Williams Arena: The Legacy of a Legendary Barn
February 15, 2006
Williams Arena: The Legacy of a Legendary Barn
by Jeff Barthel
As technological advances allow for revolving stadium-ceilings and rubber-induced field surfaces, one campus venue has maintained its mystical sense without such changes.
With its 79-year-old rafters and one-of-a-kind raised floor, Williams Arena has become an emporium of rich memories for countless fans, players, employees and visitors of all kinds.
“I think it has that barn look to it,” says Chuck Mencel, Gophers basketball guard from 1951-55. “It’s a very visually appealing place and has been a popular place for Minnesota families to come to.”
Constructed in 1927, and first used in 1928, “The Barn,” as Williams Arena is commonly known was first titled, the University of Minnesota Field House. In these times, the facility was used for basketball, off-season winter football practices, tennis and indoor track.
In 1950, the wide-framed building was split in two distinct playing areas, one for hockey and one for basketball. During this time, the famed Gophers gym changed its name to the well-known title it bears today. Since then, Williams Arena has become known as one of the nation’s premiere basketball arenas.
The first game played at the Barn came in the midst of some rough years for the Gophers. Minnesota transferred its team from Cooke Hall (which still exists today, used for kinesiology and sports studies) to play Ohio State at their new gym on Feb. 4, 1928. The Gophers lost the game in double-overtime and finished its season 4-12 and ninth in the Big Ten.
In the 1930s, coach Dave McMillan led his team to its first Big Ten title at Williams. The team took out Wisconsin and Northwestern to finish its season 14-6 (10-2 conference).
The year 1946 marked the arrival of a young Myer “Whitey” Skoog, the man many basketball historians would suggest originated the jump shot.
Don Knauer, a resident of Eden Prairie and U of M alum, shared some memories of Skoog and the 1948-49 Gophers.
“Whitey Skoog invented the jump shot,” says Knauer, recalling the All-American he watched in his collegiate years.
“It was the first time I had seen it used,” adds Knauer, who as a member of Phi Sigma Kappa – a fraternity still in existence on 18th Avenue Southeast “We (Gophers fans) always felt it was quite the treat to take a walk over to The Barn.”
Soon after the days of Whitey Skoog, came Chuck Mencel.
“I remember playing Iowa for the Big Ten championship in ’55,” says Mencel. “20,000-plus people packed the Barn that day.”
Mencel was speaking of Feb. 29, when the largest crowd in Gophers basketball history (20,176) watched his Gophers play Iowa for the Big Ten championship. The former All-American Gophers guard spoke fondly of that day, recalling how fans crowded themselves into the Barn’s hallways.
“The public support was amazing,” says Mencel of the excitement the city had surrounding the team. “At that time, it was the largest attendance of any basketball game in the country.”
Mencel spoke passionately of the uproar of Gophers fever that day, saying the famed game led some of the local Minneapolis theatres to shut down their daily operations so they could offer ticket-less Gophers fans a chance to watch the game on their big screens.
Williams could seat 18,025 at the time, but the excitement of a Big Ten championship, Minnesota’s 15-5 record and its interstate rivalry with Iowa, led to masses of Maroon and Gold maniacs. Unfortunately, for the team and its throngs of fans, Minnesota lost the game 72-70 and would finish the season in second place.
Moving into the 60s, “Sweet Lou” Hudson would grace the Williams hardwood. Arguably the best Gopher ever, Hudson did not win any championships, but did average 20.4 points per game in his three years before embarking on a 13-year NBA career that included six All-Star performances.
Years after Hudson made his departure, another player, who is often considered Minnesota’s best ever, Kevin McHale, entered Williams Arena’s confines (1977-80).
McHale, who was a Minnesota-grown boy from the northern town of Hibbing, is definitely the most remembered. The Boston Celtics’ great helped his NBA team to three championships and eventually earned a spot in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.
A few years after McHale’s days as a Gopher concluded the Clem Haskins era began. The coach of Minnesota basketball for thirteen years, Haskins is remembered for two things; the team’s Final Four appearance in 1997, the other, sadly, is an academic scandal.
“I was then hired by Clem as a student manager,” says Michael Dale, a Williams Arena facility manager of six years.
Dale, who was prepared to leave his hometown of Rochester to come work for Haskins, never would get the chance to work with him due to the aforementioned scandal.
“My only personal memory with Clem was my senior year in high school," says Dale, "he took two hours of his time to sit and talk with me.”
Reverting a few years back in Clem’s coaching regime, there was a young man named Kevin Lynch (Gophers guard 1988-91) who lit up the maple floor of the Maroon.
“Oh man, this place was rocking the time we beat Illinois,” says Lynch, recollecting a favorite memory.
Lynch was referring to his Gophers 91-74 upheaval of the 4th-ranked Illini Jan. 6, 1990, another of a myriad of great memories this treasured arena has witnessed.
Now a radio commentator of Gophers basketball, Lynch and his partner Dave Lee, happily spoke of a place they’ve both spent several years in.
“Just look at the rafters, the atmosphere,” says Lynch, following the duo’s Jan. 29 broadcast of Minnesota’s 61-42 defeat of Indiana. “It’s just a great place to be at.”
“There’s been many great years here, a great place with a wonderful atmosphere for basketball,” says Lee. “It still [after nearly 80 years] possesses the character and charm that are lacking in the new multi-functional arenas on other campuses.”
Lee—a local radio personality of 16 years—and Lynch have been WCCO 830’s radio broadcasting tandem for the past five years. Dick Bremer, a television commentator, has done Gophers basketball games since 1986. Serving as the Gophers television voice, Bremer recalls the opportunity he had of capturing up-close-and-personal memories of the much adored ’96-97 Gophers.
“I thoroughly enjoyed the Big Ten championship season,” says Bremer. “I remember the dogged determination of Bobby Jackson; he was one of the players who separated Minnesota from the rest of the conference.”
Jackson, now a nine-year veteran of the NBA, played point guard for this special Gophers squad. A junior college transfer from Salisbury, N.C., in his second year at Minnesota, thrilled many hometown fans with his mind-boggling passes and his rim-rocking dunks.
“I remember coming up here to watch the men play and watching Bobby Jackson,” says Jamie Broback, a native of Apple Valley and forward for the Gophers womens basketball team. “I think Bobby was one of my favorite athletes to watch, then seeing Lindsey Whalen, she was my favorite female player to watch.”
Broback was a senior in high school when she saw Whalen play on the Minnesota womens team’s first full season at Williams (it previously played in the Sports Pavilion). Coincidentally, this team's inaugural year at its new venue (2002-2003) was also
current coach Pam Borton’s first year at Minnesota.
“It’s definitely a great arena,” says Borton. “It’s a tough place to play for opponents because of its mystiqueness, because the fans feel like they are sitting almost on top of the court.”
Borton has been instrumental in building success for the Gopher women, lobbying and eventually accruing the help (which included much fundraising by her players) to get the team’s new locker room and team room built.
These additions, combined with much of the work Michael Dale and the facilities team have contributed greatly to the renovation, remodeling and restoration of a treasured Arena.
While the Gophers mens basketball squad has struggled this year, the 2006 Gopher women have flourished. Either way, Williams Arena will undoubtedly continue to be a magical atmosphere for students, fans and the Twin Cities public for years to come.