Texas Hall makes its curtain call for men's basketball tonight

Since 1965, Texas Hall has served as the home of UT Arlington's indoor athletic programs.

And despite the best of intentions, a consensus formed long ago that the hybrid auditorium-coliseum was better suited for Shakespeare than the pick and roll... no matter what Sports Illustrated thinks.

"I never saw the place until it was almost time to practice," said Bob "Snake" LeGrand, who arrived on campus as an assistant men's basketball coach before becoming head coach from 1976-87. "I saw the outside but never the inside because there was no reason to go in there; they didn't have the floor down."

When he finally saw it ...

"I didn't know what to think."

Texas Hall, too, has proved resilient. Its demise has been talked about -- and looked forward to -- for the better part of 30 years.

Its time has finally come.

Next week, the university will close Texas Hall's doors to indoor sports. The men's basketball team plays its final game at Texas Hall at 7 tonight against Stephen F. Austin. The women will lock the door Jan. 28 after a game against Texas State.

The teams' move into the 7,000-seat College Park Center is being hailed as a new era for the university, as Texas Hall was in 1965.

The men's and women's teams open the new place on Feb. 1 with games against UT San Antonio.

The Rebels of Arlington State College, as they were known in those days, opened the highly anticipated $1.7 million multipurpose building on Dec. 1, 1965, with a 67-61 loss to East Texas. They beat Texas Wesleyan there, 102-90, for the first victory in the new building three days later.

It's been difficult to establish a winning tradition at UTA primarily because of, as LeGrand calls it, the "playing place."

A trip to the 2008 NCAA Tournament is the highlight of the men's program.

Today's Mavericks (12-5), oddly enough, are perhaps putting together the finest season in school history as they leave Texas Hall. They enter tonight's game on an eight-game winning streak and, at 5-0, are off to the best start in conference play since the 1990-91 team began 6-0.

Former athletic director Bill Reeves offers the unique perspective of being the only one on campus to have played in the "Old Gymnasium" (he was a basketball player from 1959-62), coached in Texas Hall and witnessed the construction of the new place.

Texas Hall "turned out to be a far better place than what we had," Reeves said. "Now when I started recruiting with it I was far less excited about it."

'It's needed very badly'

Arlington State College, at that time under the Texas A&M system, opened $5 million in new buildings in the fall of 1963 for an enrollment of 10,000. But there was much more needed, including a new library, which was in the works, and a "hoped-for" auditorium-coliseum.

Maintaining a place within the A&M system in those days would have finished a distant third in a vote by students to the alternatives of becoming an independent entity or joining the UT system, as suggested by Gov. John Connally.

Students were most resistant to a proposed name change to Texas A&M at Arlington.

At issue was A&M providing insufficient funding for desperately needed structures for a university bursting at the seams and with ambition.

"You don't seem to understand, General [Earl Rudder, A&M president]," J. Lee Johnson III of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce said then. "Our need is immediate... The baby [ASC] is big enough to spank the mother [A&M]."

Since 1958, the A&M system had received $21 million in bonds for construction, of which Arlington State College received $6.3 million, according to the Star-Telegram.

University and civic leaders took a position and a stand. Like most students, they wanted a divorce from A&M.

"There is a critical need at ASC and perhaps it is the most severe need of any state school," Arlington Mayor Tom Vandergriff said.

The Dallas-Fort Worth area, Vandergriff said, demanded that the public university in Arlington be first rate in every field.

"If A&M wants this -- OK -- if not ... then we have to separate," Vandergriff said.

In addition to a new library and science building, classrooms and dormitories were being built or planned for.

So was a proposed auditorium-coliseum to be financed by private donors.

The college, according to a Star-Telegram news report, had already been quietly approaching private enterprises about raising an estimated $2 million (about $14.4 million today) for the building.

"It's needed very badly," a school official pointed out to the Star-Telegram.

The largest indoor seating venue was the old gymnasium, built in 1927 and with a capacity of 660. It proved serviceable as the home of basketball when the school was a junior college. As a school of 10,000 students it proved inadequate to hold even the smallest of assemblies.

The proposed new building would be the landmark for a landscaped mall complete with a reflection pool.

"This mall is the first real attempt to give the campus some spacious eye appeal," wrote the Star-Telegram.

The 76,000-square-foot Arlington State College Multipurpose Auditorium opened on Oct. 18, 1965, with a sold-out performance by trumpeter Louis Armstrong.

Satchmo had them on their feet and feeling good for more than one reason.

The Tarrant County legislative delegation successfully fought for Arlington State College's independence from A&M. A bill signed by Gov. Connally made the divorce legal and sealed a new affiliation with the UT system.

In 1966, the Arlington State College Rebels became the UT Arlington Mavericks. In 1968, the complex was renamed Texas Hall.

'A tough place to play'

"When I was at Oklahoma, somebody asked me where was the toughest place I ever played," said Billy Tubbs, who between stints at Oklahoma and TCU coached at Lamar from 1976-80 and 2003-06.

"I was supposed to say Kansas or Duke or Syracuse, blah, blah, blah. But I told them, 'Have you ever been to the University of Texas-Arlington's place? That's the only place where I've ever had chickens held over my head.' "

A Beaumont chicken establishment in the mid-'70s offered Lamar ticket holders a discount on chicken dinners if the Cardinals scored 100 points or more in a game, which did happen against UTA. So, a subsequent trip to Arlington turned eventful, Tubbs said.

"There were some students sitting behind our bench and they were holding three or four broomsticks with whole raw chickens held by strings and saying, 'You ain't getting no chicken tonight.'"

"That's a tough place to play."

That didn't translate to recruiting. Recruiting at UTA with Texas Hall was "a very tender process," LeGrand said.

When the floor isn't down -- which it rarely is in the off-season -- it's difficult to sell a blank stage as a potential site for the glory days.

Men's coach Scott Cross, an assistant in the early 2000s, vividly recalls a recruit he was certain was a lock for UTA.

"I remember taking him up to Texas Hall," Cross said. "It was during the summer, and the floor wasn't down. I was painting this unbelievable picture of how you're going to be the big man on stage. And he's just sitting there with his head on his fists and just staring.

"He goes down to Nevada-Reno and signs the next day. It was because of the facility."

LeGrand, who is now retired, after spending the past 20-plus years as a high school coach and later counselor at Arlington Lamar High School, has lived Cross' quandary. Creativity was imperative to deal with the building ... block.

"I remember one weekend we even put a link chain around the doors and put a lock on it," LeGrand said laughing. "As we approached the building, we said, 'Oh, gosh, dang, they forgot to unlock the gym. We can't get in there today.'

"When you look at the stage without the court on there they think, 'Ah, no. You got to have the craziest imagination alive.'"

When the court was down, LeGrand said, the selling line -- used for 45 years -- would be that it's a "unique place to play."

Not even an endorsement from Sports Illustrated, which raised the eyebrows of even the most optimistic thinkers at UTA, could boost recruiting prospects.

In a 1997 edition, editors at the magazine called Texas Hall the best place to watch college basketball.

"Texas Hall ... is a theater that houses the school's dramatic productions. A basketball floor is laid down over the stage before the hoops season, and "Break a leg!" is replaced by "Don't tear an ACL!"

Said LeGrand at the time: "Wait. Before I talk to you, let me get up off the floor first."

Thirty years' worth of countless talk about a replacement for the stage, if for nothing else, was useful recruiting fodder.

The university was actually about to break ground on a facility in the late '70s before a Texas Supreme Court ruling that the tax to be used for funding was unconstitutional.

"I recruited three classes off an artist's rendition" of that facility, LeGrand said. " 'This is what it's gonna look like.'

"It never happened."

'A wonderful opportunity'

While a recruiting albatross, Texas Hall has represented opportunity for so many, including LeGrand and Cross, who got an opportunity to play and coach at the Division I level.

Jody Conradt's groundbreaking career at Texas in Austin began at Sam Houston State before a three-year stay (1973-76) in Arlington where she coached the basketball, volleyball and softball teams.

"It was a wonderful opportunity to start to showcase women's athletics," said Conradt, who took over the program in its second year. "There was a lot of excitement, particularly my young women who for the first time had an opportunity to extend their athletic careers at the collegiate level."

UTA, which offered partial scholarships in those days like every other institution with women's athletics, played in the AIWA. The NCAA didn't begin to sanction women's athletics until the early 1980s. Conradt said her budget was $1,200 for three sports.

"If you had a car you made the team because we needed to get to games," Conradt joked about her women's teams. "There was a lot of McDonald's and fast food because we were on a tight budget."

Women's volleyball was successful at UTA because Arlington high schools were a hotbed for the sport. The 1989 team advanced to the Final Four, capping four consecutive NCAA appearances.

And the school's Movin' Mavs wheelchair basketball team has claimed seven national championships.

Bianca Sauls was a four-year letterman on the volleyball team and is now a fifth-year student-athlete as a starter on the women's basketball team. UTA enters today's game at Stephen F. Austin 0-4 in the Southland Conference.

"It's bittersweet. I love Texas Hall," Sauls said. "It's great to be part of something like this. It's great for recruiting and all the things we can do there, like a room for scouting and a practice facility. I think that will bring us together as a team.

"It's a good change."

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