Illinois basketball to return to new-look State Farm Center in fall

The first time Dave Downey walked into Assembly Hall in Champaign, he wasn’t thinking about the spectacle of the building. In March of 1963 his Illini were a game back of Ohio State in the Big Ten championship race. He was thinking about beating Northwestern the next day.

Then he stepped onto the newly laid court. Most of the Illini players had rarely played in an arena as spacious as Assembly Hall. Shooting without a backdrop was an adjustment.

Illinois had two games remaining in the season and Downey and his teammates didn’t want to leave Huff Gymnasium, where they played their games back then. They were abandoning a home court where they hadn’t lost all season.

Huff had a raucous atmosphere. These days a sellout crowd for an Illinois volleyball game at Huff Hall holds some 4,000 fans. In 1963, Illinois basketball was cramming 6,700 fans into the gym.

“You had to ask the people on the front row to move their feet so you could take the ball out of bounds,” Downey said.

Downey was told when Illinois recruited him out of high school that the arena would be opened by his sophomore year. That promise proved to be well off the mark.

Assembly Hall opened on March 2, 1963. It wouldn’t be officially dedicated for another month, but that first day it played host to an open house that featured entertainment from J.J. Johnson, a well-known composer, as well as recording artists Les Paul and Mary Ford.

A day later, Downey and his teammates got to shoot in their new home for the first time. Then on March 4, Illinois hosted Northwestern in the arena’s first basketball game.

The crowd of 16,137 was subdued. There were no seats on the floor as there are today. Orange Krush did not exist. Compared to Huff, the crowd felt distant, the atmosphere almost austere. As many heads were craning upward to look at the concrete dome as were watching the game in front of them.

Midway through the first half, Downey made the game even more historic when he scored his sixth point of the night on a free throw and broke Johnny “Red” Kerr’s all-time scoring record of 1,299.

Downey’s parents were in attendance — the only time during his Illinois career they saw him play in person. His dad, a coal miner, worked seven days a week at home in Canton, Ill. Downey bought them tickets in section A26, row 10.

He kept those seats and has had season tickets since then, rarely missing a game. Downey sat in seat A26, row 10, seat 7 — right on the aisle — when Illinois lost to Michigan on March 4. He watched John Groce’s Illini get drubbed by the Wolverines 84-53, the worst loss in the history of the building.

The contest was Illinois’ last home game of 2013-14, and it was played 51 years to the date after Downey and his teammates played the first game in Assembly Hall. As Downey walked out of the arena that night, he walked out of a building he has known well for 51 years. Three years from now, when all six phases of the $165 million renovation project are complete, it will look much different.

‘I can’t imagine anything we can’t do with it’

When it opened, Assembly Hall was the largest edge-supported concrete dome in the country. The 10 million pound concrete dome stands 128 feet above the floor. In many ways, State Farm Center — as it has been known since March of 2013 — remains an architectural marvel.

It was designed by architect Max Abramovitz, a graduate of the University. Plans for a new student center began around 1958. The University needed somewhere with space for ceremonies and athletic events. The student population was growing rapidly at the time and had outgrown Foellinger Auditorium.

While most identify the building with basketball games, its real significance has been the ability to host graduation ceremonies and convocations, as well as other non-basketball events.

Abramovitz — who died in 2004 — was quoted in the May 3, 1963 edition of The Daily Illini as saying, “I can’t imagine anything we can’t do with it.”

No other arena has the ability to bring high-profile performers to central Illinois. From Jeff Dunham in February to Elvis in 1976 to Les Paul on the opening night in 1963, State Farm Center has given central Illinois a multipurpose arena much closer than those of Chicago, Indianapolis or St. Louis.

As the renovation project kicks into high gear this month, Illinois is dreaming big once again.

Tom Michael, senior associate athletics director at Illinois, has been one of the people overseeing the State Farm Center renovation project for Illinois’ Division of Intercollegiate Athletics. 

A former Illinois basketball player who played in the early ‘90s, he has worked to take this project from an artists’ rendering to a reality. Simply getting to the construction is a relief, but Michael fears that by the end of the three-year project, he might have a few more gray hairs than he does now. 

“This is unique,” Michael said. “It’s certainly the largest project so far on this campus. And it’s fun.”

The biggest challenge has been scheduling the renovations so that Illinois men’s and women’s basketball teams can still call the arena home during the ’14-15 and ’15-16 seasons. Keeping it on track with its $165 million budget has also been a major concern.

When the University first explored renovation possibilities in 2008, maintaining the historical significance of the building was key. The arena is an icon in the Champaign-Urbana community and tearing it down — which was explored — would have been hard for many.

“At times, even today, architects and engineers marvel at how the building was built 51 years ago and what an ingenious structure it is,” Michael said. 

‘Our fans will adapt’

Walk past State Farm Center these days and one hears the roaring of bulldozers, the clack-clack-clacking of construction equipment. Behind the construction fences is where the magic is happening.

When Illinois basketball fans walk into State Farm Center in November, evidence of construction will be everywhere. The most notable signs will be at the entrances, particularly the west entrance. Temporary walls will be erected in certain areas and Do Not Enter signs will be visible.

Despite obvious signs of construction, not much change will be visible after the first offseason. There is a lot of structural work being done that fans won’t see: shifting of mechanical spaces, changes in the venting, and foundation work inside the arena’s bowl.

But there will be one noticeable change. The 9,000 to 10,000 drab gray seats in the C-section will be replaced with new blue seats. When the project is complete, the arena will be as orange and blue as the Illini’s uniforms. And it starts with the C-section this year.

“We wanted to try to do something from a fan’s perspective,” Michael said. “Putting the C-section seats in there now was going to give some noticeable change in the bowl.”

Construction will continue behind the scenes during the 2014-15 basketball season, as it did during much of 2013-14. The phase of the project following the 2014-15 season will be the most intense.

The seating in the A-section and B-section will be redone. Loge seats — seats with a countertop, dining services and television monitors — will be in place at the north baseline behind the student section.

Legacy Club seats will be in place behind the student section at the south baseline. The 12 suites will be in place on the east side, each accommodating up to 14 guests. Student seating will surround three sides of the court in what is today the A-section.

Work will begin on the four clubs — the Legacy Club, the Traditions Club, the Orange Krush Club and the Courtside Club — but only the Traditions club will be ready for the 2015-16 season.

Because this phase of the project is so intense, Michael said the bowl would not be ready to host basketball games until December of 2015. This poses a scheduling problem that Illinois has not quite worked out yet.

“Our fans adapted when we renovated Memorial Stadium (between 2006-2008) and they’ll adapt as we go through the next two basketball seasons,” Michael said.

‘Designed for maximum efficiency’

When Greg Brown visited State Farm Center for a basketball game, the most obvious problem he noted with the building was the lack of convenient concession and bathroom availability.

Brown is a project designer for Aecom, which designed the renovations. He has devoted most of his energy to the project since the summer of 2011.

When the arena was originally designed, Americans attended sporting events differently than how they do today. In the 1950s and ‘60s, fans would go to the game, watch the game and leave. Sports arenas weren’t full-fledged entertainment venues. They simply served their purpose as a place to watch a game.

When State Farm Center opened, it had six refreshment stands each manned by four vendors. The Daily Illini stated they were “designed for maximum efficiency when large crowds are present.”

In today’s world, State Farm Center is far from maximum efficiency. When the building is fully renovated, it will have four times as many concession stands, as well as restrooms on all levels. This will solve the circulation problems that are caused by so many people flocking toward the B-level restrooms. 

Brown said Aecom has had a team of seven or eight people working on the project for the past three years. That team has expanded at times up to 15 or 20 people during crunch time. Aecom also currently has one person working on-site in collaboration with the construction company, Turner Construction Company of Chicago.

One of the toughest challenges of the project from Aecom’s perspective is pulling the fans closer to the court. The circularity of the arena’s bowl combined with the rectangular nature of a basketball court creates a lot of dead space on the sidelines and baselines. Aecom’s design changes the geometry of the A-section, and enables seats to be closer to the action.

Part of that challenge was striking the right balance between celebrating what the arena has meant to the Champaign-Urbana community and enhancing it in a way that feels appropriate.

Brown has worked on a number of high-profile sports arenas and stadiums for Aecom, including the construction of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., and renovations to Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis.

Often times, having to design a renovation to an arena, rather than an entirely new arena, is welcoming.

“Designers are creative people by nature,” Brown said. “We can come up with any number of designs. But when you don’t have a blank canvas to work with, when you have real constraints, it helps you identify where the opportunities lie. It designs itself a little bit based off what feels right. 

‘It hasn’t changed much at all’

When Downey walks into State Farm Center on game nights nowadays, he can look up into the rafters and see his own No. 40 jersey hanging among the Illinois greats. He and teammate Bill Small led Illinois past Northwestern with 19 points apiece that first night in Assembly Hall.

The Illini won by six and they won again five nights later against Iowa. Hours after they beat the Hawkeyes, Ohio State stumbled at Indiana and Illinois earned a share of the Big Ten championship and a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

The Illini fell in the regional finals to Loyola Chicago, the eventual national champions. But it was a historic season for Illinois. Downey’s 53-point performance in a Feb. 16 loss to Indiana is still the Illinois single-game record.

After 51 years, Downey entered State Farm Center prior to Illinois’ meeting with Michigan knowing it wouldn’t be quite the same building when he comes back next fall.

Sitting a row back, just across the aisle from Downey’s seats, sat Mike Thomas, Illinois’ director of athletics. Downey often crosses the aisle to sit with Thomas for portions of games.

There is, of course, pressure on Thomas. When Illinois football and basketball struggle, fingers inevitably end up pointed at him. But it is under Thomas that the State Farm Center renovation project has gone from an idea to a reality.

When Thomas watched Illinois and Michigan, he saw the same thing everyone saw. The Illini lost to a Michigan squad that was better than them on that Tuesday in March.

The game ended and Michigan walked off the court as Big Ten champions. Thomas was courtside after the game, as he always is. He left the bowl through the same tunnel the players do. Downey left the seats he had bought for his parents all those years before and followed the crowds out of the arena.

“It hasn’t changed much at all,” Downey said of the arena’s first 51 years.

After the building emptied, the State Farm Center maintenance staff stayed and packed up concession stands, tables and chairs. Offices were emptied and miscellaneous items lined the concourse.

The court was lifted off the floor for the final time, piece by piece. The arena was noisy and more active than it normally is after a game. One staff member rolled out a round table on its side, another labeled boxes with a marker.

The construction company was giving them 36 hours to get everything out of the arena. Change was coming.

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond.