The Carolina Coliseum — where University of South Carolina basketball enjoyed its heyday, Elvis Presley performed before a sold-out crowd and thousands of high school graduates clutched diplomas — will end an era this fall.
The floor of the 12,000-seat, 46-year-old arena will become two permanent practice courts for the men’s and women’s Gamecocks basketball teams in October, university officials told The State Monday.
No other events will be held inside the bowl of garnet-colored seats. The school already has auctioned off the old basketball court and is selling some of the chairs.
The practice courts do not mean USC is ready to go ahead with a $125 million proposal introduced last year to make over the coliseum into classrooms and a student union, university spokesman Wes Hickman said. However, the new basketball courts were part of the plan that the university withdrew from that state budget request, pending a feasibility study.
The coliseum was Columbia’s main concert venue and the home of Gamecock basketball games from 1968 until 2002 when the 18,000-seat Colonial Life Arena opened two blocks away.
In recent years, the coliseum was used for university and community events, including graduations for 23 Richland and Lexington county high schools. Some music acts — including Dave Matthews Band, Lil Wayne and the Zac Brown Band — also used the facility to rehearse concert tours before going out on the road.
Now, the coliseum will become a relief valve for the Gamecocks basketball teams.
The two teams have had to share a single practice court, next to the coliseum, that USC’s volleyball program also used for games. The new courts will allow all three teams to have their own courts — a key tool in recruiting players in the competitive Southeastern Conference.
“It was very awkward to run three teams out of there,” said Kevin O’Connell, chief operating officer for the USC athletics department. “This is much a better situation.”
High school graduations and other events scheduled for next year at the coliseum have been moved to the Colonial Life, Hickman said.
The basketball courts should open Oct. 1, about the time that teams can start practice under NCAA rules, he said.
The university is taking out 3,000 seats from the coliseum to accommodate the two new practice courts that will go perpendicular to the original floor, O’Connell said.
USC is selling just 75 sets — at $60 each — for three-foldout chairs. The others were not suitable for sale, Hickman said. The money raised by those sales will go back to the university.
The old coliseum basketball court was auctioned in January for $23,215, the state Budget and Control Board said. The court is for sale on Craigslist for $98,000.
Work on the new courts will cost about $600,000, money that will come from athletics department revenue, O’Connell said.
USC has talked about building a $35 million, three-story basketball practice facility on the south side of its campus, where other athletics facilities are congregated. The proposed building also would house equipment for all spring sports as well as offices for the basketball teams.
But the athletics department will need years to raise the money needed for that facility, O’Connell said.
Meanwhile, the basketball teams already have locker and training rooms at the coliseum. In addition, many USC athletes will live in a privately owned dorm going up across the street from the coliseum on school land.
“This is a good solution in the interim,” he said.
While longtime Gamecocks fans feel nostalgic for the coliseum’s days under legendary coach Frank McGuire, USC trustee Eddie Floyd, who sits on the trustees’ athletics committee, said he is happy the school is finding ways to reuse the arena.
“To have a building for a few basketball games and high school graduations doesn’t really make sense,” he said. “That building is too good to tear down. It’s such a landmark.”
After the Columbia Inferno minor-league hockey team left in 2008, the coliseum generated $200,000 a year in revenue. But that revenue dropped last year when music acts did not reserve the building for rehearsal space and the Gamecocks basketball teams took more practice dates, coliseum director Sid Kenyon said.
USC athletics director Ray Tanner said he asked Kenyon last year if the Gamecocks could get more basketball practice time in the coliseum after learning about the logjam to use the neighboring volleyball/basketball court.
“There was a lot of pressure, trying to work around the schedules of the teams and student-athletes,” Tanner said.
The arena, built for McGuire, could help coach Frank Martin’s men’s program get off the ground and coach Dawn Staley’s women’s team go farther in the NCAA tournament.
“What most people recall about the coliseum is winning,” Kenyon said. “If this brings that tradition, that’s a pretty valuable thing.”
Gamecocks basketball coaches said the changes should help their programs.
“With a court dedicated to our program, we will have more flexibility in practice times, and our players will have the ability to work on their own as much as they can and want to,” Staley said. “The university and the coliseum staff have been so helpful as we push our basketball programs farther, and this is a great next step in that effort.”
The Gamecocks women’s team played a game in the coliseum in 2013, a 66-59 win over LSU that will be the last in the arena.
Martin praised Tanner for a decision in “the best interest of our basketball student-athletes” that “helps with daily schedules and for better player development.”
Coliseum officials plan to continue using the concourse around the arena for college and career fairs, receptions, trade shows and other university events, such as parents’ weekends, Kenyon said.
USC’s College of Mass Communications and Information Studies and its College of Hospitality, Retail and Sports Management, with a combined enrollment of about 3,600, still reside in the Coliseum’s basement. But both schools will move to new homes by 2019.