January 17, 2010

Morris: Coliseum should be home for USC women

Just as UNC pumped $34 million into renovating Carmichael Auditorium, USC needs to explore the possibility of renovating the Carolina Coliseum.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. | When Sylvia Hatchell weaved her way through construction-site workers on a fall afternoon, she walked with a prance in her step and talked a few miles a minute. The North Carolina women's basketball coach was excited to see the future of her sport before her very eyes.

Hatchell and her Tar Heels have since moved into renovated Carmichael Auditorium. She and her staff work out of offices as nice as any used by men's coaching staffs in the country. Her team has its own practice gym next door. Beyond that, Hatchell says her team now plays games in a palace for women's basketball.

"We're sort of taking a different route than most schools are taking," Hatchell says. "Bigger is not always better. It's quality over quantity. I don't know of any place that will have it better."

Dawn Staley and South Carolina women's basketball should have the same. Just as UNC pumped $34 million into renovating Carmichael Auditorium, USC needs to explore the possibility of renovating the Carolina Coliseum.

Staley says she is not interested because the 18,000-seat Colonial Life Arena is the kind of glitz needed to recruit top-level players to USC. She should listen to her star player, Kelsey Bone, who says - given the option - she would prefer playing in a smaller arena.

Eric Hyman, USC's athletics director, says it is too costly and would take too long for renovations to be completed. He bases his financial concern on the $100 million-plus price tag for moving the entire athletics department to a renovated Coliseum. It would not take any longer to renovate the Coliseum than it will be for the women's team to move into the proposed basketball practice facility.

Staley and Hyman need to visit Hatchell in Chapel Hill.

"The place is too big," Hatchell says of the 21,750-seat Smith Center, where her team played its games a season ago while Carmichael was renovated. "We had 14,000 for the UConn game, and the bottom (bowl) wasn't even full."

Hatchell believes her new 8,000-seat arena has created one of the best homecourt advantages in the country. The first four games drew an average crowd of 2,669, or 33.4 percent of capacity. The same crowds would have been 12.3 percent of capacity at the Smith Center.

"I think players want to play to a packed house," says Hatchell, whose team is certain to play before a capacity crowd against Duke on Feb. 28. She adds if future home games against Connecticut and Tennessee draw additional fans, they could be moved to the Smith Center.

Hatchell acknowledges that Title IX laws require NCAA men's and women's programs be treated equal. That does not mean they cannot operate separately, though. Hatchell says she likes that her program has a building where it can hang its own banners, team pictures and retired jerseys.

The new arena also features a museum and houses many of the women's athletic administrators, as well as the volleyball team and wrestling team. While a shared facility, there is more flexibility in scheduling for practices and events.

Most importantly, Hatchell believes UNC has a recruiting advantage over schools that insist on playing in largely vacant arenas.

Bone is the most highly touted recruit in USC women's basketball history. The 6-foot-5 freshman could have selected any school in the country. She chose USC because of Staley and because she wanted to be on the ground floor of building a nationally prominent program.

She says she was not swayed by the Colonial Life Arena, where crowds of 2,000 or less for women's games are the norm.

"The big arenas aren't beneficial for the women's game because we just don't fill them," Bone says. "For me, it was never, 'I want to go and play in this big historical arena.' It's not realistic in the women's game."

Bone says she has played in pickup games in the Carolina Coliseum and envisions the benefits of USC some day calling it the women's basketball home.

"Putting money into the Coliseum would be a great thing for the women," she says as she stands in the practice facility adjacent to the Coliseum. "To be able to have our own place right here where we always are would be great."

The locker rooms for the men's and women's teams recently were renovated at the Carolina Coliseum and are state of the art, complete with lounges and theaters for watching videotape.

With a practice facility and locker room area already in place, any renovations to the Coliseum could be restricted to the bowl of the arena, which was known most for its steep-sloping seats and outstanding sight lines.

If Carmichael Auditorium in Chapel Hill can be gutted and renovated for less than $40 million with chair-back seats, a $1 million overhead scoreboard and a museum, it stands to reason the same could be done to the Carolina Coliseum with a similar budget.

"We've got our long-range plan, and that's not in our long-range plan," Hyman says. The men's basketball practice facility could still be included in those long-range plans. Take the savings from excluding the women's practice facility from Hyman's long-term plans and funnel those funds toward the Carolina Coliseum renovation.

Ted Moore, USC's vice-president for finance and planning, says a committee is undertaking plans for the future of the Coliseum. He says the university is cognizant of the historical significance and iconic value of the Coliseum, which opened in November 1968.

The Coliseum was home to the days when Frank McGuire-coached basketball teams won an ACC tournament and earned a No. 1 national ranking. Season after season, the 12,000 tickets for games were prized possessions.

Once the $64 million Colonial Life Arena was opened in late 2002, the Coliseum played home to the Columbia Inferno hockey team from 2001-07. Since then, the Coliseum has been virtually void of athletic events.

There are those USC fans who long for the days of raucous crowds in support of their team at the Carolina Coliseum. The stately old building deserves a facelift . . . and a women's basketball team to call it home.

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