Reusse: It's time for Williams Arena to go

The Racers of Murray (Ky.) State have been in the men's basketball news this winter for staying unbeaten longer than any team in NCAA Division I. Murray State was familiar to Minnesotans previously, when a gentleman named Cal Luther accepted the Gophers coaching job, but soon reneged and went back to Kentucky.

The legend was that once he took a harder look at Williams Arena, Luther decided he didn't want to try to operate a basketball program in such a worn-out facility.

This took place 41 years ago.

There were two parts to Williams Arena then -- the basketball arena that officially held 18,025 and the hockey arena where you could squeeze in 7,000 by using every cranny.

The hockey team moved into a new, $20 million Mariucci Arena in the fall of 1993. Another $20 million was spent at Williams Arena: $10 million for the big arena, and another $10 million to turn the hockey side into the Sports Pavilion.

Four years later, there was $2.3 million committed to build the "Barn Loft" suites at the top of Williams. That put the official capacity at 14,625, although 1,000 or more of those are obstructed-view tickets.

To review: In the spring of 1971, a coach from Murray, Ky., decided Williams Arena was too much of a dump to move from the Ohio Valley Conference, and after the whopping investment of $12.3 million in four decades, we're supposed to look at this as a glorious old Barn that's a worthy home for a Big Ten basketball program?

Hey, my credentials as a fan of Williams Arena are impeccable:

I saw my first boys' basketball state tournament game in 1957, when Minneapolis Roosevelt beat Red Wing in the final to win a second title in a row. I listened as Richie Olson, the 23-year-old coach of Edgerton, managed to be heard with his high-pitched scream over the din from 19,000 fans in 1960, as the Dutchmen wrote the greatest underdog story in Minnesota sports history.

I saw the Marquette games, between Al McGuire and Bill Musselman, and the Indiana games, between Bobby Knight and Musselman. I watched Darryl Mitchell and Trent Tucker, the senior guards, use iron wills to bring the Gophers the 1982 Big Ten title, and the magnificent Bobby Jackson carry them to another in 1997, even if you no longer can find it in the record books.

I felt the Barn shake from the frenzied chorus of customers, for years -- for decades. I was there when the Barn was great.

Guess what? As a baseball fan in those early big-league days, I used to get chills when the multi-colored brick wall came into view, and our trip from southwest Minnesota to Met Stadium was nearly complete.

I went to hundreds of Twins games in that erector set of a ballpark, and covered hundreds more as a sportswriter. After it was abandoned, I even sneaked into Met Stadium one Sunday afternoon and sat in the left field grandstand -- close to where hundreds of us reached for Mudcat Grant's home run ball in the 1965 World Series -- and remembered ballgames past.

Such nostalgia does not mean I fail to see Target Field as a grand upgrade over what we old-timers experienced previously with outdoor baseball. I'm envious, actually, for the younger generations that will have this ballpark to call theirs for decades to come.

And an equally high degree of nostalgia toward Williams Area does not prevent me from saying this: The place is a worn-out dump.

Yeah, I know ... you all love the Barn. That leads to a question: Where the heck are you?

Men's basketball draws the oldest crowd in high-level Minnesota sports, which is saying something, when you consider the age of a Gophers football crowd.

The crowds are getting smaller by the year. And unless a mob of students decides to appear, the fans can barely muster a loud cheer, much less one of those Barn-shaking roars.

If they are wise, university President Eric Kaler and his new athletic director will not be rushed into building a basketball practice facility -- not without incorporating that into a grand plan for a new arena that will serve new generations of fans.

These are folks, when they buy a ticket, that expect to find ample restrooms, concession areas, corridors and convenient ways to move from Level A to Level B.

The Barn is approaching its 84th birthday. It has been on oxygen for some time. Kaler and his new AD must come up with a plan that will allow this old boy to pass away peacefully in his sleep before he hits 90.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500ESPN. preusse@startribune.com

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