Call me a cockeyed sentimentalist but the state high school basketball tournament hasn't been the same since the Illinois High School Association moved it from Assembly Hall in Champaign to Carver Arena in Peoria.
I said it then and I'll say it again: Assembly Hall is an architectural masterpiece; Carver Arena is just another gym.
So you can imagine my reaction when the issue of Assembly Hall's future was raised. Should it be renovated? Can it be renovated? Or should it be replaced by a new basketball facility?
You don't replace the Lincoln Memorial.
I remember when Assembly Hall was a big hole in the ground across the street from Memorial Stadium.
I remember walking into Assembly Hall for the first Illinois basketball game.
I remember covering the last state high school basketball tournament in old Huff Gym and the first tournament in Assembly Hall.
That was in 1963.
It is 45 years later and there still isn't a comparable facility on any college campus in the country. Assembly Hall is a one-of-a-kind marvel, not a cookie-cutter blueprint.
Renovate it? Yes. Modernize it? Yes. Replace it? Are you kidding? Tear it down? Unforgivable.
Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther has stated that it will cost $180 to $200 million to renovate the building, a far cry from the original cost of $8.5 million. He is calling for a complete restructuring...gut the inside to make room for revenue-producing luxury boxes, closer-to-the-floor seating, escalators, air conditioning, more and better bathrooms, more concession stands, bigger locker rooms.
Dick Foley wonders if it can be done. Foley, who played on Illinois basketball teams in the 1940s, was project manager for construction of Assembly Hall. A few years ago, he was asked for recommendations on how to renovate the facility. He looked at the original plans and determined the floor can be lowered.
"But I don't know how they will support the luxury boxes. Off the buttresses? In my opinion, I don't know how they will support them from the upper roof," Foley said. "I'm guessing they will remodel and not build a new arena. There is no reason to believe the building is wearing out."
Foley questions if the University of Illinois can support two arenas, one for basketball and Assembly Hall for concerts and plays and other activities. He doubts Assembly Hall would be demolished. Why escalators? he asks. "I know of no arena in the country that empties faster than Assembly Hall," he said.
Like many sentimentalists and traditionalists, Foley said he can't envision Illinois basketball not being played in Assembly Hall.
"But I recall when Dave Downey and Bill Small didn't want to move away from Huff Gym," he said. "They were worried they'd lose their home-court advantage. Today, however, people still talk about Assembly Hall with feelings of awe."