Part Five: Completing the Job

On the chilly overcast day of November 11th 1968 President Roesch, Tom Frericks, and Don Donoher gathered in front of a small crowd on the grassy field overlooking the Great Miami River to formally begin construction on a new arena. Photographers from the Dayton Daily News were there to record the event. One of the images captures Frericks putting his back into the task of break the ground. The visionary athletic director had already performed Herculean tasks to arrive at that field. Frericks must have known at that moment that he was putting to rest the embarrassing jokes about the Fieldhouse he and others had been forced to listen to for years.  Most recently, upon visiting the venerable building while playing golf at the Bogie Busters, comedian Bob Hope (1903-2003) quipped: “It’s a real nice garage you got here.” [117] In a little over a year the new arena would be complete and UD would enter a new phase of its history and of its relationship with the city. Or, that was the plan.

“New UD Era Launched; Arena Ground Broken”, Journal Herald, November 8, 1968, Frericks Scrapbook, University of Dayton Archive and Special Collections, University of Dayton

Frericks Dug the Design

Digging into the turf over the spot where the arena would eventually stand was not only a symbolic start of the construction, it was very necessary act because of the design selected by Frericks. After settling upon the location, in the fall of 1968 Frericks had hired an out of town architectural firm to design the building. Donoher remembers that Frericks had only one real specification for the structure: “it had to seat one more that Ohio State’s St. John’s Arena.” Built in 1956, St. John’s Arena accommodated 13,276 fans. The designs Frericks received were impressive. The oval-domed structure was strikingly reminiscent of the now famed L.A. Forum which had opened only months before in December 1967. Everyone loved it, but the design had one fatal flaw: it was simply too expensive, with rough estimates near $6 million (approximately $45 million in inflation adjusted dollars). With UD’s budget already firmly set at $4 million ($30.6 million) and Frericks unsure as to where he was going to get that, the building had to cost less.

“Early UD Arena Design”, Frericks Scrapbook, University of Dayton Archives and Special Collections.

Hoping that a local architect might be more sensitive to the needs of the university, Frericks turned to the Pretzinger and Pretzinger architectural firm. Albert Pretzinger began to design buildings in Dayton in 1906. He and his sons designed a number of Dayton landmarks, among them The Colonial (later the RKO Colonial Theatre), where patrons watched the first talking films, The First Lutheran Church of Dayton, The Commercial Building, Roesch Library at UD, and old the Dayton Daily News Building. [118] After careful study of the site the Pretzingers drafted a design that would meet the budget-conscious needs of the school. The key to reducing cost was to limit the use of heavy steel beams, which were needed to bolster a structure that stood high above the surrounding land. One way to reduce these beams would be to build into the ground. Such a design would allow for a greater reliance upon concrete, a technique useful two years before in the similarly structured University of New Mexico Arena in Albuquerque. In mid-1968 Frericks and the Pretzingers flew to see it. Commonly referred to as “The Pit” as a result of its innovative subterranean construction that placed the playing surface nearly 38 feet below ground, the design had already won its architects international recognition [119]

Frericks liked what he saw. Pretzinger’s UD Arena possessed many of the distinctive features of “The Pit.” It lacked many of the supporting columns in the seating area that normally obstructed the view of some fans. But the design also made the arena idiosyncratic. By necessity the seats were arranged upward in much more tapered banks than the typical fashion of vertically oriented stadiums. Perhaps less beneficial, the steep grade, proximity of the seats to the floor, and low ceiling amplified the noise from the crowd. Located so close to the Great Miami River, the arena would also be prone to flooding. This was the principle reason to outfit the arena with an artificial rubber tartan floor rather than the traditional and more expensive hardwood court. However, the design had one undeniable advantage that Frericks loved: its $4 million dollar ($30.6 million) price tag. [120]

The Arena and the City of Dayton

Many people had high economic hopes for the arena. Although Frericks had spurned their plans, city officials sought to help make the arena a success in a number of important ways. For example, they enacted a comprehensive rezoning plan, and widened Miami Boulevard (today known as Edwin C. Moses Boulevard) to increase traffic flow. Such moves came with risks. Public resentment accompanied the widening of the thoroughfare. Officials were admonished for agreeing to the plan. UD was accused of taking financial advantage of the community by getting a “bureaucratic fast break.” [121] But city officials were well-intentioned. If traffic moved easily in and out of the arena, the Dayton Public Schools would make more money from parking. And the venue’s success would mean more taxes for the city and jobs for its citizens. 

The first economic benefit of the arena would come with its construction. Donoher remembered visiting the site during the summer in order to see how things were developing. Descending into the pit that had been dug, he walked across the concrete foundation, when from high above he heard a voice call “Coach!” Squinting into the sun he saw the team’s center, 6-foot-8 inch George Janky, as a tiny figure waving at him from the beams that composed the roof. George had taken a summer construction job and ended up working on the arena in which he was about to play. While the sight terrified Coach Donoher, it was indicative of way the project would help the city. [122]

Not long after settling upon the design of the building, Frericks hired the local B. G. Danis Company to build it. Founded in 1916, Danis had built a number of the city’s landmarks: The Victoria Theater, the Convent of the Sisters of the Precious Blood (today called Maria Joseph Nursing & Rehabilitation Center), WHIO (the cities first radio station), Sinclair College, and the Winters Bank Tower (now known at Kettering Tower). [123] Danis also built many of the factories on which the city had once relied. Now it was building the arena. 

To maximize its economic benefit for the school and city, UD planners imagined from the start that the arena would be used for other purposes. For decades after its construction the venue was used to host indoor tennis matches and concerts. Elvis Presley, for one, appeared at the UD Arena four times, the last on October 26, 1976. [124] The building continues to be used for a variety of Ohio high school events. Of course the hosting of basketball games remained the primary purpose of the arena.

UD’s own regular season games also drew people from outside the city. In addition to the visiting teams’ supporters, fans supporting UD travel from across the region to watch games. [125] In each instance the City of Dayton benefited because the crowds attending the event sought lodging and food at nearby establishments. Along with the Flyers’ regular season schedule, it became the home of NBA exhibition games, high-profile Ohio high school matches, and, most importantly, host to the most NCAA games of any venue in the United States. Jacquelyn Powell, CEO of the Dayton Convention & Visitors Bureau, estimates that the 2018 NCAA event alone may produce $4.5 million in direct spending in the city. Based on that figure, hosting the annual event at the arena will have resulted in $216 million additional spending in the city through 2018. From the beginning city planners capitalized on this revenue… [insert archive material on books introducing city to incoming teams] [126]

“He sings of trouble and audience is his”,  Journal Herald, Frericks Scrapbook, University of Dayton Archives and Special Collections

Trepidations that attendance would not match the arena’s financial burden proved unfounded. Ken May, a player from first team to use the arena, remembers that “There was a question, ‘Are they really going to be able to fill this up? Are they really going to be able to put an extra 8,000 in the arena?’ Then those first couple of years, hell, we had great attendance.” [127] Frericks had set aside 3,427 seats for students, 700 for visiting teams, and the rest for the community. By January 29, 1969 they already had sold 7,843 season tickets. Of these season tickets, 1,486 Arena Associates seats had been sold with 146 remaining. Only roughly 1,300 seats remained. Frericks was already being asked if the school had been “too conservative” building a roughly 13,500 seat Arena. [128]. Attendance for the first season reached 194,728 and proved the arena could draw the crowds Frericks once imagined. During the first two seasons attendance averaged well over 12,000 fans per home game [129] During the 1970-1971 season, the arena made $231,000 (approximately $1.5 million in inflation adjusted 2018 dollars) after expenditures. [130] That was more than $50,000 ($353,000) above the Fieldhouse revenue in the prior season. [131] In the 1972-73 season UD hosted its first University of Dayton Holiday Tournament, which brought some major collegiate teams to the arena. [132]

Frericks and his assistants placed a diagram of the arena on his office wall and each time a customer bought a season ticket they put a push-pin into the spot. Different colors were used to designate seat type. Red were premium seats. Green were less expensive seats. Yellow were seats held for opposing team fans and complimentary tickets. Blank areas were seats for UD students. “Image from Tom Frericks office c. 1969” Source: Frericks Family Private Collection.

Over the next decade profits continued to improve and attendance remained strong despite the fact the basketball program fell short of its success in the previous years. [133] To this day UD men’s basketball team continues to fill the arena’s seats. In 2018 it enjoyed its 18th consecutive season among the nation’s top 30 most attended NCAA programs, and since the Arena opened attendance has never been outside the nation’s top 35. [134] While estimates vary, as many as 15 million people have visited the arena since its opening. 

Still, the arena has faced some challenges. In the last thirty years the arena’s value as a sought-after venue for other activities has declined. Regionally, the construction of U.S. Bank Arena in 1975 may have hurt UD’s concert business, as U.S. Bank was larger than the UD Arena and located in a major city that is only an hour away. Wright State University’s Nutter Center, completed in 1990, cut into the arena’s status as the top local venue for concerts and other events. [135] As early as 1986 the planned construction of the Nutter Center was listed as potential threats by university administrators to future arena profits. [136] Strong regular season attendance has managed to more than compensate for the evolution of these rival venues.

One reason the arena continues to be used heavily is the care the university has taken to upgrade the building over the years. The arena has gone through multiple renovations, and in each instance that meant jobs for local labor and business for local companies. Some of the largest renovations have occurred in recent years. In 1998 the school built “The Donoher Center,” a 23,000-square-foot basketball program support center attached to the UD Arena, named for Coach Donoher. [137] In 2002, a $13.1 million (nearly $20 million today) improvement was made on seating and concessions. In addition, the Boesch Lounge—named to honor the family that donated the land to the school — was remodeled, an improved score board was added, and a “Flight Deck” bar/restaurant was constructed. In 2009 Coach Donoher, who had retired from coaching in 1989, gave the improvement a rave review. “The overall improvements of the arena from a couple years ago, the graphics and everything — the place is just spectacular now. It always was a great facility, but it’s so much better today than it was in 1970.” [138]

An additional $13 million in 2017 upgraded interior parts of the building. Now, to coincide with the building’s 50th anniversary, a major expansion totaling over $72 million is underway. In a city boasting a gross metropolitan product of $40.6 billion in 2018, a figure that placed in ranked 68th in the U.S., the economic activity generated by the arena continues to play a significant role in the overall financial health of the city. [139]