“Tonight, we just built the UD Arena!”:

The Social History of a Building,

a University, a City, and a Nation in the Late 1960s

Introduction

On March 18, 1967, at the regional final of the NCAA tournament, the University of Dayton men’s basketball team was down by ten points late in the second half. A white-hot Virginia Tech Hokies team was punishing the men in red and blue. With the school’s first-ever Final Four berth on the line it was the most important game the Flyers had ever played. As the hopes of Dayton fans began to fade, many consoled themselves the team had already done much better than anyone could have hoped. Despite a respectable 21-5 regular season the Flyers had fared poorly against ranked teams. Unhappy students had even burned Coach Don Donoher in effigy on campus. [1]

Barely qualifying for the tournament, the unranked Flyers became its Cinderella. In the opening round against an excellent 6th ranked Western Kentucky, the team had once again been behind by ten at half. Guard Rudy Waterman scored nine straight points to get the Flyers back in the game, which Senior captain Bobby Joe Hopper then won on a last second long-range overtime shot. Next they fought to a one-point victory against the 8th ranked Tennessee Volunteers. Now facing the Hokies, it seemed elimination was near.

But the fairytale wasn’t over. Slowly the Flyers began to claw their way back into contention. All-American Don May kept scoring, while Waterman and Glinder Torain provided the added boost needed to tie the score at the end of regulation. In overtime, victory was never in doubt.

“Student Effigy Burning” Source: Daytonian, Vol. 23 (1968): 149.

Defensive specialist Dan Sadlier later recalled that it was when he walked off court and saw the happiness in the face of the school’s taciturn Athletic Director Tom Frericks that he knew they had done something special. Coach Don Donoher remembered that Frericks was “ecstatic” [2]. In the locker room Frericks exultantly declared, “I just want to announce, here and now, tonight, we just built the UD Arena” [3].

Frericks was talking about the yet to be built University of Dayton Arena. Before that night in 1967 Frericks had worked with limited success trying to drum up interest in build a larger venue for the team. At the time the university’s basketball team played in the Fieldhouse but it could only seat half of those wanting to see the games. Just as he anticipated, however, the team’s victory that night changed many minds inside the school. School administrators were coming to see that a successful basketball program made good business sense for the school. As the 1960s ushered in a period of growing competition for students across the country, attention-grabbing sports programs were becoming important to making the university competitive. An impressive venue was needed in order to have a successful basketball program. Authorized to spend up to $4 million dollars on a new Arena, Frericks sought to forge a partnership with the City of Dayton.

For the city the proposed Arena was a much-needed economic asset. Once a proud manufacturing center that was home to Delco Labs, Frigidaire, General Motors, and National Cash Register, by the last 1960s Dayton had begun to feel the effects of deindustrialization. Blue-collar jobs were starting to disappear. City officials proposed a downtown multipurpose arena that it hoped would help address underlying economic issues, but the city also faced a number of social problems. The decay of the city’s center was intertwined with the flight of white Daytonians to the city’s suburbs. Trapped by segregationist policies, black Daytonians were the first to suffer from the decline in jobs and spread of urban blight. Under these conditions in 1966—the year before the Flyers’ memorable run—the region’s long history of racial tension bubbled to the surface when the city’s West side exploded in protest against school and housing segregation, neglected public services, insensitively designed urban renewal programs, and the loss of jobs. City planners proposed the multipurpose arena as a means to address these issues. Even if the building did not improve the economic fortunes of the city, the reasoning went, then at least the hardwood heroics of the Flyers might serve as a balm to these wounds so that the starkly divided city might come together.

Archival sources indicate President Roesch and other UD administrators were deeply concerned about these local problems. However, the plan proposed by the city did not entirely fit the interests of the university. Administrators wanted a venue closer to campus that it controlled. Thanks in part to the success of UD teams and growing importance of the college to the city’s economy, in 1967 Athletic Director Frericks saw himself in a position to force the city’s hand. Identifying land across the Miami River and nearer to the campus, Frericks fashioned a land swap deal that the city could not refuse.

“The First Hurrahs” Source: Frericks Scrapbook, University of Dayton Archives and Special Collections, University of Dayton.

Frericks spent much of 1968 finding the financing and finalizing the design of the building. Having spurned the city’s proposed downtown location, some in the city government became less interested in aiding the university. As a result Frericks faced significant problems in seeking funding. Despite creative attempts to raise money, his efforts were slowed by an unexpectedly bad opening to the 1967-1968 season. The racial conflict at the root of the team’s poor play indicated how much the broader social issues were impacting events on campus. The team’s eventual NIT championship helped ease some of these troubles, but the brewing tensions between campus and community over student protests further complicated Frericks’ efforts. Eventually he used political connections to secure State of Ohio backed bonds. When construction began in late 1968, Frericks maneuvered behind the scenes to win UD and its new arena one of the early round NCAA tournament games. The unexpected collapse of the building in early 1969 threatened these plans. Intensive building efforts succeeded in completing it in time for the majority of the 1969-1970 season.

As the ticket stile began to turn in January of 1970, the building became many things besides a handsome new home for one of the nation’s most successful college basketball programs. The arena was destined to became a component of the University of Dayton’s emerging regional and national prominence as an institution of higher learning. At the same time, it was an indication of UD’s growing economic importance to the local community.

In the following pages you will find a more detailed history of these events than the thumbnail sketch given above. This closer examination more clearly reveals the role of the underlying social issues, complex political dimensions and far flung economic factors of the time, in the events that led to the arenas construction.

(Right) “Dayton Arena Taking Shape” Source: Columbus Dispatch, August 31, 1969, Frericks Scrapbook, University of Dayton Archives and Special Collections, University of Dayton.  (Below) “1975 Parking Slot Ticket Sales” Source: Frericks Family Private Collection.