Special to Page 2
LOS ANGELES -- When O.J. Mayo began his junior year at Cincinnati's North College Hill in the fall of 2005, rumors surfaced that he was interested in attending a West Coast university upon graduation.
This was big news at the time. Regarded as perhaps the top high school junior hoopster in the country, it seemed Mayo would be choosing UCLA over Duke, North Carolina and any number of other traditional powerhouses. The home of Wooden, Alcindor, Walton, and more national championships than anyone else looked poised to add another all-timer to its proud history.
But by the time he went to play in a tournament in Los Angeles in December 2005, it had become clear that UCLA wasn't Mayo's leading suitor. Against all odds, it was UCLA's little brother -- football-rich, basketball-poor USC -- that had caught the attention of one of the nation's best talents. It took nearly a full year from that point for the story to unfold. ESPN reported in July that Mayo planned to attend USC. A later report stated that the Trojans were one of three finalists for Mayo's services, along with Kansas State and Florida. But finally, on Nov. 15, the 6-foot-5 guard who's drawn comparisons to Dwyane Wade signed a letter of intent to become a Trojan. This was huge news.
Mayo said multiple factors went into his decision. He liked coach Tim Floyd's NBA experience. He saw L.A. as a great place to market himself, following in the footsteps of Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart. But on an unofficial visit to USC's campus during the recruitment phase, something else won him over.
"I took O.J. over to the Galen Center, before the building was even close to being finished," said Carol Dougherty, USC's senior associate athletic director. "You had to use your imagination. But he was just so excited. He said, 'I want to see the floor I'm going to play on, my practice courts, my locker room.' We've attracted a whole bunch of other student-athletes who have been equally enthusiastic. The Galen Center has been huge in helping with recruiting."
USC's new arena and adjoining pavilion (total price tag: $140 million) have started to transform people's perceptions of a school known mostly for football. And USC's not alone. In an effort to compete in the loaded ACC, Virginia opened the jaw-dropping $130 million John Paul Jones Arena this fall. Four years earlier, Maryland opened its $125 million Comcast Center. All across America, universities are building palatial new stadiums, arenas and practice facilities, in an all-out effort to attract the best and brightest recruits, and keep up with the next guy.
Most professional sports stadiums and arenas are built in large part with huge gobs of public funds -- some almost entirely so. Major League Baseball has made a living out of playing the extortion game with various North American cities: Shell out hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars, the folks in Minneapolis, Miami and other outposts were told, or we'll move the team to a city that will really appreciate it. The clock ran out on Montreal, and likely will in Oakland too, with Washington, D.C., and Fremont, Calif., the beneficiaries.
Universities don't have the same options -- USC can't threaten to move its basketball team to Tijuana, much less actually relocate there. But it does have an army of well-heeled alumni, ready, willing and able to step up and donate huge sums of money in support of their alma mater.
125 Years In The Making
When USC recruited star prep guard Paul Westphal in the late 1960s, the school went all out. Here was a local kid and budding superstar willing to consider the Trojans, at a time when UCLA was in the midst of the greatest dynasty in the history of college athletics. School officials took him around campus, giving him a glimpse of the pristine red brick buildings, the immaculate cardinal and gold flower beds, and a student body that included thousands of impressive errr student bodies. Then, the coup de grace: Blueprints of a shiny new arena, one that Westphal would call home by his senior season, if not earlier. Bowled over by USC's sales pitch, Westphal committed to the school, becoming one of the best players in Trojans basketball history. Of course, the new arena was never built, not until nearly 40 years later.
Dougherty laughed upon recalling the story. Sure, USC promised Westphal a new arena. But the school also owns an artist's rendering of a new arena from the early 1940s. It gets worse. When USC planned its 125-year anniversary in 2005, school officials sought out old photos and documents that the athletic department could use for a display. The prize find was a plan written by the founding clergy of the university, written in 1880. The outline sketched out the order in which various buildings would be erected on campus. A sports and entertainment facility was slated to be the third structure built. Whoops.
The Trojans have played their games anywhere they could over the years. Sites have included the neighboring Shrine Auditorium -- a great old building for awards shows, not so much for hoops; the old Pan-Pacific Auditorium in the Fairfax District a few miles west of campus; and the L.A. Memorial Sports Arena. Opened in 1959, the Sports Arena was the top indoor sports facility in the city for years, hosting the Democratic National Convention in 1960, many boxing title fights, and the Lakers, Clippers and Kings at various times. But the arena was several blocks off campus, south of the adjacent L.A. Memorial Coliseum. Moreover, it became a depressing place to play over the years -- a dungeon with dreary lighting, woeful concession stands and all the energy and charm of a crypt.
Sure, UCLA had a grand tradition on its side. But Dougherty practically winced, thinking about all the great players in the fertile L.A. area who bypassed USC due largely to their subpar home court. Other than Westphal and NBA great Bill Sharman, you'd be hard-pressed to think of an elite player in Trojans history. That is, unless you count Harold "Baby Jordan" Miner. In retrospect, it's amazing that two of the best female basketball players of all time, Cheryl Miller and Lisa Leslie, suited up for the Trojans.
The repeated failed attempts to build a new arena created a culture of resignation. When Dougherty shifted to USC's athletic department eight years ago, her job was to oversee construction of a new home court for the Trojans' basketball and volleyball teams. But due to past failures, the school told Dougherty it wouldn't break ground on a new arena until every penny had been secured, in cash. USC would later soften its stance, but the university remained vigilant about staying on top of key financial goals in constructing a new building.
Schools can fund new arenas using a number of vehicles, from luxury suite revenue to personal seat licenses. But many projects require at least one very big donation from a benevolent alum to make it happen. The university found its white knights in philanthropists and USC alums Louis and Helene Galen. After USC quarterback Carson Palmer won the 2002 Heisman Trophy, the Galens kicked in $10 million to the project. In August 2003, the Galens donated an additional $25 million to have the building named after them. They later added another $15 million, bringing the total donation to $50 million and securing the name of the Galen Center for the arena and the adjoining offices and practice facilities.
With the key piece of financing in place, USC broke ground on the HNTB-designed Galen Center on Oct. 31, 2004. The building opened less than two years later, for a women's volleyball game between USC and Stanford. Dougherty said the school is a couple months away from securing the final cash commitments for the project. All told, private donors account for $94 million in funding, corporate sponsors $35.3 million, and seat licenses the remaining $10.5 million.
So what did USC get for the money? A visit to the Galen Center for the men's hoops team's Pac-10 opener against Washington revealed a building that features a red-brick facade which meshes well with the surrounding neighborhood and adjacent campus. "It doesn't look at all like it was just built," Dougherty said.
Bas-relief sculptures of athletes decorate the outside of the building. Walking through the concourses, the building has a bit of a sparse, industrial feel to it, with high ceilings showing exposed ductwork, and walls kept simple and largely untouched. But the playing area and seating bowl underscore how big an upgrade the Galen Center is over the old Sports Arena. The seats are close to the court, with the second deck lacking the miles-away feel of the Trojans' former home. The 11 finished luxury suites are loaded with amenities, as are the locker rooms and practice facilities. And the arena's best feature is a huge picture window behind the north basket, which offers a stunning view of the downtown skyline.
Recruiting has picked up across the board. In addition to Mayo, the men's basketball team has attracted other very promising players, including standout freshman Taj Gibson. The women's basketball team landed Jacki Gemelos, who is considered the No. 1 recruit in this season's freshman class. Both volleyball teams have also brought in some top-flight talent.
With students away for semester break, the Galen Center reached only about half its 10,258 capacity for the Dec. 28 men's hoops tilt against the highly ranked Huskies. But the double-OT thriller proved to be one of the most exciting games in recent school history, with the Trojans eventually pulling out an 86-79 win. USC has been very good at home this season, losing only twice in 11 games, to South Carolina on opening night and to Washington State on Dec. 30. The Trojans topped previously undefeated Oregon Thursday night in Eugene, and look like one of the Pac-10's surprise teams in the early going. Next year, they'll have some Mayo with that.
No Southern Hospitality
While USC has been tough to beat at the Galen Center, Virginia has been an absolute nightmare. Wednesday night's 108-87 shellacking of Gonzaga kept the Cavaliers' home record perfect in John Paul Jones Arena's inaugural season.
But the men's basketball team's perfect record is just one of many reasons why fans of the Hoos (as UVa. teams are commonly called by students and fans) are juiced about their new arena. Unencumbered by the tight space restrictions USC faced in downtown L.A., and fueled by its commitment to Jeffersonian architecture, Virginia's John Paul Jones Arena may have the Galen Center beat. Just don't let Jon Oliver hear you say that.
"The whole idea of an arms race in intercollegiate athletics -- we tend to shy away from that," said Oliver, Virginia's executive associate athletics director.
Whatever Oliver's semantic concerns, it's hard to survive in the ACC without the best facilities. Virginia's old arena, University Hall, was built in 1965 and included only 8,457 seats. Though its tight confines often evoked the same kind of raucous atmosphere found at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium, Maryland's old Cole Field House and other ACC gyms, it also lacked the modern amenities found in newer arenas. More importantly for Virginia faithful, its teams had fallen behind conference rivals in multiple sports. The men's basketball team, most notably, had failed to produce a true superstar since Ralph Sampson patrolled the lane in the 1980s.
After attending a basketball game at U-Hall in Jan. 2000, commodity trader and Virginia alumnus Paul Tudor Jones asked school officials when the building was going to be replaced. A few months later, the school had secured a substantial financial commitment from Jones, one which would eventually total $35 million, toward a new arena.
Despite the school's yearning for a new facility, its ownership of the land on which the arena would eventually be built, and other factors pointing to the project getting done, the JPJ wasn't a slam dunk. Corporate sponsorship, a growing trend in the 1990s, has declined in recent years in both the pro and college ranks. (PSINet Stadium or Enron Field, anyone?) That leaves private donations as the single major driver for university sports facilities, just as they are for engineering buildings, dining halls and campus centers. Even with Jones' commitment in hand, the university had to sketch out a multitiered financial model to make the project work.
Virginia quickly sold all 19 of its luxury suites, two at $75,000, eight at $70,000 and seven at $65,000 per year. With costs projected to rise, the school expects suites to net $11.6 million in revenue in the arena's first 10 years. A total of 112 courtside seats were made available for sale -- 92 were snapped up for a period of 20 years each. The cost? A cool $250,000 per seat. The school banked another $34.5 million in gift revenue from seat-holder rights for premium seating, with fans anteing up $5,000 or more per seat license and donors picking seats based on the size of their donations. Philanthropy and naming rights, including Jones' honoring of his father in the arena's name, banked another $62 million, for a total fund-raising effort of $129.1 million.
Oliver toured a slew of college and pro arenas, looking for ways to make the JPJ stand out. Designed by VMDO Architects and Ellerbe Becket, the building includes the requisite dedicated practice facilities for each of the four varsity basketball and volleyball teams. But it goes beyond that, offering such touches as a state-of-the-art hydrotherapy room, dining and study halls, locker rooms loaded with dark wood and high-end design features, a jaw-dropping scoreboard, and even a Virginia Athletics Hall of Fame.
"For student-athletes, both current ones and ones we recruit, a lot of it is visual," Oliver said. "When they walk in, we want them to say, 'Wow, this is special.'"
JPJ was anything but special for Arizona when the Wildcats opened their men's basketball season at the new arena on Nov. 12. In front of a capacity crowd of 15,219, Virginia knocked off the visiting Cats 93-90, rallying after trailing by 19 in the first half. It's the only loss on the Wildcats' ledger, and the only thing standing between Arizona and a top-two ranking. Next up for the Hoos? Find a 12th-grade Ralph Sampson, bring him to Charlottesville, and let the new digs do the talking.