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The house the Hawks built: Field House's 100 year history dimming soon

BY TORK MASON | DECEMBER 13, 2011 7:20 AM

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The University of Iowa's Field House is like an aging star — Michael Jordan with the Washington Wizards, say, or Larry Bird with a back that had deserted him, or Willie Mays stumbling, trying to make an outfield catch with the Mets.

Situated east of Kinnick Stadium, the Field House isn't what it once was. But it has left fans and athletes with memories of past greatness.

The Field House was considered state-of-the art when it opened in 1927. There was "no finer or larger building of its kind … in the world," according to the dedication program published on Jan. 13, 1927. It housed what was believed to be the world's largest competition pool at the time.

But after eight decades of housing Hawkeye athletics, the Field House's days are numbered. Once Phase II of the Campus Recreation & Wellness Center is completed — the plan is currently in the design phase and will include the addition of another swimming pool and more basketball courts — the Field House will bid adieu. It will be torn down to make way for expansion of the UI Hospitals and Clinics, said Harry Ostrander, the director of Recreational Services.

Many have fond memories of the Field House, but not everyone has shared in the nostalgia.

The building's inadequacies have been well-documented. Steel pillars once obstructed the views of some fans attending basketball games or wrestling matches. The roof leaked. The temperature was hard to control.

The years have left few features recognizable. The arched windows in the Field House pool are still there, but the maligned steel pillars are barely visible from behind newer drywall on the main deck. A part of the arched roof from the armory remains, and a few pictures on the east wall of the main deck show what things used to look like.

But the last, most visible remnant of the "old barn" hangs from the west rafters: the Flying Herky logo that once hung over the pull-out bleachers.

As the Field House's time dwindles, an observer might ask: What sort of eulogy could its walls deliver?

The atmosphere

"It was electric," said Jim Zabel, the legendary voice of Hawkeye athletics for more than 60 years.

Zabel provided play-by-play football and basketball coverage for WHO Des Moines from 1947 through 1996, pre- and postgame shows from 1997-2000, and now hosts "Sound Off," the football postgame show on WHO.

"The sound just reverberated in there, and the place would shake with excitement," he said. "It was a definite home-court advantage."

Former Hawkeye head coach Lute Olson, who led the Black and Gold from 1974-83, said the fans provided a rowdy atmosphere.

"Iowa fans really understood basketball. They participated; they weren't just spectators," he said. "They knew when the team needed to be picked up, and they gave us that lift. The fans would practically shake [the Field House] to the rafters. In a way, I don't know if you could reproduce the same atmosphere at Carver."

Zabel agreed.

"[Carver-Hawkeye] is more like a gentlemen's club, much tougher to have a home-court advantage," he said.

Radio broadcaster Bob Brooks — a Hawkeye media legend who started covering Iowa football games when he was a senior at Cedar Rapids Franklin High in 1943 — said the atmosphere in the Field House could be suffocating in more ways than one. Smoking was allowed in the building, and a cloud sometimes formed over the court during games. Legendary Hawkeye coach Ralph Miller was known to smoke on the bench.

Then, of course, there was the March afternoon on the East Coast in 1980, when the Hawkeyes upset Georgetown in the Elite Eight to advance to the Final Four after being down by as much as 14 points in the second half. Steve Waite drove the baseline in the last seconds, made a shot, was fouled, and made the free throw to seal the victory.

Fans packed the Field House five hours before the team made it back from Philadelphia. Dan Gable and his wrestling team also arrived that night after winning a national championship, and their entrance served as an opening act for the basketball team.

"Finally, around 11:45, [former PA announcer] Father Bob Holzhammer announced that [the basketball team] had landed. Thirty minutes later, he announced they were in Iowa City. The buildup was unbelievable," former Hawkeye Pep Band drummer Robert Boyd said. "Finally, he announced their entrance, and the place exploded as Lute, Ronnie Lester, and the entire team — just off the bus — squeezed through the crowd onto a makeshift stage. They were all stunned. You could see they did not expect a packed house at 12:30 a.m.

"It was magical."

Olson put it a bit differently.

"When we walked in, there was just an unbelievable amount of noise," he said. "There were people on the floor and in the stands. It was crazy, at best."

High-flying hoops

The Field House saw more than its share of Hawkeye basketball, and many of the program's proudest moments and best players called it home.

Murray Wier is still the only Hawkeye to lead the nation in scoring, which he did in 1948 with an average of 21 points per game. He's one of just two consensus first-team All-Americans in school history, and Zabel said he still has fond memories of Wier's days in the Black and Gold.

"He was way ahead of his time; he had a 3-point shot before there was a 3-point shot," Zabel said. "He was just sensational, because he could hit shots from way out on the basketball court."

The 1970 Hawkeye basketball team — probably the best Iowa team ever, given that former Hawkeye Connie Hawkins was never allowed to play varsity basketball because of false accusations involving gambling affiliations — was even more prolific, setting a program and Big Ten scoring record unlikely to ever be broken. The squad scored 98.7 points per game and averaged 102.9 points per game in Big Ten play; the effort was carried by four players who averaged 17 or more points per game, led by John Johnson and "Downtown" Freddie Brown, both of whom later starred in the NBA.

"Somebody asked me one time to name my all-time Iowa basketball team, and [Johnson and Brown] were on it," Zabel said. "They were the best offensive team I've ever seen."

Iowa basketball has plenty of its own history, but it also shares an iconic Hawkeye with the football program. Nile Kinnick was the second-leading scorer for the 1937-38 squad that finished in a tie for fifth place in the Big Ten.

The birthplace of a dynasty

The dominating tradition of Hawkeye wrestling was also born in the Field House, and the program has made its mark in the memories it left behind.

The program produced 21 individual national champions, 72 All-Americans, and claimed seven team national championships in its 56 years in the Field House.

Ostrander recalled a match between Iowa's Mark DeAnna and Michigan's Mark Churella, a match he said captivated the crowd as has no bout before it or since.

"Unbelievable match," Ostrander said. "It ended up like 23-22, and DeAnna won. It was for the Big Ten championship. Churella was the defending national champion at that time, and what an exciting and electric experience that [match] was."

Legendary former head wrestling coach Dan Gable described what it was like to watch a meet from the stands, which he once did in an effort to help his wrestlers relax.

"You were right on top of the action in there," he said. "It was fantastic from a wrestling point of view."

The Hawkeyes' dominance wasn't limited to the college ranks — several Olympic champions trained and competed in the Field House. Terry McCann took gold in the 1960 Olympics in Rome, the trio of Randy Lewis and twin brothers Ed and Lou Banach claimed gold medals in the 1984 Los Angeles Games, and now-coach Tom Brands took the gold in 1996.

Proud to call it home

Iowa won three Big Ten championships in the Field House pool, which served as home to the swimming and diving programs until last year.

"The locker rooms were sufficient but had acquired a bit of a pest problem by the time I arrived on campus [in 2008]," Hawkeye senior swimmer Brian Tremml said. "Before every morning practice, the first person to enter the locker room went in wielding a kick board in order to kill the sleeping cockroaches.

"I'll never forget the day we all learned that cockroaches can fly — one of the scariest days of my life."

The temperature was difficult to regulate, a problem that was exacerbated when the steam pipes used for heating had degraded to the point where it was all or nothing. The heat had to be turned all the way up, or it had to be off altogether.

Bob Rydze, who has been Iowa's diving coach since 1975, said he and former head coach Glenn Patton had differing opinions on what "room temperature" needed to be. Divers need the room to be warm in order to stay loose and prevent injuries. But swimmers can't have it too warm, or their races become more strenuous and breathing more difficult.

Patton also wanted the building cooler to attract more fans. Eventually, the two coaches — and good friends — took things to extreme measures.

"One day, Coach Patton put a chain lock on the wheel that controlled the steam heater," Rydze said and laughed. "So I saw the lock, and the next day I came back with a saw and sawed it off."

Tremml said the building's apparent flaws actually played to the team's advantage.

"The word that we used to describe the Field House the most was 'scrappy,' and that was also an adjective our team adopted to describe our style of racing. It may not look pretty, but we'll step up against any team in the country and compete like we believe we can win."

Tremml recalled a meet against Wisconsin in 2008, when Iowa had no business winning but won anyway.

"That was the magical thing about the Field House; it propelled us to levels of competition that didn't seem plausible at the time," Tremml said.

Home of a swimming revolution

Michael Phelps can thank former Iowa swimming coach David Armbruster and swimmer Jack Sieg for a piece of his Olympic dominance. Phelps' strongest stroke, the butterfly, was invented in the Field House in 1935 after seven years of research and experimentation. Armburster based the stroke on the breaststroke after finding a swimmer's speed could be greatly increased by bringing her or his arms out of the water rather than fighting against the drag in the water, as in the breaststroke.

Sieg developed what is now known as the "dolphin kick" as part of the "Dolphin Show," an old Homecoming tradition in which the swimming and gymnastics teams put together a show. Armbuster decided his team would perform a Houdini act; the swimmers' hands and feet would be tied, and they would have to try to get from one end of the pool to the other and cover the 50-yard distance without coming up for air.

"Sieg was a breaststroker on the team, and he came up with this undulating kick, what we now call the 'dolphin kick,' " said former head coach Patton, who led the Black and Gold from 1975-2003. "He did that in the Dolphin Show, and it was a big hit."

The kick violated Fédération Internationale de Natation regulations at the time, but most breaststrokers were using the fly technique by 1938. FINA officially recognized the combination of the fly stroke and dolphin kick in 1952.

National powerhouse

The wrestling program isn't the only perennial championship contender that competed in the Field House. The men's gymnastics team became a national powerhouse in the early 1950s under former head coach Dick Holzaepzel, placing sixth or better at the NCAA championships eight times. Since Holzaepzel retired in 1966, the Hawkeyes have claimed six Big Ten titles, nine runner-ups, and an NCAA championship in 1969.

One of former men's coach [1979-2010] Tom Dunn's favorite memories took place in the Field House, when the team hosted the 2000 NCAA championships.

"The 2000 [NCAA] meet was pretty awesome," he said. "The top six teams make it to the finals, and there are six events. We were in first place after the first five events, but all six teams were separated by just tenths of a point. We ended up falling back to third place after the last event, but the atmosphere with that competition was great."

The program also has its share in sports innovation. Former Hawkeye George Nissen, who starred at Iowa in the 1930s, invented the modern trampoline in 1934 and later became a prominent figure in the world of gymnastics equipment.

Shenanigans

Another story regarding the pool is one not many people likely know about.

Brooks said there was once a wrestler that knew his way around the hallways that run underneath the pool; this wrestler also knew about the window in the old trainer's room that opened wide enough for a person to fit through. He led friends through the maze and into the building for basketball games — for a small fee, of course.

"Well, one time he was sick and couldn't go," Brooks said. "So one of his buddies decided to fill in for him. Only this buddy didn't really know his way down there, and they got lost. They ended up in the swimming pool."

Those aren't the only ones to have found their own way into the Field House pool. Jock Mahoney was a member of both the men's gymnastics and swim teams in the early 1940s. Mahoney — who eventually portrayed Tarzan on screen and became one of the top stuntmen in Hollywood — displayed a knack for thrills while in school. He once opened a trap door in the wrestling room floor and dove into the swimming pool below.

More than just a nest for the Hawkeyes

The Field House claims many historic moments in Hawkeye history, but to say that encapsulates all the building was about is to sell it woefully short. The Iowa high-school state basketball tournament and swimming meets were held there.

Zabel recalled one prep basketball team that stood out above all others. The 1950 Davenport High squad boasted five players who went on to play Division-I athletics and won the state title by beating four opponents by a combined score of 286-93.

"To me — and I realize it was a different time and a different place and basketball has changed today, so it's apples and oranges — but in comparing them with the teams of their day, they were by far the best I've ever seen relative to the teams they were playing," Zabel said.

The Field House has hosted celebrities and performers, and President Obama visited in 2010. The university holds dozens of physical-education classes in the building every semester in addition to intramurals and other recreation activities.

The ROTC also used the building for training, and when the military took over part of campus during World War II, there was quite a sight to be seen in the offices.

Several of the nation's later-to-be top college football coaches were assigned to the Field House and coached the Navy pre-flight football team. Oklahoma's Bud Wilkinson, Maryland's Jim Tatum, Minnesota's Bernie Bierman, and Missouri's Don Faurot were all part of the staff, as well as Forest Evashevski and Bump Elliott — long before they came to Iowa. Evashevski was an assistant coach and also taught hand-to-hand combat to the cadets.

"They all had offices in the Field House, which is where I interviewed them when I was a young reporter at The Daily Iowan," Zabel said. "Looking back, it is probably the greatest collection of active major college-football coaches ever assembled on one college campus. I'm talking about Hall of Fame coaches who have stadiums and highways named after them today."

Working in a war zone

ROTC has used the building for training for decades, and its presence at the Field House posed a challenge to all of the professors, coaches, and Recreational Services staff who had offices there during the Vietnam War.

The Field House became a target for protest groups because of its military presence and therefore needed to be under 24-hour guard. But it wasn't the police or the National Guard that provided security.

"We all took shifts and walked the hallways with ball bats, because students would break out the windows and try to break in the doors," Ostrander said. "I remember one time taking a ball bat to somebody's arm. They were trying to reach in and hit the panic bar to break into the armory."

Ostrander also recalled a night when he was on guard duty and was forced to bail then-wrestling coach Dave McCuskey out of jail. Protesters had blocked the intersection of Riverside Drive and Burlington Street, and McCuskey couldn't get through to the Field House to take up his guard shift. So he came up with a quick — albeit illegal — solution to the problem.

"He told the police, 'I'll show you how to clear 'em out,' " Ostrander said. "He drove through the police barricade and got out with a shotgun.

"But he got arrested, so I had to go bail him out later that night."

A living legacy

Given the flaws the building possessed, perhaps the things that made the Field House so great are the people who have passed through it. Each person has her or his memories and experiences in the facility, and each story is part of what makes it so special to so many people.

"The building is really like a person," Zabel said. "And it became a part of me."

The Field House has a history of living up to Tremml's "scrappy" description. One of current men's basketball color commentator and former Hawkeye Bobby Hansen's favorite memories is Iowa's triple-overtime game against Minnesota in 1982, which was supposed to be the final game in the Field House.

It must have seemed as though the building was holding on for dear life in that game, but the construction at Carver-Hawkeye Arena fell behind schedule and the Field House received another stay. It finally passed the torch in January 1983.

But this time, there will be no last-ditch effort to hang on just a little bit longer.

No second wind.

If the walls could talk, what might they tell us?


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