UMass drives for the hope
New basketball arena may spark more recognition of university
By Kevin Cullen, Boston Globe Staff, 1/31/1993
AMHERST – Of the more than 4,000 people who crammed into the Curry Hicks Cage early yesterday, only a handful were as old as the gymnasium itself, but Tommy Bishko was one of them.
“Well,” said Bishko, 72, the equipment manager who has seen every game at The Cage since 1947, the year the college here became the University of Massachusetts, “it's time to move.”
That it is. After 62 years as the home court for the men's basketball team, The Cage was officially retired following a nationally televised midnight game before a boisterous but orderly crowd treated to an 84-74 victory over Southwestern Louisiana.
This week, the basketball program, which has become nationally recognized, moves into a sleek $50 million arena that could literally and figuratively move UMass into the big time.
For generations, the flagship of the state's university system, and the biggest public university in New England, has battled geographic isolation, legislative indifference, and publicity that, when it rarely came, was often negative.
And it is likely, if somewhat ironic, that UMass will become wider known and more respected as an institution of higher learning because it now has a new institution for higher leaping.
Long the economic nerve center of the area, UMass could well become the entertainment and cultural center of western Massachusetts with the opening this week of the William D. Mullins Athletic and Convocation Center.
At the very least, the Mullins Center stands poised to steal concerts and other events from the Springfield Civic Center and pump revenue into this usually sleepy college town.
And most people, from yuppie professors to the townies who stop by Barselotti's for an after-work beer, seem willing to accept the trade-off of crowds and congestion that will come with the Mullins Center.
“The opening of the Mullins Center is a metaphor,” says Sen. Stanley C. Rosenberg (D-Amherst). “This is a new era for the university. The university is coming of age.”
The school is certainly miles beyond its “aggie” beginnings. Founded in 1863 as the Massachusetts Agricultural College, the institution had 250 students in 1906.
By 1931, enrollment had tripled, and the school's character had changed so much that its name did, too, to Massachusetts State College. That was also the year The Cage, named after athletic director Curry Hicks, opened.
In 1947 the name was changed to the University of Massachusetts, and by the mid-1970s undergraduate enrollment peaked and has remained at around 17,000.
Some 100 miles from the state capital, UMass has always labored in the shadow of Boston colleges and universities. Most of the state legislators whose votes controlled its fate never stepped foot on the 1,200-acre campus.
The Boston news media, long accused of having a vision that tends to end at Route 128, seldom pay attention to the school, except to document its problems, such as the racial confrontations that have dogged the school over the years.
“It's very frustrating,” says Rosenberg. “Out of approximately 90 academic programs, UMass has a dozen ranked in the top 10 nationally and another dozen in the top 20. You never hear about that.”
It is the basketball team's having been ranked in the Top 20 that has done most to put UMass on the map, both regionally and nationally.
Basketball coach John Calipari, who in less than five years has transformed a moribund program into one of the nation's most respected, says he has no illusions.
“We're a small part of a big university,” said Calipari, 33, considered one of the country's best young coaches. “But there's also no question that we've brought light, a very good light, to a good university. That's what our job is. That, and to see that our players graduate, which they are doing.”
Calipari is fiercely proud and defensive about the university's place, and is critical of the Boston media for largely ignoring the school's academics and athletics.
“We represent the state,” he says. “BU doesn't. BC doesn't. Harvard doesn't.”
Last spring, after UMass advanced to the final so-called “Sweet Sixteen” of the national tournament, Calipari became a much sought-after property. And there was some grumbling among academics when UMass upped Calipari's salary to $125,000, with incentives that could push it to $175,000.
But Calipari says he gets nothing but support from most university employees.
“Some people are never going to accept athletics, but most people in an academic setting are able to see the big picture, and the big picture is we bring revenue and exposure to the school,” says Calipari.
Indeed, UMass academic programs have gotten national, if fleeting, attention during the public service announcements that accompany the team's nationally televised appearances.
Not everyone is getting carried away with the success of UMass basketball. Rosenberg says that though in most states the state university would be at the forefront of an economic development program like that called for under Gov. Weld's proposed jobs bill, UMass is fighting just to be included.
“It shows we have a long way to go,” says Rosenberg.
The budget cuts of the 1980s, meanwhile, devastated many academic programs, which have a long way to catch up.
The new arena is named for a late state representative from Ludlow, long a voice in the wilderness on Beacon Hill looking after UMass' interests. Mullins believed a modern arena would be one way to lure his colleagues to, and create a Beacon Hill constituency for, UMass.
And as UMass appears headed for another berth in the NCAA tournament in March, there may be more lawmakers under the Mullins Center roof than the Golden Dome next month.
UMass says state AG probing sports center
By Sean P. Murphy, Boston Globe Staff, 2/4/1993
The office of Attorney General L. Scott Harshbarger is investigating the construction of the new $50 million William Mullins athletic complex at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, according to university officials.
University president Michael Hooker was told by Harshbarger in late December that state authorities were “in the process of conducting an investigation concerning the construction of the Mullins Center,” said Laslo Boyd, a spokesman for Hooker.
The allegations apparently concern the quality of construction, although Boyd said Hooker was assured by Harshbarger that there were no concerns about the safety of the new facility, which will host its first event tonight when the UMass basketball team plays West Virginia.
Thomas Samoluk, a spokesman for Harshbarger, said the office has a practice of neither confirming nor denying the existence of any investigation.
Suffolk Construction Co., the general contractor for the Mullins Center, issued a statement defending its work. “It is unfortunate that, at this time, a disgruntled individual makes totally unfounded criticisms regarding the construction of the Mullins Center.
“This person simply is trying to diminish the significant achievement that this project represents for both UMass and the Commonwealth.”
The company also said, “we stand behind its quality, excellence of construction, durability and service to the UMass community.”
Susan Gray, marketing director for Suffolk, declined to identify the person considered by the company to be “disgruntled.”
Frank Callahan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Building Trades Council, which represents 15 local unions, said the council objected when the contract was awarded in 1990 to Suffolk, which uses nonunion labor.
Callahan said the council objected on the basis of what he said was Suffolk's poor safety record at other construction projects.
The Mullins Center includes a 9,500-seat basketball and hockey arena.
It's a housewarming for the Minutemen
By Joe Burris, Boston Globe Staff, 2/5/1993
UMassHoops.com note: This article is light on actual game play details, probably due to the late tip-off and early newspaper press time.
AMHERST – Searchlights pointed out the place long before patrons reached Route 9. Crowds came in at about 8 p.m., yelling and running as if they were being attacked. There was even an Elvis sighting, proving once again that the King gets around better dead than alive.
Just before tipoff, a Rod Serling-like voice blared over the loudspeaker, reminding patrons of the evening's theme:
“You have just entered the Cal-Zone.”
OK, so the intro needs a little work. But University of Massachusetts basketball fans, many of whom wore “Cal-Zone” T-shirts to show their support for coach John Calipari, hardly needed any practice. For the second consecutive week, they threw a big party to honor a change of venue. Last Friday they whooped it up at midnight to commemorate the Minutemen's departure from Curry Hicks Cage. Last night they celebrated the long-anticipated opening of the Mullins Convocation Center.
While Greater Boston filled Larry Bird's ear with sweet accolades, Western Mass. held a big turnout for the Mullins grand opening and game against Atlantic 10 foe West Virginia. The game was broadcast on ESPN, marking the third consecutive UMass game aired nationally. The Minutemen's last game at the Cage was on ESPN, and its Jan. 24 game at the Worcester Centrum was on ABC.
Calipari entered the Cal-Zone early, broke bread with a few university reps at a reception, then quickly departed. “If I seem nervous, it's because I have to go coach a basketball game,” he said.
The Minutemen entertained a formidable opponent as part of the festivities. While UMass fans talk Temple when asked about tough conference opponents, the Minutemen have struggled just as much with West Virginia at home. UMass had claimed just one regular-season win at home against the Mountaineers in the Calipari era. Last year at the Cage, the Mountaineers knocked UMass out of the Top 25 rankings with a 76-75 win. That was the last game UMass lost in the Cage, as it won its last 14. The Minutemen avenged the loss with a 97-91 win in the Atlantic 10 tournament final.
“Scheduling the game against West Virginia was really because of television,” said Calipari, who was concerned with his team's play this week at practice in the new building.
“I wasn't happy at all with the practice we had two days ago. I was a little more pleased with the practice we had Wednesday. It's been tough. We're a tired team. We're just hoping to find the energy and the adrenaline it takes to win games.”
|Fast break points||6|
|Points off turnovers||12|
|Second chance points||7|
|Points in the paint||29|
|Fast break points||7|
|Points off turnovers||11|
|Second chance points||16|
|Points in the paint||37|
|Score by Periods||1st||2nd||OT1||OT2||OT3||Final|
|Officials||T Lopes, J Burr, A McDonald|
|Technical Fouls||1 (UM: bench)|