Last Ball in U-Hall
By Dan Heuchert
When University Hall opened in 1965, it was acclaimed as “sparkling,” “an indoor palace,” a “huge cathedral.” Photos appeared in newspapers as far away as Great Britain, and accounts hailed its innovative circular shape that allowed more paying customers per cubic foot without intrusive interior support columns.
In addition to being the home of Cavalier basketball, U-Hall was intended to be a venue for movies, concerts and traveling theatrical troupes. A handful of old-timers recall that the first basketball game played resulted in a 99-73 loss to an Adolph Rupp-coached Kentucky team; fewer remember that its first public event was a concert by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra on Nov. 3, 1965, featuring the debut of a fiberglass-and-asbestos band shell described as “an enormous instrument as carefully tuned as the first violin.”
Alas, a Cavalier Daily concert review observed, “After the orchestra had played only a few bars, certain criticisms became apparent; the sound of a 100-piece orchestra could not adequately fill the entire hall and the particular tonal qualities of each orchestra section were either exaggerated or stifled” — the first of many laments about U-Hall’s shortcomings.
An inches-thick folder of news clippings that U.Va. collects is labeled “University Hall,” but most of the articles inside refer to another place: its future replacement. For three decades, dreams were dreamed, talk was talked, and plans were planned. Finally, that other building — the John Paul Jones Arena — is due to open in June.
Still, as the saying goes, life is what happens as you’re making plans. Even as many pined for a new arena, there have been 40 years of life happening in U-Hall: great teams, dazzling players, thrilling victories, agonizing defeats — and a run-in with the local fire marshal.
Before University Hall, there was Memorial Gymnasium — once considered one of the snakepits of the South, a fearsome bandbox with fans seated on top of the action. But Cavalier basketball fell on hard times after entering the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1953, and the consensus was that the program needed a new home in order to compete with its league rivals. After seven years of fund raising, politicking, planning and construction, the $4 million arena finally opened its doors.
Joe Gieck, recently retired as U.Va.’s director of sports medicine, recalls people questioning the wisdom of building a new arena when Mem Gym wasn’t selling out. “But the smallest crowd at U-Hall was larger than Memorial Gym could hold,” he said.
It took awhile before the Cavaliers’ play matched their new surroundings; five more losing seasons followed the move up Emmet Street and into U-Hall. Virginia’s fortunes changed in one week in January 1971. Sparked by the arrival of talented newcomer Barry Parkhill, the “Amazin’ Cavaliers” won seven of their first nine games. Next up was a pivotal stretch of four games in eight days, all in U-Hall.
The Cavs swept all four, including a landmark 50-49 victory over No. 2 South Carolina. For the first time, U-Hall sold out before the game. “That place seats 8,400, but they jammed 9,500 in there,” Parkhill recalled. “It was wild.” The win propelled Virginia into the nation’s top 10 and attendance nearly doubled, from 4,000 to 7,500 per game.
New murmurs soon started. A Roanoke Times columnist declared, “Because University Hall holds only 7,600 permanent seats, it is inadequate for the University of Virginia basketball program. … U.Va’s present team [then ranked seventh in the nation] would even strain a gym that seats 15,000.”
As Gieck wryly noted, “It went from ‘Why would you do that?’ in 1965 to ‘Why didn’t you build it bigger?’ in 1972.”
Parkhill was the first of a string of U-Hall favorites: Wally Walker, who led Virginia to its only ACC Tournament championship in 1976; Billy Langloh; Jeff Lamp; Lee Raker. The retired jerseys of Parkhill, Walker and Lamp sway from the arena’s rafters.
They paved the way for the Greatest Cavalier: Ralph Sampson, a 7-foot-4-inch combination of grace and power, lured to U.Va. in part by a helicopter tour that revealed the words “Ralph’s House” emblazoned atop U-Hall’s rippled white dome. The Sampson Show played to sellout home crowds for four seasons, including a three-year stretch of continuous top-10 national rankings.
During that era, then-coach Terry Holland began making noise about enlarging U-Hall or replacing it altogether. “By the late ’70s, it was obvious that we were falling behind, particularly from a locker-room and practice standpoint,” he said. The training room, designed for a program that in 1965 featured just nine varsity sports teams — all male — now served 26 teams of both genders.
In fact, the biggest crowd ever to watch a game in U-Hall came to see a women’s basketball game. The night was Feb. 5, 1986; Virginia, 20-0 and ranked third in the nation, was to host No. 15 North Carolina. For weeks, the date was publicized in an all-out effort to break the national attendance record for a women’s basketball game. Free hot dogs were promised to everyone who showed up.
And did they ever show up. “It was totally out of control,” recalled Virginia head coach Debbie Ryan. “People were hanging from the rafters, in all of the aisles.” Officially, 11,174 fans jammed inside. The ’Hoos got the record; the Heels got the win, 60-58, on a buzzer-beater.
“Hot Dog Night” proved costly. The alarmed local fire marshal ordered that the building’s maximum capacity be reduced and strictly enforced. “We had been admitting over 10,000 fans to U-Hall for big games,” said Holland. “The new rules lowered capacity to 8,200. The loss of over 1,500 season tickets, at $300 each, means that promotion cost the athletics department $450,000 annually since that date — not counting donations those seats could have generated.”
Success — and sellouts — survived Sampson’s graduation. New stars emerged: Richard Morgan, Rick Carlisle, John Crotty, all-time leading scorer Bryant Stith. The first serious effort to replace the arena stirred in 1986 under athletic director Richard Schultz, with a hoped-for price tag of $30 million. Schultz gave it a “70 to 75 percent” chance of happening. It didn’t.
Holland left coaching in 1990 and his former player and assistant, Jeff Jones, stepped in. More wins, more outstanding players: Cory Alexander, Junior Burrough, Harold Deane, Norman Nolan, Curtis Staples. In 1993, athletic director James Copeland announced a campaign to raise $10 million for a 1,500-seat expansion.
That plan was scuttled by none other than Holland, who returned as athletic director in 1995. “We felt that project was too expensive for what it accomplished, and we would still have a lot of outdated space,” he said. He turned the focus back to a replacement arena, then postponed it altogether in favor of expanding Scott Stadium, which he thought made more financial sense.
Pete Gillen replaced Jones as head coach in 1998. The move to replace U-Hall gained urgency later that year, when building inspectors found several broken wires in the “tension ring” that helps support the building’s roof, prompting a two-month closure while temporary repairs were made. As U-Hall sat idle, the Board of Visitors green-lighted planning for a new arena — resulting in the project now receiving its finishing touches.
Most of those associated with Cavalier athletics eagerly anticipate the move across Massie Road to the John Paul Jones arena. Yet memories linger; recollections of people and moments, successes and disappointments.
In time, the John Paul Jones Arena will create its own memories. But for 40 years, University Hall was home court to a lot of people — an underappreciated home, for sure, but a happy one.