill, North Carolina used $34 million in 2010 to downsize Carmichael Auditorium from more than 10,000 seats to 8,000. It now plays to concerts throughout the year and occasionally is filled to capacity for women’s basketball games.
“I think players want to play to a packed house,” Sylvia Hatchell, the UNC women’s coach, said in 2010 when asked why she preferred for her team to play in Carmichael Auditorium instead of the 22,000-seat Dean Smith Center where the men’s team plays.
There is no reason USC cannot follow those leads with Carolina Coliseum. The cost of renovations will be steep, no doubt, perhaps in the $50 million range. But the money is there.
Under its planned facilities project at the new athletics complex, USC has $15-$20 million budgeted for a basketball building to include practice courts and coaches’ offices for the men’s and women’s programs. A renovated Carolina Coliseum could incorporate those same facilities and thus could absorb the budgeted money.
Also planned for USC athletics is a new indoor football practice facility with a projected budget of $15 million. That proposed facility represents the excess and waste in college football and is proposed simply because Clemson is in the process of constructing a new indoor facility. USC has an adequate indoor facility that is used — at most — two or three times a year.
Combine the two projects, and USC has approximately $35 million toward the renovation of Carolina Coliseum, a project that will preserve Columbia’s and USC’s history and serve both communities well for decades to come.
Kentucky, N.C. State and North Carolina have led what is certain to be a wave in college athletics toward preserving old buildings. Their women’s basketball programs are thrilled with having home courts to call their own. Their fan bases treasure return visits down memory lane. In some cases, their respective communities benefit from having revised concert venues.
USC has a chance to do the same.