Strands of Spaghetti

But none of this might have happened. Despite all the benefits that would accrue to the city over the years after the arena’s construction, for a moment on February 28, 1969, just three and half months after the groundbreaking ceremony, a sudden disaster threatened the arena’s future [140]. That day as he left noon mass, Coach Donaher was startled by a speeding Frericks who pulled his car to the curb and instructed Donoher to get in. As they pulled away Frericks told Donoher that what had been built of the arena just collapsed. Donoher recalled that what remained of the structure “looked like strands of spaghetti”. [141] It was a bad day for the basketball program, and oddly, one year to the day since the Waterman interview.

Strands of Spaghetti” Source: Frericks Scrapbook, University of Dayton Archive and Special Collections, University of Dayton

The structure collapsed around noon. Morgan Bruck, an engineer working for Dayton Power and Light, was standing in one of the company’s control rooms across the river. Bruck recalls that he and his team were completing their daily inspection when they happened to look up and out the window towards the building site. At that moment, much to their astonishment, “the building disappeared in a cloudy swirl.” Silence filled the room. After a few moments one of Bruck’s colleagues, a former University of Kentucky scholarship basketball player, broke the silence and in a flat tone of shock said, “Oh my. UD basketball has a problem.” Reflecting on the scene years later, Bruck suggested that his colleague’s words carried so much weight that they had stuck with him to this day because “here was a man who knew what the arena meant to UD.” In the hours and days afterward, Bruck relates, few thought the arena would be completed in time for the coming season. Most, he said, believed “it would be two to three years before they played there.” [142] The sensitive weather equipment at the station in which Bruck was working that morning detected a sudden change in wind direction and intensity in the moments before the collapse took place. Whatever the cause, the disaster led to an opportunity. The insurance money collected was reinvested to reinforce the design. Due to the accident, the total cost of the arena rose to nearly $4.4 million ($33.7 million). However, as Coach Donoher optimistically put it, “Thanks to the collapse we got a better arena.” [143]

This image shows Don Donoher standing on the floor of the Arena in mid-1969 as workers raced to complete the building. This was taken just before one of the Friday afternoon beer and basketball morale boosters. “Don Donoher on Arena Floor” Source: Don Donoher Private Collection.

Luckily no one had been seriously injured in the accident; however, much as Bruck recalled, the plans for the Flyers to begin the 1969-1970 season in the new arena seemed out of the question. For Frericks there was another problem; the delay jeopardized his efforts to win NCAA approval to host to one of that season’s first-round tournament games. From the moment Frericks became certain he had the money to complete the arena he had begun to work his NCAA connections to sell the new venue as an ideal location for a game. Because of the respect that many had for the athletic director, and his tireless work for the committee over the years, Frericks’ proposal was being strongly considered by the NCAA. Of course, the building’s collapse raised doubts.

Reconstruction began immediately. Crews worked at a feverish pace. To keep morale high, Frericks provided buckets of ice cold beer on Fridays as Coach Donoher presided over 3-3 basketball games between the workers on the arena’s foundation. [144] On the UD Pride discussion forum, one student from that time, Bill McPeek, remembered “the rush to get the Arena finished. I worked for the Athletic Dept. while at UD and Mr. Frericks asked me if I could round up a few friends to get over to the Arena and do some work to help accomplish the task. What we did was strap an ‘Indian Can’ filled with sealant on our backs and spray the concrete before the seating was put in place. We did the job during the night and early morning hours.” [145]

Keeping UD in the Big Leagues

While the drama of the arena’s collapse was taking place, George Janky had replaced his roofer’s smock for a jersey and was helping to lead the Flyer squad of the 1968-1969 to a 17-6 regular season. It was enough for the team to be invited to the NCAA. Memories of last year’s streak gave fans hope, but their boys were knocked out in the first round. Still, the arena project was beginning to impact Dayton’s standing.

In late 1968 Donoher received a letter from Al McGuire. “Perhaps I was too hasty to call [the Fieldhouse] a gym” he wrote apologetically, and noted that as two of the marquee Catholic schools in the country, Dayton and Marquette should regularly play one another. [146] Whether it was true contrition or a recognition that the coming UD Arena would be a good place to play, McGuire wanted to renew the two schools’ annual series. Miffed by McGuire’s earlier slight, Donoher took his time responding. A little too long, it appears, because in March or April of 1969 McGuire penned a second, more testy missive explaining that he hadn’t realized “that when your new gym fell down it smashed all your typewriters”. [147] Not amused, Donoher penned a limerick which he sent to McGuire: [need the poem] But McGuire got the last laugh when he passed the limerick on to Cleveland press. Its publication led a barrage of angry letters to Donoher. [148]

Although Coach Donoher ended up with egg on his face, the story indicates that UD was cooking. The lesson of the story was not to avoid writing limericks, but that even before it was built the arena was altering the way people would view UD. In the case of basketball, big schools wanted to play the Flyers. That meant increased revenue, better recruiting, and greater news coverage – all of which heightened the school’s prestige. For the basketball team the change was immediate. In the first year Notre Dame agreed to come to Dayton and play for the first time since before World War I. [149] Beyond that, in the years after the arena opened the school realized many of the benefits that Frericks predicted far beyond its value in economic terms. Much as Frericks and Roesch anticipated back in the late 1960s, the popularity of the basketball program, if properly nurtured, had the potential of doing far more for the University than the potential of winning titles.

Since the arena opened UD has undergone dramatic changes that its basketball venue has helped it to weather. The decline of the city’s economic fortunes and the rise of competition for students from both local and regional institutions has meant that UD, like many other universities, has increasingly recruited students from outside local areas. In the 1986 report on the arena’s future prospects, administrators worried about the decline of blue-collar workers in the city. The erosion of these jobs meant fewer potential customers for arena events. In this instance the problems of the arena were very much the problems of Dayton more widely. While the effects of these changes did not, in the end, come to hurt arena attendance, the university underwent another dramatic change that originated as the arena was being built.

(Left) Examples of publications focused on sport and leisure that, thanks to the arena construction, more frequently featured the University of Dayton thereby increasingly the schools exposure among middle class suburbanites who were the most likely educational consumers in the years after 1970s.

Sources (Respectively): “UD Arena Dedication Coming Up” Source: Dayton Daily News, January 11, 1970, Frericks Scrapbook, University of Dayton Archives and Special Collections, University of Dayton, “Gems Rebound UD’s New Arena” Source: December 4, 1969, Frericks Scrapbook, University of Dayton Archives and Special Collections, University of Dayton.

Specifically, the makeup of the undergraduate body at UD shifted to include many more out of state and international students. Today, nearly half of UD undergraduate students hail from outside of Ohio, with the added consequence that the old commuter college has become predominantly residential. The proportion of students living on campus had risen from 15% in 1959 to 43% in 1965. That proportion has grown ever since. As elsewhere, these trends have led to an increasing division between the local community and campus, yet the UD Arena has proven an important link between the two. And while the old guard Flyers fans raised concerns that that the arena would not match the Fieldhouse in spirit and community, those fans quickly warmed up to the Flyers’ new home. Summing up his impression of the building, Flyer radio announcer Bucky Buckhorn once told Dayton Daily reporter Doug Harris, “This arena rocks. There’s not a better place in America when this crowd is into the game. I don’t care where you go. I’ve never seen anything like it.” [150]

Dayton and the NCAA

Key to that success has been the long history hosting NCAA games. Despite its collapse in 1968, the arena was completed on time. Years later Frericks summed up the importance of the arena’s on-time construction by saying, “We’ll always be indebted to the Danis people for making sure” the building was complete. [151] When it became evident this would happen, the NCAA committee selected the new building to be the host of one of its early round games in the March 1970 tournament. After seeing the economic data demonstrating the impact on the city, the reader could better appreciate how important Frericks success in having established this relationship early on turned out to be.

Indeed the first NCAA game in 1970 was the beginning of a long history. Since then the facility has played host to more men’s NCAA Tournament games than any venue in the country. There have been 119 tournament games played at the site, which is 32 more than the next most common location, Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium. Strong attendance to the games has been critical to the partnership. From the start Frericks promised to sell out the arena. The city delivered. [152] Today the arena’s long history with the NCAA has become part of the tournament’s heritage, helping to ensure that the venue will continue to be part of the tournament in the future.

In addition to the money it brought the city and university, the annual NCAA games have meant enormous national exposure for the school. Television broadcast of the tournament began in 1969. Today “March Madness,” as the tournament has been dubbed, dominates TV and cable broadcasts on multiple channels for weeks, and is widely shown internationally. In 2015 slightly less than 81 million watched tournament games. That year the average TV viewership for each of those NCAA game was over 12 times larger than the typical regular season game. According to the Los Angeles Times, Jody’s Club Forest, a bar in Staten Island, New York, is credited with a creating the first bracket betting pool in 1977 in which those in the pool attempt to correctly predict the outcome of each game [153] Ken Rappoport, co-author of The Big Dance: The Story of the NCAA Basketball Tournament suggests that it was the decline of Wooden’s UCLA teams after his retirement in 1975 that awakened greater interest in predicting the tournament’s outcome: “the dominance of the Bruins was so powerful that no one was talking about seeding or anything[…] People get tired of the same team winning, and of the top players going to that school and perpetuating the winning.” [154] By 2015 more than 60 million Americans are said to have filled-out brackets.

It is true to say that the event has become one of the nation’s most important annual civic rituals. As Forbes put it, the tournament produces a veritable “tsunami of revenue” for schools. “Winning universities have also reported big increases in applicants for enrollment and alumni donations.” [155] Supporting this claim, there are many anecdotal accounts that indicate the arena and NCAA’s significance in bringing students to UD. A former student with the handle “Westchesteflyer” described the impact on him watching the first ever NCAA game at the arena in January of 1970, a game made famous by Notre Dame’s Austin Carr setting the single game record, which still stands today, for points in a NCAA game. “I was there for a magical day in 1970. I was visiting my sister and checking out the U and saw Austin Carr put up 61 in an NCAA tournament game. The crowd was electric. That experience […] sold me. It was my only college application!” [156]

Other fans remember eagerly watching that memorable game on TV. The TV exposure UD received in the following decades thanks to the NCAA is perhaps far more important than the money it generated. Currently, UD has the privilege of being host to “play-in” games determining the final two teams that will make the 68-team field. As the venue of the “First Four” games, UD Arena serves as the annual launch point of the tournament. While the school’s history with the tournament plays a key role in its continued association with the annual event, other factors – including Dayton’s central geographical location and time zone – provide convenience for broadcasting. Ironically the city’s small size also contributes to its continued opportunity to host the event. In a small city like Dayton the NCAA games stand out. On the eve of the 2018 tournament, Dayton Development Coalition President and CEO  Jeff Hoagland remarked that “Year after year, Dayton explodes with excitement during the First Four.” [157] Perhaps nothing better represents the positive exposure that hosting this event gives the University than President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron’s attendance at the 2012 First Four games. This was the first time a sitting United States President (or sitting British Prime Minister) had ever attended a game at UD Arena. Again, Frericks’ vision has proven to be invaluable to the school

(Below) “University of Dayton Arena Nearly Fulfilled” Source: Don Donoher Private Collection.