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February 9, 2011

GOLDEN CELEBRATION - In 50 years of existence, Cassell Coliseum has provided many terrific thrills for Tech fans - and many nightmares for opponents

By: Jimmy Robertson

The beautiful building is hard to miss: a stunning display of concrete and architecture sitting on the corner of Washington Street and Spring Road on Virginia Tech’s campus. It features a glass front entrance, domed roof and concrete buttresses practically tethering it to the ground. And on the occasional winter evening, one can stand outside and hear the deafening roar emitting from within.

She is the oldest of Tech’s athletics facilities. The grand lady, if you will, of a burgeoning athletics program continuing its rise to national prominence.

She was the brainchild of one man; a visionary who happened to be a farmer’s son from Rural Retreat, Va.; a Virginia Tech graduate; and a gentleman who never left Blacksburg once he graduated, serving many roles at Tech as an employee spanning 31 years in the middle of the 20th century.

She is Cassell Coliseum, the home of Virginia Tech’s basketball, volleyball and wresting programs, and she turned 50 years old this past January.

And Stuart Kent Cassell brought her to life.

The Beginning

Workers started building the Coliseum in 1961 at the corner of Washington Street and Spring Road. The project cost $3 million, and Tech played its first game in the building on Jan. 3, 1962.

To say that Mr. Cassell was one of the driving forces behind the building of the Coliseum would be misleading.

“He was the driving force behind the project,” said 84-year-young T. Marshall Hahn, the former president at Tech from 1962-74.

Hahn started his second stint at Tech – he was the head of the physics department from 1954-57 – in July of 1962, which was about the time when workers wrapped up the Coliseum. He envisioned a university that competed in athletics on a national scale, and he quickly learned that he and Cassell shared that same vision.

In the late 1950s, Cassell, who was the chief business officer at the time and later became the vice president of the school, saw the need for a new basketball arena to replace the outdated War Memorial Gymnasium, built in 1926 to memorialize those who lost their lives in World War I.

Cassell first needed to convince the state legislature in Richmond to allow him to appropriate funds for the project, and those government officials balked at first. So Cassell decided to pitch the project as a “student center” – a place for students to play recreational sports, while also serving as a home for the Hokies’ basketball team.

“There was no way the state was going to fund a new basketball arena,” said Ray Smoot, a 1969 graduate of Tech who has worked in the school’s administration for 32 years and worked with Cassell in the 1970s. “Doing it this way [as a student center] made it palatable for the state to authorize the project.”

That was just the beginning of the battle. Some wanted an indoor track within the arena, but Cassell wanted no part of that. In fact, most agree Cassell never really intended for the Coliseum to be a student center.

On the contrary, he wanted a 10,000-seat basketball arena. He wanted the largest arena in Virginia, but state government officials viewed 10,000 seats as excessive. They recommended a 6,000-seat arena.

Eventually, both sides compromised on 8,000. Workers broke ground in 1961, and construction started on a project that was to cost nearly $3 million – a bargain by today’s standards.

Cassell, though, was stubborn. He was determined to have 10,000 seats within the arena.

“He found a seat manufacturer that made seats that were a little smaller than the normal seat,” Smoot said. “So that’s how he got 10,000 seats in there.

“It all really is a great testament to him that he was able to navigate through the political process and to have the vision to look ahead. There really was a need for 10,000 seats.”

Cassell and Tech AD Frank Moseley wanted to open the arena – to be christened Virginia Tech Coliseum – on Dec. 8, 1961, against perennial power Kentucky. But the project fell behind. The team, thus, changed its schedule and opened the season with two games on the road and four games at neutral sites (two each in Birmingham, Ala., and Jacksonville, Fla.).

By the end of 1961, the arena was completed enough to play. So in 1962, Tech was ready for its first game at its new home.

The First Game

Cassell Coliseum used to be the home of the “Fighting Gobblers,” but in the early 1980s, the school started going by the nickname “Hokies.”

Tech’s administration decided to open the Coliseum on the night of January 3, 1962, for the Hokies’ game against an Alabama squad coached by the legendary Wimp Sanderson, and Howard Pardue still remembers the feelings he had before, during and after the game.

“It’s amazing how vividly I remember that night and game,” said Pardue, a sophomore then. “There was so much excitement and electricity. We had all white warm-ups, and I remember we came down through the stands and the crowd went wild. I still get chill bumps thinking about it.”

Unfortunately for fans, the seats hadn’t arrived yet. But Tech’s athletics administration decided to go ahead with the game anyway, and the fans, nearly 8,000 of them according to the box score, sat on the concrete, eagerly wanting to see a great team in a new arena.

And it was a great team. Yes, the team had lost Chris Smith, one of the greatest players ever to play at Tech, from the 1960-61 squad, but Tech returned Bucky Keller, a scoring machine at small forward, and Lee Melear, a sweet-shooting left-hander at guard.

Calvin Jacobs and Barry Benfield took care of things in the post, and two football standouts, Mike Cahill and Jake Adams, provided some toughness. Pardue – who was in range once he got in the gym – and scrappy point guard Frank Alvis made the Hokies a well-balanced group.

Not to mention, legendary coach Chuck Noe manned the bench with his shrewd assistant Bill Matthews, a former Tech player.

Before the game, conversation centered on who would score the first points in the new arena. Everyone wanted to be the first.

It turned out to be one of the least likely players.

Tech won the opening tip and the ball went to Alvis. He dribbled up the court, and with no one guarding him, he pulled up for a 15-footer.


“The tip came to me, and I guess my man got lost in the shuffle somehow,” the Athens, W.Va., native said. “So I just pulled up and shot it.

“I’m not sure it was that big of a deal at the time. But years later, I was interviewed for a story about the Coliseum, and I said, ‘Well, I scored the first two points in the Coliseum.’ It became a big deal about 10 or 15 years after I graduated.”

Alvis’ bucket started an avalanche for the Hokies, who rolled past the Tide, 91-67. Keller scored 22 points and Pardue finished with 20.

The crowd was deafening, as it often was for games at War Memorial Gym. Tech fans continuously packed the Coliseum for the remainder of that season, and largely as a result, the team won every single home game. Tech finished 19-6 that season.

But this team began the tradition of winning inside the Coliseum. Tech basketball teams won the first 16 games in the arena (which, by the way, extended the home winning streak, in both War Memorial and the Coliseum, to 41 games).

“I’m still proud to be a part of the first team to play in the new arena,” Melear said. “There was nothing this big in Virginia at the time. We were kind of behind the times, and the new Coliseum was the showplace in Virginia.”

Pardue agreed.

“It showed we were serious about building a basketball program,” he said.

Undeniable Success

A lot has changed at Virginia Tech over the years, including the baseball field, which used to be behind Cassell Coliseum. But the Cassell looks today just like it did 50 years ago.

The Coliseum was renamed on Nov. 5, 1976, and dedicated on Sept. 17, 1977, to Mr. Cassell, who passed away unexpectedly in October of 1976. The university made this decision to honor Cassell for his hard work and leadership not just to athletics, but also to the school as a whole.

It now serves as home to Tech’s volleyball and wresting programs. But one thing hasn’t changed. In the 50 years since that January night, Tech’s home has become a graveyard for opponents mainly because of good players, good coaches and a rather rabid fan base.

Particularly in hoops, certain games within its confines will never be forgotten. In December of 1962, Pardue, Melear and company destroyed fifth-ranked Mississippi State, 82-65. Two years later, Tech beat third-ranked Vanderbilt.

In the late 1970s, Ron Bell rallied Tech from a 25-point deficit with 15 minutes to go (and an 11-point deficit with 1:54 left) to an unbelievable 70-69 victory over Memphis State. A year later, Bell and Tic Price led the Hokies to an 87-71 blasting of 10th-ranked Syracuse.

In the 1980s, Dale Solomon, Dell Curry and Bimbo Coles provided some incredible memories. Curry helped Tech stun top-ranked Memphis 69-56 in 1983, and his 28 points lifted Tech to a 76-72 victory over the second-ranked Tigers in 1986.

The 1990s, of course, provided more thrills, especially under Bill Foster. In 1995, Travis Jackson’s jumper buried New Mexico State in the NIT, and Tech fans stormed the floor, as the Hokies advanced to Madison Square Garden, where they would ultimately capture the NIT crown.

Many consider that game and the 1986 game against Memphis as the loudest the Coliseum has ever been.

“That’s my fondest memory of playing in Cassell,” said Ace Custis, who had his jersey number retired after a great career from 1993-97. “Travis hitting that 3-point shot to send us to the NIT Final Four … it happened in slow motion to me. Then to see the crowd rush the floor was just amazing. That’s a memory I will always hold on to.”

The home court advantage isn’t exclusive to the men’s team. In 1998-99, the Tech women’s team went unbeaten at home, a season that included two NCAA Tournament wins over St. Peters and Auburn – both in front of large crowds. The Tech women finished a school-best 28-3 that season.

The men’s team added even more memories in a big way since joining the ACC, with wins over No. 7 Duke in 2005 and No. 1 North Carolina in 2007.

How difficult a place is Cassell Coliseum for opponents? Well, Sanderson and Alabama came back to Cassell Coliseum in 1989 and again lost.

“I told our people we ain’t never comin’ back here,” Sanderson told Bill Roth in a Kroger Roth Report last year. “You go ahead and check. ’Bama ain’t come back since. This is a damn tough place to play.”

The Future


1. No. 16 Hokies 76, No. 2 Memphis 72 (Feb. 1, 1986) – Behind Dell Curry’s 28 points and 10,000 screaming fans, Tech beat the Tigers, who were slated to move to No. 1 in the polls. Many consider the crowd for this game the loudest ever at Cassell.

2. Tech 64, New Mexico State 61 (March 22, 1995) – Ace Custis passed the ball to Travis Jackson, who buried a 3-pointer as time expired, sending Tech to New York City, and later, the NIT crown.

3. Tech 69, No. 1 Memphis 56 (Jan. 10, 1983) – Curry and Keith Colbert, both freshmen, played well. But Reggie Steppe’s 21 points paced the Hokies in front of a raucous crowd excited about a No. 1 team’s first visit to Blacksburg.

4. Tech 94, No. 1 UNC 88 (Jan. 13, 2007) – Zabian Dowdell’s 23 points and A.D. Vassallo’s 17 off the bench led the Hokies past the Tyler Hansbrough-led Tar Heels.

5. Hokies 67, No. 7 Duke 65 (Feb. 18, 2005) – After getting beat by 35 points just three weeks earlier in Durham, Tech returned home; and Dowdell’s 3-pointer with 16 seconds left helped the Hokies to a stunner over J.J. Redick and the Blue Devils.

6. Tech 70, Memphis 69 (Feb. 9, 1977) – The Hokies trailed by 25 points with 15 minutes left and by 11 with 1:54 to go. But Ron Bell’s two free throws with six seconds left capped an unbelievable comeback.

7. Tech 76, Auburn 61 (March 15, 1999) – Amy Wetzel scored 18 points as the Hokies, under coach Bonnie Henrickson, rolled Auburn in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in front of nearly 10,000 boisterous fans.

8. Hokies 141, Southern Miss 133, 2 OT (Feb. 6, 1988) – Bimbo Coles scored 51 points as Tech rallied from 18 points down to beat the Golden Eagles in two overtimes. The 141 points are a school record.

9. Tech 85, West Virginia 82 (Jan. 29, 1962) – Rod Thorn and the Mountaineers visited Blacksburg for the first time in 11 years, but Bucky Keller (28 points) and Howard Pardue (26) helped snap WVU’s 20-game, Southern Conference winning streak.

10. Hokies 90, William & Mary 86, 2 OT (Feb. 10, 1964) – Down four with five seconds left in regulation, Paul Long took a jumper that fell. After he shot it, John Wetzel got fouled trying for a rebound. He made both free throws to send the game to OT, and Tech later escaped.

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On Jan. 8 of this year, the Virginia Tech men’s basketball program won its 500th game at Cassell. The arena has become synonymous with winning. In 50 years, the Hokies have incurred just one losing season at home.

The winning also extends to the women’s basketball program. Tech started women’s basketball in 1977, and since then, the women’s team has posted a 330-127 mark at the Cassell.

The building itself looks much as it did 50 years ago in large part because the Tech athletics department continues to make improvements. Work was done on the roof in 1996, and restoration and sealing of the concrete exterior took place in 1997. Inside, the athletics department has upgraded locker rooms, added video boards and renovated the concourse area – all within the past decade.

“That’s the thing that has surprised me,” Pardue said. “It still looks new. Jim Weaver [Tech AD] and the administration have made sure it still looks good. It’s still impressive. It’s a great arena for basketball.”

Pardue, who hadn’t been back to Blacksburg since being inducted into the Virginia Tech Sports Hall of Fame in 1992, came back for the Florida State game, as the athletics department recognized the 1961-62 team for being the first to play in Cassell. Melear, Cahill, Alvis and Jacobs also came back.

The athletics department has been recognizing other basketball greats throughout the season to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Cassell. Allan Bristow, Curry and Custis were honored, and Coles will be recognized at the Duke game on Feb. 26. Also, former coach Charlie Moir, the school’s all-time winningest coach, was recognized.

Cassell Coliseum figures to be the Hokies’ hoops home for quite some time into the future. There are no plans to build a fancy new arena, and really, there isn’t a need.

Thanks to Stuart Cassell’s foresight 50 years ago, Tech’s Cassell provides for everything the athletics department needs.

“It’s so well-suited for its purpose,” Hahn said. “You just couldn’t have better viewing lines, and you couldn’t have a better fan-friendly environment. It makes sense to add to the facility instead of spending $100 million on a building that wouldn’t have as great a viewing lines and marginal extra capacity.

“Stuart knew what he was doing when he planned that building.”