The Fieldhouse

By Ciaran Andrew Minch

The University of Dayton Fieldhouse, now named the Thomas J. Frericks Athletic and Convocation Center in honor of former Athletic Director Tom Frericks, was the home of the Dayton Flyers basketball team for nineteen seasons. Originally located on the corner of Alberta and L Street, today it extends from the corner of L Street and College Park to University Circle. In the 1950’s, a writer described the Fieldhouse as “A gathering place for well-dressed men and women, of all persuasions, as the spot to go when you’re out on the town….the building in which to be seen on any given night on the UD schedule…the arena where your presence even added to your social prestige.”[1] The atmosphere of the Fieldhouse was one of its most defining features. The bleachers were located so close to the court, that former player George Janky said, “the fans were right on top of the court.”[2]

“Fieldhouse 1950s” Source: University of Dayton Archives and Special Collections, University of Dayton

This was a major advantage for the Flyers and contributed to a 256-33 home record for the team. The building’s original nickname was “Thrombosis Fieldhouse” due to games regularly coming down to the final buzzer causing thundering heartbeats and high blood pressure. Only after a fan finally experienced a coronary seizure the name was discarded.[3]
Need for a new Arena

Before 1950, the Flyers basketball team played their games at the Montgomery Fairgrounds Coliseum. Although adequate when they first started playing their in 1923, by the late 40’s the need for a new arena was apparent. The University of Dayton was experiencing a growing enrollment after World War II. The implementation of the G.I. Bill…the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (1944), as it was officially named, allowed for soldiers who were involved in World War II to attend a college or university free of charge. This created a flood of students entering the collegiate ranks.

The Fieldhouse can be seen under construction in the background from Coach Don Donoher’s Private collection.

The president at the start of the construction, Father Elbert, made clear the advantages of a new arena in his “The Dedication of the Fieldhouse” address when he said, “the new facility will allow basketball to expand and develop freely, Physical Education courses can be integrated into the facility, a new rise in intramurals and school spirit.” He went on to explain, “Over two thousand students will have regular access along with the Fieldhouse being open to public uses in accordance with priority to UD schedules first.”
Martin Kuntz, a University of Dayton graduate, was instrumental in creating an arena. He began his mission in 1942 by calling a meeting between prominent figures in the city including: the president of the Standard Register Company Mel Spayd, Clarence Gosiger, Ellis Mayl, David Margolis, Harry Mack, Harry Cutler, Henry Malloy, and Brother Alloysius Doyle who was an SM (Society of Mary, now Marianists) and the Athletic Director for the University at the time. By 1946 Martin Kuntz acted as the campaign chairman, Clarence Gosiger as treasurer, Charles Whalen as alumni campaign leader, John Westerndorf was the main finance contributor, and Father John A Elbert S.M. who was the University President at the start of the campaign.[4]

Finance

In 1942 the initial cost of the building was an estimated $350,000. By the end of 1944, the group had gathered $200,000, no small accomplishment in the middle of the ongoing war. Costs of materials and enrollment at the school would increase the total cost estimate to upwards of $500,000 by February 1946. The group of men leading the funding reached out to alumni to begin their search for the additional money. Fifty friends and alumni of the University jumpstarted the funding for the Fieldhouse. With the total cost continuously increasing, the group decided to send out envelopes to all alumni of the University of Dayton. These envelopes contained ten tickets for the first basketball seasons in the Fieldhouse and guaranteed seats to those games. Each ticket was worth $1 a piece. This provided a huge increase in funding but was not enough with estimated cost of the project rising again in 1948 to $600,000. Martin Kuntz secretly petitioned and got industry in the city of Dayton to provide funding for the project to make up for the increase in cost. Despite all of Kuntz efforts, he still had to go to the University administration and petition for a loan from the Society of Mary. The remainder of the funding was granted by the Society of Mary and the groundbreaking ceremony took place on April 28th, 1949.[5]

Merle Smith, a graduate of the university in 1925 and the secretary to the president, was the Master of Ceremonies for the occasion. Short talks were given by Father Renneker, Father Elbert, Father Collins, and the Mayor of Dayton, Frank Loherty.[6] Harry Baujan, the Athletic Director at the time, had the honor of turning the first shovel to signal the beginning of construction for the Fieldhouse. Over three thousand fans showed up for the ceremony, amplifying the excitement behind the soon to be built basketball arena. Actual construction of the building would begin a week after the ground breaking ceremony on May 3rd, 1949.[7]

The structure

Less than six months after The Fieldhouse finally being completed on November 29th, 1950, it was deemed a “bargain building.” In the half year after opening, the estimated cost to have built The Fieldhouse rose twenty-five percent to $750,000.[8] This meant that the Fieldhouse was worth twenty-five percent more six months after it was built than it was initially after its construction. It was a big building in other ways as well:

it’s enough bricks laid end to end to reach Detroit, it’s ten miles of electric wire, it’s more than a million pounds of steel, it’s enough wood to floor forty homes, and it’s one-thousand four hundred and fifty yards of cement would make a respectable dam. Light produced by the one hundred and forty high bay fixtures could pin-point a plane flying at ten-thousand feet.[9]

It stood five stories tall and could accommodate nearly six thousand people comfortably in its 1, 264, 130 square feet of space.[10] The seating arrangement for the Fieldhouse originally had four thousand permanent seats along with nearly two thousand movable bleacher seats. Ten double-doored exits made it possible for a capacity crowd to empty the arena in less than six minutes.[11] A bronze tablet was placed in the lobby of the Fieldhouse to honor the soldiers who had attended the University of Dayton that were lost in World War II.

UD Basketball during the Fieldhouse Years

The completion of the Fieldhouse coincided with the rise of University of Dayton basketball as a connection between the school and the city that still thrives to this day. Many great games and events have been held in the Fieldhouse but there are a few that standout above the others. The first game ever played in the Fieldhouse was a loss to Central Missouri State 50-47 in front of over four thousand fans.[12] That same year saw the Flyers overcome one of their largest deficits of 38-19 against the University of Louisville, coming back to win 68-61.[13] The Flyers finished the regular season 24-4 and secured a bid to the NIT tournament in New York. Their flight to New York was the first time the Flyers had traveled to a game by air. With wins over Lawrence Tech, number three seeded Arizona, and first ranked St. John’s, the team found themselves in the championship game against Brigham Young University. Although the team suffered a blow-out loss of 62-43, the team was welcomed back as heroes at the homecoming reception by Mayor Bill Patterson and the Flyer faithful. The second season in the Fieldhouse saw the Flyers return to the NIT championship game, but again lost.[14]

One of the legendary games was during the 1952-1953 when the number one ranked team in the country Seton Hall, came to the Fieldhouse with a twenty-five game winning streak. Dayton held a record of fourteen wins and thirteen loses but upset the Pirates 71-65.[15] Don Donoher, the future Hall of Famer who coached the Flyers from 1964-1989, was on the team and scored fourteen, as well as assisting on the game winning basket.

Another legendary game was the triple overtime loss against top ranked Western Kentucky University. In this game, Donoher passed the ball to Jack Sallee who sunk the game tying shot in the first overtime. This shot came to be known as “the greatest solo field goal ever scored in the Fieldhouse.”[16] The most points scored by a player in the Fieldhouse is Don “Monk” Meineke with forty-nine against Muskingum University the first year of playing in the Fieldhouse.[17]

The Fieldhouse Experience

As the history of the basketball played there suggests, The Fieldhouse became a renowned venue, unique and beloved by the Flyer faithful. The original nickname of the building was “Thrombosis Fieldhouse,” with games regularly coming down to the final buzzer causing fans to experience thundering heartbeats and high blood pressure. The name was changed sometime after due to a fan experiencing a coronary seizure in one of the close games.[18]

The Fieldhouse has been renowned for its mystical effect that it had on not only those playing in the games, but to those who were in attendance. Dan Sadlier mentioned in his interview that coming from a small town like him, being able to play in the Fieldhouse was like, “playing in Madison Square Garden.”[19] He goes on to say, “it was an exciting place to be and was always chock full of fans.” The seating arrangement for the Fieldhouse was set up to where the fans played a crucial role. They were required to move their legs to allow space for out of bounds passes near them. George Janky recalls “when you fell into the stands, you actually fell right into the crowd.”[20]

When Tom Frericks first took over as Athletic Director (AD), his first task was to create more seating for the Fieldhouse. On the bench side of the arena, he began by minimizing the space between the opposing teams. This created space for him to install risers behind them for the scorer’s table and the media, opening space along the baseline for thirty-six seats on both ends of the court. Tom Frericks allocated one end for basketball purposes such as recruiting, while the other half was for his own purposes such as fundraising. These seventy-two floor seats became known as the “jury-box” seats. They have been compared to “finding gold” by longtime and Hall of Fame coach for the Flyers, Don Donoher.[21] These seventy-two seats provided the program with a recruiting tool and a way for Tom Frericks to gain funding from prominent businessmen in Dayton.

The attraction of the Fieldhouse to Flyer basketball fans was apparent in the 50’s and early 60’s. Former ticketing manager for the Arena Gary McCans recalls the Fieldhouse, “Always sold out, you couldn’t get a ticket […] people used to lineup just waiting for somebody to turn in a ticket just so they could get into the basketball game.”[22] While this is not a part of all players’ memory of the Fieldhouse, son of former AD Tom Frericks, Tom Frericks Jr, remembered that, “If it was a high profile game, there usually was toilet paper. And in one game I remember, pennies being thrown out onto the floor.”[23]

The original floor for the Fieldhouse has been criticized by Coach Don Donoher. He described the floor as being, “shin splints waiting to happen.” Another take on the floor of the Fieldhouse was that it “was very hard […] and when you fell down onto it, it felt almost like cement.”[24] While this has been confirmed from the perspective of some asked, there are some who felt that it was not that extreme.

The Fieldhouse Outside of College Athletics

The Fieldhouse was also host to many major events in the Dayton community. It held the annual State Gymnastics meet, high school basketball games, concerts, and various University functions including the Homecoming Dance and the Parent’s Weekend assembly. Along with these, the Fieldhouse was host to the National Summer Youth Sports Program. This program involved six hundred inner city and surrounding area children to attend a six week sports and enrichment program.[25] The program allowed the University of Dayton to be better involved in the greater community and gained Dayton national attention.

University of Dayton students who were around during the time of the Fieldhouse had the opportunity to be present for two major events held there: the Elvis Presley concert on May 27, 1956 and an appearance by Martin Luther King Jr on November 29th, 1964. Teen sensation of the 50’s, Elvis Presley was scheduled for 2pm and 8pm shows, allowing for a third concert if ticket sales warranted.[26] Presley did not show for his two o’clock show until three-forty that same afternoon, an hour and forty minutes late. During his short thirty minute performance, not a single chord of his guitar or one lyric could be heard due to the screeching coming from the crowd. When asked what their favorite part of the concert was, one concert goer’s response was just, “M-m-m-m-mmm.”[27]

Elvis performing at the Fieldhouse.

The second of these two major events was a visit from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on November 29th, 1964. His appearance was also delayed by two hours. But it was because he was travelling from Cincinnati, where he had given a speech the night before, to Dayton during a blizzard. Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to the Fieldhouse was a part of the Dayton Freedom Forum.[28] This Forum was put on to support those first amendment rights which allowed for freedom of speech. Even though Martin Luther King Jr was unpopular with whites at the time, more than six thousand two hundred students and members of the Dayton community were present to hear the preacher’s word. The writer finds it significant to include that there were over twenty members of the National States Rights Party protested outside wielding picket signs with words of slander against the Civil Rights activist.[29] The States Rights in National States Right Party had already become code for the support of racial segregation

After 1970

After the Flyers basketball team moved their home from the old Fieldhouse to the newly built UD Arena, it was converted into a recreational complex. The Fieldhouse was not remodeled until June of 1973. Reasons for this remodeling were to accommodate the growing presence of students joining intramural sports teams and to give a larger space for “free play.” The plan was to allow students, faculty, and citizens of Dayton to have a set time allowing them to do whatever activity they wanted. Along with the jury box seats, the east bleachers were removed to make space on the floor for the estimated five hundred students and faculty that used the Fieldhouse every day. Three folding walls were added to be used for handball and paddleball courts, or to be used as dividers for separate activities. The former permanent bleachers had wheels added to the base for easy movement in case there was a need for more space on the main floor. Four basketball hoops were added to the already existing four to make a total of eight. A large 10’x10’x72’ net was added above the floor of the Fieldhouse to be brought down for activities such as: archery, golf, batting, and kicking. These additions diversified the number of activities that the Physical Education Department could offer and increased the number of people who went to the gym. Along with these, the former varsity equipment room and materials were made into a weight training facility and wrestling room.[30]

The addition of the Physical Activities Center being built and connected to the South side of the Fieldhouse in 1975, allowed for more classrooms and offices to be included in the building. In the 1980’s AD Tom Frericks led the effort to renovate the interior of the Fieldhouse and the Western edifice of the building. The building has since been converted into the home of the University of Dayton volleyball teams, seating five thousand, and is the third largest collegiate volleyball arena in the country.[31] The last renovation to the Fieldhouse came in 2009. This project cleared the rafters of unnecessary objects and painted the ceiling white to increase the amount of light in the gym. Included in the $300,000 renovation, a new roof was added and the old “shin splint” court was replaced by a state of the art Robbins Biochannel court.[32] The new multi-surface court reduces the amount of stress taken on the body during explosive moments in volleyball. The courts appearance was updated to be red with the Flyers logo on both sides running parallel to the out of bounds along with the words “University of Dayton” bordering the court on both end lines.[33]

Legacy

The Fieldhouse has been called “the house that Marty built” after the work done by Martin Kuntz in gathering and leading the funding for the Fieldhouse. It is also known as “the house that Tom Decorated” in regards to the championship banners hoisted by Coach Tom Blackburn’s successful teams.[34] The success of Tom Blackburn’s basketball teams of local boys got the University of Dayton on a national scale as a growing basketball powerhouse. An example is the May boys who grew up near campus and attended games only to later play for the team. Part of this great success was the significant home court advantage with the atmosphere the Fieldhouse gave these teams for the nineteen years it was in use as a basketball arena.

Bibliography:

Collet, Ritter. The Flyers: A History of University of Dayton Basketball (Dayton, Ohio: Landfall Press Inc, 1989), 45.

Dan Sadlier Interview. November 6, 2018.

Dayton Daily News Article  (Dayton, OH), June 1973, IT Buildings and Dedications, Box 1, Folder 3, University of Dayton Special Collection, University of Dayton Archives, Dayton, OH.

Don Donoher Interview, October 24, 2018.

Dedication of the Fieldhouse Brochure. Dayton: University of Dayton, 1950. IT Buildings and Dedications Box 2, Folder 1, University of Dayton Special Collection, University of Dayton Archives, Dayton, OH.

Gary McCans and Tom Frericks Jr Interview, September 27, 2018.

The End of an Era Pamphlet. Dayton: University of Dayton, 1969. IT Buildings and Dedications Box 2, Folder 1. University of Dayton Special Collection. University of Dayton Archives. Dayton, OH.

George Janky Interview. November 1, 2018.

Moore, Scotty. “UD Fieldhouse” IT Buildings and Dedications. Box 1, Folder 2. University of Dayton Special Collection. University of Dayton Archives. Dayton, OH.

Smith, Perry. “Negro Leader addresses 6,500 here. Violence Not Answer King Says,” Dayton Daily News (Dayton, OH), November 30, 1964.

Endnotes:

[1] The End of an Era Pamphlet. Dayton: University of Dayton, 1969. IT Buildings and Dedications Box 2, Folder 1. University of Dayton Special Collection, University of Dayton Archives, Dayton, OH.

[2] George Janky Interview, November 1 2018

[3] The End of an Era Pamphlet. IT Buildings and Dedications Box 2, Folder 1. University of Dayton Special Collection.

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Dedication of the Fieldhouse Brochure. Dayton: University of Dayton, 1950. IT Buildings and Dedications Box 2, Folder 1, University of Dayton Special Collection, University of Dayton Archives, Dayton, OH.

[7] The End of an Era Pamphlet. IT Buildings and Dedications Box 2, Folder 1.

[8] Dedication of the Fieldhouse Brochure. IT Buildings and Dedications, Box 2, Folder 2.

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] Collet, Ritter. The Flyers: A History of University of Dayton Basketball (Dayton, Ohio: Landfall Press Inc, 1989), 45.

[13] Ibid, 47.

[14] Ibid, 61.

[15] Ibid, 62.

[16] Ibid, 69.

[17] The End of an Era Pamphlet. IT Buildings and Dedications, Box 2, Folder 2.

[18] Ibid

[19] Dan Sadlier Interview, November 6, 2018

[20] George Janky Interview, November 1, 2018

[21] Don Donoher Interview, October 24, 2018

[22] Gary McCans and Tom Frericks Jr interview, September 27, 2018

[23] Ibid

[24] George Janky Interview, November 1, 2018

[25] Dayton Daily News Article (Dayton, OH), June 1973. IT Buildings and Dedications, Box 1, Folder 3, University of Dayton Special Collection, University of Dayton Archives, Dayton, OH.

[26] Scotty Moore, “UD Fieldhouse,” IT Buildings and Dedications, Box 1, Folder 2, University of Dayton Special Collection. University of Dayton Archives, Dayton, OH.

[27] Ibid

[28] Perry Smith, “Negro Leader addresses 6,500 here. Violence Not Answer King Says,” Dayton Daily News (Dayton, OH), November 30, 1964.

[29] Ibid

[30] Dayton Daily Article (Dayton, OH), June, 1973. IT Buildings and Dedications, Box 1, Folder 3.

[31] Scotty Moore, “UD Fieldhouse,” IT Buildings and Dedications, Box 1, Folder 2.

[32] Ibid

[33] Ibid

[34] The End of an Era Pamphlet. IT Buildings and Dedications Box 2, Folder 1.