The Dec. 4 men’s college basketball game between Tennessee and UTC brings a reminder that 25 years have passed since the McKenzie Arena at UTC opened.
The $15.5 million building was formally dedicated on Dec. 1, 1982, before that year’s Tennessee-UTC basketball game, but it had actually opened several weeks before with a Kenny Rogers concert.
At the time of the arena’s construction, Chattanooga was considered somewhat behind other comparable cities in getting such a facility. Smaller Murfreesboro, for example, already had one at Middle Tennessee State University.
Memorial Auditorium had served the city well since it opened in 1924, but at roughly 5,000 seats, it was not adequate to draw many of the major or top acts of the late 1970s, despite its great acoustics.
And Maclellan Gymnasium – while offering a loud and great small-college basketball atmosphere during the Ron Shumate and early Murray Arnold glory years – was considered inadequate to carry the UTC basketball program to the next level as well.
So, through state and local governmental funding and gifts, the arena became a reality.
The building was originally called the UTC Arena, although it was known just as much during its early years as the Roundhouse. The nickname had come following a summertime contest and reflected the building’s shape and the town’s railroad heritage.
Several contestants chose the winning name, but Mrs. Joseph (Cathy) Kemp was declared the winner because she had the earliest postmark of 1 a.m. on June 1, the first hour of the contest. The regional representative for then Gov. Lamar Alexander had a choice between $500 in cash and a video tape recorder, and she chose the cash – which she promptly gave to the UTC Athletic Department.
A special subcommittee and later a full committee had selected Roundhouse over Riverbend Arena and Compass, despite the endorsement of Riverbend Arena by County Commissioner “Flop” Fuller and Mayor Pat Rose.
In later years, the building’s official name was changed from UTC Arena to McKenzie Arena, after Toby McKenzie and Brenda McKenzie helped pay off the remaining debt. The name Roundhouse is also apparently no longer used officially, despite all the excitement the naming generated in the summer of 1982.
Besides helping enhance the local entertainment and sports scene, the building has also been a key – although a slightly forgotten one – in the slow downtown renaissance of the last 25-30 years.
Its opening occurred several years after such other downtown watershed moments as the opening of the Brass Register and Yesterday’s – which drew people downtown at night -- and Miller Park – which drew them during the day.
The arena also opened right before the Chattanooga Venture/Lyndhurst Foundation visioning programs that led to the construction of the Tennessee Aquarium and the restoration of the Walnut Street Bridge, the Tivoli Theater and Memorial Auditorium.
The arena’s first big event was the Kenny Rogers concert on Oct. 8. A packed house gathered to see the 44-year-old bearded singer and the Gatlin Brothers perform on an octagon-shaped stage in the middle of the Roundhouse floor.
The entertainment was good, but the acoustics for those in the upper deck were not. Several audience members became as vocal as at a sporting event, and requested and received refunds. Arena director Mickey Yerger also quickly went to work trying to improve the situation for the near future.
The building was actually designed primarily to be loud on the floor from sports fans in the steep upper deck cheering, not loud in the upper deck from noises or music on the floor.
In late November, the Harlem Globetrotters performed at the arena.
The building was officially dedicated on Dec. 1 during a gala-but-short dinner program attended by 300 people at the nearby UTC University Center shortly before the Tennessee-UTC basketball game.
Among those attending were UTC Chancellor Frederick Obear, former Chancellor James Drinnon, UT President Edward J. Boling, UT Vice President Joe Johnson, as well as a variety of state, Chattanooga and Hamilton County elected leaders, including State Rep. Paul Starnes, chairman of the arena advisory committee.
Such business and civic leaders as Alex Guerry and Scott Probasco also attended.
Dr. Obear called the building one of the most versatile public facilities in the Southeast.
“UTC has positioned itself to compete nationally for first-class touring talent with the opening of the UTC Arena,” he said. “A multi-purpose academic, athletic and entertainment showcase, the building promises to accommodate all the excitement that spectators could desire.”
The spectators did enjoy all they wanted while feasting on the entertainment later that night during the rare local game between the Vols and the Mocs.
Before a packed Roundhouse of more than 11,200 fans supporting both teams, the 14th-rated Vols – who were coached by Don DeVoe – won 55-49 in a game that was considered close and competitive.
Led by such players as future NBA star Dale Ellis, who had 17 points, the Vols actually led 37-23 midway through the second half.
But the Mocs – who had surprisingly beaten 1983 NCAA champion N.C. State in the first round of the 1982 NCAA tournament – fought back. With 20 points from future NBA player Gerald Wilkins – the brother of Dominique Wilkins – and 10 from the sweet-shooting No. 44 – Willie White – the Mocs came back to make the finish close.
“The game was everything everybody thought it would be and had waited for months to see,” wrote Chattanooga Times sports writer Larry Fleming the next day.
Another big opening week event was the Willie Nelson concert on Dec. 3. Although the concert began 25 minutes late, he gave the crowd all it wanted with such familiar tunes as “Always on My Mind,” “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Whisky River ”
Based on the last two songs, he obviously offered something for everyone.
No complaints could be heard from the Nelson audience about the acoustics
Probably the last key event at the Roundhouse during its first few weeks was a basketball game between the Mocs and the defending national champion North Carolina Tarheels on Dec. 21.
The reason Coach Dean Smith’s famed club was playing here was 1979 Baylor School graduate Jimmy Braddock. Braddock, who had averaged more than 30 points a game in high school before a three-point circle was put into use, was the point guard for North Carolina.
As part of Coach Smith’s tradition (which is also done by UT Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt and others), a UNC game was scheduled near a player’s hometown, usually during the senior year.
In his first year to start for North Carolina, Braddock, the lone senior on the team, was also the captain. He stated during the pre-game press conference that he liked the new UTC Arena.
“I like the arena a lot,” he said. “It’s a shame they didn’t have a place like this when I was growing up. The arena should help UTC keep some of the good hometown boys here.”
Joining Braddock in the starting lineup in the game in Chattanooga was future UNC head coach Matt Doherty, future Tennessee coach Buzz Peterson, star collegian Sam Perkins and a forward whose name is likely familiar – Michael Jordan.
As they did against UT, the Moc players made the local fans proud – although they once again came a little short of victory, despite tying the game with just over one minute to play.
In front of another packed house, guard Willie White had 26 points in the 73-66 loss, drawing the praises of Coach Smith.
“When he gets it going, he makes it with a hand in his face,” said an impressed Coach Smith of White.
Braddock scored six points, but he had a number of key assists and was a floor leader.
The star of the night was Jordan, who overcame three first-half fouls to score 27 points.
With the early visits by him and the other notables from the world of sports and entertainment, the arena was quickly on its way to becoming a house of unforgettable memories.