Jan. 17, 2008
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IOWA CITY, Iowa — Carver-Hawkeye Arena has been affectionately called the House that Lute Olson Built, but the emergence of the University of Iowa women’s athletic programs at the time helped make the bundled construction project a shoo-in.
The year was 1979 and a Golden Age of sport was on the horizon at Iowa. It was a period of success and growth that forced the Hawkeyes to look for a newer, larger, more attractive alternative to the beloved, yet outdated, Field House.
“Things were going well for us and the timing was right,” said Bump Elliott, men’s director of athletics at the time. “We had Lute Olson (men’s basketball), Hayden Fry (football) and Dan Gable (wrestling) coaching and our women’s athletics were becoming very strong. Carver-Hawkeye Arena was built because we needed it. It was a project we planned for and hoped for and in the end it worked.”
During the preliminary planning stages, Elliott, Dr. Christine Grant (women’s director of athletics), Olson and women’s basketball coach Lark Birdsong were members of a group that made a whirlwind tour across the country analyzing other venues of interest.
“We didn’t want to speak to the people housed in the arenas, we wanted to speak to the people who ran the arenas,” Grant said. “We came back with pages and pages of notes and that really guided the project.”
One of the stops was the University of New Mexico, home to the famed “Pit” basketball court. Back in Iowa City, Elliott recalled that the location for Iowa’s new arena was already selected and that Carver-Hawkeye would have a similar design with one concourse level and no seats above that concourse.
“We already had a valley or gulley and the costs were less, so the arena seemed to fit in there well,” Elliott said. “It has a great atmosphere. All the action is down below and you were closer to the court.”
Grant called the construction of Carver-Hawkeye Arena “an equal opportunity project” and it was built with the interest of both men’s and women’s athletics in mind.
“When the very first draft came to us, all of the offices for men’s head coaches were in the front with glass windows and the women’s coaches were in the back with no windows at all,” Grant said. “Bump told the architect, `I think you better go back to the drawing board.'”
After 25 years, Carver-Hawkeye Arena is still one of the most unique and recognizable athletic complexes in the nation. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a few things that Elliott and Grant would have tweaked if they could do it over again.
“It’s quite a long walk from top to bottom,” Elliott said. “You also have to look at how difficult it is to get people down to the lower levels and then getting them back up.”
“Once we moved in, it was immediately obvious that it was far too tight,” said Grant, referring to lack of office space.
Carver-Hawkeye Arena opened in January of 1983 and holds 15,500. During the past 25 seasons, capacity crowds have been the norm, rather than the exception. The multi-purpose facility also serves as home to Hawkeye wrestling, gymnastics and volleyball and has been the site of numerous concerts, commencements and sports camps. Fans enjoy an unobstructed view from each of the theatre seats. The building won a design award from the American Institute of Architects in 1984.
“Things were going well for us and the timing was right. We had Lute Olson (men’s basketball), Hayden Fry (football) and Dan Gable (wrestling) coaching and our women’s athletics were becoming very strong. Carver-Hawkeye Arena was built because we needed it. It was a project we planned for and hoped for and in the end it worked.”
Bump Elliott, former UI men’s director of athletics
Named for the late Roy Carver, a long-time supporter of the university who died in 1981 at the age of 71, the building has 20,000 square feet of floor space when the lower level seats are retracted. Connected to the arena is an athletic building, which is four levels high and occupies more than 60,000 square feet. Athletic department coaches, administrators and staff have offices in the building. When the building first opened, it also housed the office for the football program. They moved to the Richard O. Jacobson Athletic Building in 1995.
The arena cost $18.4 million to build and was completed in three years. It was financed from private contributions from Iowa athletic department supporters. The first event in the arena was a 35-7 Iowa wrestling victory against Oklahoma on Jan. 3, 1983. The first basketball game was a 61-59 loss to Michigan State two days later.
Although the most prominent, construction of Carver-Hawkeye Arena was not the only facility upgrade bundled together in the 1983 venture. The Field House, built in 1927, was renovated for recreational purposes; a varsity level (Pearl Field) and three recreational softball fields were constructed, the Francis X. Cretzmeyer Track (completed in 1986) was installed, and the lower level of the UI Recreation Building was revamped.
“Absolutely, the emergence of our women’s athletics programs at the time helped get all of these projects accomplished,” Grant said. “These projects were for all of us, including all the women who missed their opportunity to compete at the university level.”
Carver-Hawkeye Arena has been the host site for Big Ten and NCAA wrestling championships and NCAA regional and national gymnastics championships. The 1984 U.S. Olympic wrestling trials were held in Carver-Hawkeye Arena and the 1984 U.S. Olympic basketball team also played an exhibition contest in the facility. The National Duals wrestling tournament was held there in 1998 and 1999. The national wrestling tournament all-time attendance mark was established in Carver-Hawkeye Arena in 1995 a year when the Hawkeyes began a string of six consecutive national championships.
“It’s a very fine facility; a great arena,” Elliott said. “There have been a lot of great games here and some heart-breakers. I think one of the most memorable was (a 43-36 victory by the Iowa men’s basketball team over No. 6 Michigan State on Saturday, Jan. 12). A game like that is one to remember.”
“This is probably the most exciting facility I’ve ever been involved with,” Grant said. “It sits in a quiet way and doesn’t overwhelm the campus. After 25 years I still think it’s one of the nicest arenas in the entire country.”
Hawkeye fans are invited to celebrate the arena’s history at three events to be held in the facility during the month of February. The men’s basketball game on Saturday, Feb. 2, between Coach Todd Lickliter’s Iowa Hawkeyes and Ohio State will be the first athletic event to recognize the building’s silver anniversary. The facility will also be recognized the following day, Feb. 3, when Coach Lisa Bluder’s Iowa women’s basketball team plays host to Indiana and the evening of Feb. 17 when Coach Tom Brands’ top-ranked Hawkeye wrestlers entertain Michigan.
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