John Shearer: Stokely Athletics Center At UT Closes

Monday, December 17, 2012 - by John Shearer

As longtime University of Tennessee athletic department employee Gus Manning walked through the numerous hallways of Stokely Athletics Center in Knoxville on Thursday, he said hello to countless fellow athletic department staffers.

But he was also saying goodbye to one old friend – the Stokely building itself.

“I hate to see it go, but it was great during its tenure,” the 89-year-old said as he offered a lengthy tour of the entire aging facility. “It was great in its days.

“(Former UT men’s basketball coach) Ray Mears really got things going here in this building.”

As has been announced, the mid-20th century building – which many Chattanoogans visited for UT basketball games and other events -- will be entirely vacated by Dec. 31. Demolition is scheduled to begin in the near future on a date to be determined.

The UT Bookstore-operated Vol souvenir shop inside the building closed Saturday, and the remaining athletic department employees who still have been using the building will be relocated to various other athletic-related facilities around campus in the next few days.

The Army and Air Force ROTC departments are in Hoskins Library and will later occupy the Panhellenic Building, while the Alumni Call Center will be in Andy Holt Tower.

Although some older basketball facilities at other major colleges have been preserved and are continuing to be used for various sports, Stokely will not experience such a future.

A variety of factors – including the fact that the Lady Vols years ago under Pat Summitt became too big a draw for Stokely – sealed its doom.

“The tear-down decision was due to the prohibitive cost of renovating the building and bringing it up to the latest fire codes and ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) codes, plus the need to make the space available for alternative use in the future,” said UT spokeman Charles Primm.

Although no firm decision has been made long term for the site, it could possibly serve campus parking needs initially.

According to former UT development director Charlie Brakebill, the idea for an expanded basketball arena came about in a rather roundabout manner. A smaller, 7,800-seat facility using the current west end entrance opened in 1958.

Using Defense Department funds in its construction and housing ROTC offices and classrooms from the start, the building was initially called the Armory-Fieldhouse.

However, a few years later Mr. Brakebill was riding around with UT president Dr. Andy Holt and UT benefactor William B. Stokely Jr. of the Stokely-Van Camp canning company in Holt’s green Pontiac.

Mr. Brakebill remembered that Dr. Holt pointed to a site and said that was where the university hoped to build the William B. Stokely Theater.

“Mr. Stokely replied, ‘Well, Andy, you can use the money I’ve already given toward a theater if you want, but I didn’t care much about theater when I was in school.”

Mr. Stokely’s father had played sports at UT, and eventually UT realized that his $500,000 gift in 1960s’ money should go to expanding the fieldhouse to 12,700 seats. Officials also decided to give it a new name -- Stokely Athletics Center.

Mr. Brakebill, 88, recalled that Mr. Stokely was able to view the nearly completed facility – with a reconfigured court -- on Oct. 15, 1966, when Tennessee played Alabama in football. But he died just two days later while visiting his mother in Newport.

While Mr. Stokely helped build the arena, coach Mears helped fill the seats. With his enthusiastic style that included wearing an orange sport coat and offering entertaining halftime shows, he helped build Tennessee into a winning basketball program after his arrival in 1962.

Among his players were black pioneer Larry Robinson, stars Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld, and current Baylor School coach Austin Clark.

Under coach coach Mears and later Don DeVoe, the Vols won or tied for four Southeastern Conference regular season championships – 1967, 1972, 1977 and 1982 – while using a tartan court for a period instead of the traditional wood floor. Coaches Mears and DeVoe also had a combined 19-6 record at Stokely against traditional power Kentucky.

Like a number of older facilities, Stokely had somewhat of an unusual seating arrangement. Two levels were behind each goal and a low, sloping level of pull-out and permanent seats ran up each side. 

Despite the magic of Stokely, the Vol men often struggled in the NCAA tournament at other arenas during these years. However, one UT sports team did not. The Lady Vols under Pat Summitt won their first NCAA title in 1987 and played their first three tournament games at Stokely before Thompson-Boling Arena opened the following December.

Stokely also hosted a memorable NCAA men’s tournament game between Kentucky and Louisville in 1983, was the scene of the John Tate-Mike Weaver WBA heavyweight title fight in 1980, and hosted numerous indoor track meets. Vol player Tony White also scored a record 51 points there in 1987.

But the building was more than just a sports arena. Numerous graduation exercises were held there over the years, and the building also hosted a number of music concerts. Elvis Presley came there three times – in 1972, 1974 and 1977 – as did such diverse singers as Janis Joplin and Glen Campbell and Steve Martin shortly after he became a popular comedian and actor.

“To me going over there and walking around is like going down memory lane,” said Mr. Brakebill. “Almost everyone will have a memory about Stokely.”

Mr. Brakebill saw Mr. Presley the final time he performed before his death and remembers paying $30 per ticket and that the noted singer’s plane was late arriving.

Mr. Manning met Mr. Presley during one of his visits to Stokely. “I sat down there and talked with him,” he remembered. “He was a nice guy. But I didn’t think much of the Memphis Mafia” (his entourage).

As Mr. Manning offered a tour of the facility on Thursday, he pointed out where some of the famous people to frequent the building had stayed. The music stars usually used a dressing room near a short hallway running track and the former equipment cage, he said.

The office belonging to such UT football coaches as Doug Dickey, Bill Battle and Johnny Majors was located just around the corner from where the UT spirit program offices are, while former athletic director Bob Woodruff’s now-closed office was just off from a room used recently by the UT sports photographers.

And Ray Mears’ former office – which was located in Room 255 – has been occupied by Eric Trainer of the sports information office.

While many of these former legends are deceased or retired, plenty of tangible reminders of the building’s history could still be found. Metal bar-covered doors showed where Army ROTC guns had been kept, and classic vintage chalkboards could be found throughout the mammoth building.

But perhaps the most unusual places in the building were the original locker rooms and shower facilities down in the basement. In one shower area, numerous trophies of past Vol sports champions were standing in a haphazard manner.

Among the remaining building residents also examining the trophies on this day was UT track coach J.J. Clark, who also appeared to be trying to comprehend the bigger picture of the building’s demise.

“There’s a ton of history here,” he said. “I remember coming here for basketball games. Time has passed it by a little bit.”

A sentimental feeling seemed to be felt nearly everywhere in the building by those being greeted by Mr. Manning.

“I’ve been here 21 years,” said UT spirit program coach Joy Postell-Gee, who has recently occupied the office of former UT assistant athletic director and football player Gene Moeller, who hired her. “It is emotional for me because I have a lot of memories.”

Former Tennessee pole vaulter and 2004 Olympic gold medalist Tim Mack, meanwhile, was working with a handful of post-collegiate pole vaulters inside the same cavernous room where coach Mears had figuratively vaulted the basketball team to new heights. But he was coaching in a lot quieter manner than Mr. Mears once did.

“I took a lot of jumps in this place,” he said. “I’m kind of sad. There are a lot of memories in here. Even though it is dark and dreary in here, I love being in here.”

And for Mr. Manning and Mr. Brakebill, who have seen the building’s entire history, saying goodbye is not easy, either.

“It’s a part of my life,” said Mr. Manning.

Added Mr. Brakebill, “To me seeing the demolition ball take down old Stokely is comparable to losing an old friend and maybe even a family member. They can tear down old Stokely, but they can’t take away the memories.”

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