Rand: Arena is a classic, not a relic

  • Article by: MICHAEL RAND , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 9, 2012 - 6:40 AM

Williams Arena needs to stay. Not every facility needs to be a brand new palace.

Officials announced plans for a "new" Fenway Park in 1999, which was to be an exact replica of the classic ballpark in Boston. But you can't duplicate 100 years of character, nor can you put a century worth of history in a moving van. In part because the "Save Fenway Park" folks were able to do what their name suggests, the old ballpark survived. It received some upgrades, played host to two World Series titles, and here we are now.

The Boston area took Randy Moss, David Ortiz and Kevin Garnett from Minnesota in recent years, enough to torture our Midwestern souls. Now, though, it is time to take something from those haughty East Coasters: The good sense to ensure that Williams Arena -- our version of Fenway, our iconic major sports venue -- lives to be at least 100 and as many years beyond it as possible.

The Barn opened in 1928, and an increasing chorus of voices have suggested it should be nearing the end of its lifespan.

"You can only play so long in any building," men's basketball coach Tubby Smith said recently. "It's like buying a new home. Do you build a new home or do you try to fix up the one you have. If it's 80 years old, then you have to decide."

The cynic in us, hardened by political maneuverings and stadium debates, wonders if talks of replacing Williams Arena are intensifying as part of a sleight-of-hand to make a new $15 million practice facility seem more palatable.

Nebraska, which opened a new (and gaudy) basketball practice facility for $18.7 million, is building an arena as well with an estimated cost of $180 million. Suddenly the cost of upgrading and fixing Williams Arena (tabbed in 2005 as a $20 million project) along with building a practice facility doesn't seem so bad.

But even if Tubby and others are sincere about this being decision-time on Williams Arena, then the choice is easy: Keep it. Fix the things that need fixing. Update what needs updating. Just leave the place fundamentally the same for as long as possible, which should be at least another generation.

If full disclosure is warranted, you should know this author is a U of M graduate who went to plenty of games at Williams Arena over the years -- though not nearly as many as countless other folks. It is mostly their nostalgia we would like to convey. It's not the misplaced kind that fears change and impedes progress at all costs, but the kind that reveres history and the hard to define sense of place that Williams Arena delivers.

Not every new building is cold and soulless -- Target Field is a prime example -- and not every old building is a monument. Williams Arena, just like Fenway, is.

The Barn isn't a relic -- it's a classic. Sure, a modern designer would never draw up plans for the way it's built. Nobody would say, "It would be great if we could put a beam in the middle of all these seats." Nobody particularly enjoys long lines, small corridors and various other quirks of a place built long before it was decided that sports venues needed to be modern movie theaters.

But that place, at its best, is loud -- almost impossibly so for opponents. The raised floor is intimidating. The simplicity focuses a fan's eyes on the court (what a concept). Even watching the players disappear down into the bowels of the locker room area only to magically reappear is an experience.

We'd say the nearly 84-year-old building speaks for itself, but just in case we asked a Williams one-fourth its age how he would feel if the arena was replaced. Rodney Williams, a local product and Gophers player who turns 21 in July, admitted that he, like so many others of his generation, can be seduced by shiny new things. But ... "Personally, I love playing here," Williams said, flashing a smile. "I wouldn't mind if they kept it."

The new athletic director replacing Joel Maturi in the coming months will have several big decisions to make and a lot of money to raise. But the new AD shouldn't overthink things when it comes to basketball. For very disparate reasons, both practical and visceral, Williams Arena needs to stay.

Not every facility needs to be a brand new palace. In this case, let's keep what is uniquely ours -- the charming old Barn.

Michael Rand • mrand@startribune.com

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