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HomeSportsUT
Published: Monday, 1/31/2005

Savage Hall makeover: One way or another, UT arena to get new look

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Outside the University of Toledo's Savage Hall ticket office are new graphic panels, some displaying former and current Rocket athletes. Outside the University of Toledo's Savage Hall ticket office are new graphic panels, some displaying former and current Rocket athletes.
KING / BLADE Enlarge

Savage Hall has spent nearly three decades as the largest public auditorium in this part of the state, hosting presidents and performers, as well as thousands of college and high school basketball games.

Its future is uncertain - and could include a renovation and expansion, or a state-of-the-art renaissance, or being replaced by a new structure.

The 9,000-seat facility on the University of Toledo campus was the crown jewel of Mid-American Conference arenas when it opened as Centennial Hall.

In its Dec. 1, 1976 debut as a basketball venue, a fuming Indiana coach Bobby Knight cursed and castigated Kent Benson, his All-American center, for uninspired play as the Rockets stunned the defending national champion Hoosiers 59-57.

Since then more than four million people have used the building, which was renamed in 1988 in honor of UT graduate John F. Savage.

As it nears its 30th birthday, Savage Hall is showing its age. The roof leaks and cracks in the walls have been filled and refilled with expanding foam, but sunlight still squeezes through. Its infrastructure lags well behind the demands of the information age.

Recently, the entrances to Savage Hall were gussied up with elaborate floor-to-ceiling graphic panels showing the past and current stars of UT athletics. New banners hang above the basketball floor, and the home locker room has been given a facelift.

UT athletic director Mike O'Brien said the improvements were necessary to give the common areas an up-to-date look, but he stressed that in a couple of years, those new sport panels might be all you'll recognize from the current Savage Hall.

"That is not a sign of what we're going to do long-term around here," O'Brien said. "There are much more extravagant and extensive options under consideration as part of our long-term plans. Facilities are important here, and we want our athletes, our in-coming recruits, and all of our UT family to know that."

Still on the table are three primary options: build a new arena some place on or near campus; give Savage an all-encompassing rework; or gut the building and turn it into an all-purpose athletic facility and construct an adjoining new arena.

Interest in a new downtown arena serving as the home of the basketball Rockets has been bandied about for some time, but those sentiments seem to have cooled in recent months.

UT's coaches and athletic administrators have never embraced the idea of moving their home court off-campus and watering down their student fan base.

Most UT insiders readily acknowledge that constructing a new arena on campus is another long shot, since the current financial climate would hardly make a $45 million-plus enterprise like that seem palatable.

Converting Savage Hall to a multi-purpose athletic facility with an indoor practice field for football, and building a new adjoining arena, carries a price tag of close to $50 million. The sticker shock alone causes many to wince at the mere suggestion of such an undertaking.

That leaves a mega renovation - a renaissance venture - as the most viable option. The price tag for essentially stripping Savage Hall to its skeleton and giving it a stem-to-stern 21st-century makeover is around $20 million - about twice the cost of the original building.

O'Brien said Toledo would consider paying for such a project with fund-raising, revenue from luxury suites and a possible bond sale.

UT has gone so far as to have the Kansas City firm Threesixty Architecture, a national leader in the design of sports facilities, draw up some plans depicting possible options for a fully reworked and drastically renovated Savage Hall.

"When we look at this building, we see its problems, but these designers see it as full of possibilities," O'Brien said. "There are some structural

issues within the building, but these are not insurmountable."

The plans under consideration as possibilities include the addition of a large restaurant on the lower level where UT's athletic offices are now housed, four open-air loge boxes on each side of the arena area and four to six luxury suites at each end of the court, above floor level.

The Threesixty design team has

proposed an expansive open-

air, interactive student zone as part of the main arena area.

"I'm enthused about what can happen here," O'Brien said.

The Threesixty plan also addresses one of UT athletics' most pressing needs in the minds of many - an indoor practice facility for football.

This issue again moved to the forefront in December when bitter cold limited UT's practice options in the days before the Motor City Bowl.

The Kansas City firm has proposed pushing out the walls and expanding Savage Hall in several directions, and one of these bump-outs would house two or three practice courts for basketball where retractable turf could convert the area into a 60 or 70-yard-long practice area for a variety of sports, including football.

"They also recommended taking the focus of the building toward the river," O'Brien said, adding that another bump out in that direction would be the new home of the athletic department's offices, according to the Threesixty proposal.

O'Brien, who has been on the job at UT for three years, said he anticipates a decision will be made as to the future of Savage Hall very soon, in conjunction with the start of a capital campaign.

"Something very positive is going to come about here," O'Brien said. "It's been on the front burner since the day I walked in the door, but while we've assessed all of our needs and looked at the options, it's taken some time to get to this point."

O'Brien said that if a renaissance is in Savage Hall's immediate future, his staff would continue operations in and around all of the pounding, plastering and painting.

"We wouldn't miss a beat as far as our home basketball games go, and we'll put up with whatever inconvenience there is," he said.

O'Brien said a completely overhauled Savage Hall would make a much better host for UT's graduation ceremonies, the city's annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day festivities, political rallies and major entertainers.

"This facility is a very important part of the overall experience here at UT, as well as being a vital part of the community and the area," O'Brien said. "And I have to believe that what we're talking about doing would be a great thing for the University of Toledo down the road."

Contact Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6510.



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