If you're planning to attend Saturday's Utah-BYU game at the Huntsman Center, take a minute to look around. It might not be easy to appreciate, because buildings, like actors, tend to get ignored once they're closing in on age 40. But the place is clean enough to eat off the floors.
Just make sure you tidy up afterward.
BYU's Marriott Center is equally well-maintained. There's barely a mote of dust in the house. If you didn't know better, you'd think your mother-in-law was the building manager.
Like George Clooney and Heather Locklear, both arenas are looking good at middle age. We should all be so lucky. Of course, only actors and buildings have full-time maintenance crews, so that explains part of it.
Truth is, it would be hard to find nicer college arenas, even after all these years. Although neither has the modern touches of new buildings luxury suites, spacious bathrooms, easier concessions, etc. they still manage to pull things off nicely. The familiar "steel cloud" hanging over the Huntsman Center court continues to look futuristic, 39 years after the fact.
(It has has undergone periodic upgrades.) Though not as dramatic, the 37-year-old Marriott Center is taking the years gracefully, too. Its size and scope still elicits comments from visiting teams and coaches.
It also doesn't hurt that BYU has pizza delivered to the visiting locker room after games.
The issue of arenas got going in the late 1960s. Utah was playing in the old brick Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse, which was a good place for atmosphere but a bad place for upper division basketball. Likewise, the Smith Fieldhouse, at BYU, had long been outgrown.
When the University of Utah decided it needed in '60s vernacular a groovier pad, it didn't scrimp. It put up a space age building that would do the Jetsons proud. The round configuration made every vantage good.
Meanwhile, 50 miles south, BYU was soon wheeling and dealing. The first priority was to build an arena large enough to hold the studentbody for devotionals. But also, there was no way the Provo campus was going to be second rate, especially to Utah, and especially in college basketball which at the time was the state's most popular sport. So the school constructed what was originally known as the Marriott Activities Center. Enterprising students started calling it the "Big Mac," until word came down from the administration that it should no longer be be referred to as a burger.
Especially the competition's burger. (The Marriotts started A&W.)
There were advantages to both arenas. BYU's house was bigger, but every seat in Utah's "Special Events Center" had a chair back.
Soon to follow were crowds by the tens of thousands. In 1971-72, the Marriott Center's first season, an average of 21,818 fans attended, highest in the nation. BYU has led the nation in attendance three times and been second four times.
Although not as large, Utah's arena did fine, too. Not only did people come Utah has averaged more than 10,000 to games for the last decade it has hosted 81 NCAA Tournament games, second-most in the nation, including the 1979 championship.
You can still catch the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird title game on classic sports TV, in living color or at least vivid red.
The home courts have been good to both teams, too. Utah has won 83 percent of its games, while BYU has an all-time 78 percent success rate.
One ESPN commentator rated the student section at BYU among the country's loudest, while Inside Sports magazine listed the Huntsman Center one of the nation's top five college basketball venues.
In fact, the Huntsman Center outlasted Inside Sports.
"Most arenas in their 37th year, like the Marriott Center, are either torn down or replaced or they're contemplating tearing them down," said BYU special events director Larry Duffin. "It's clear at Utah and BYU, they have invested in their arenas to keep them presentable and clean."
While neither arena is drawing the crowds it once did, that's a nationwide trend. Competition from pro sports, movies, videos, ESPN and computer games has taken a toll. Still, after all these years, it's hard to do better on a winter afternoon than seeing a Utah-BYU game in the flesh. It's a good product and the game is likely to be close.Best of all, when you leave, you won't have to scrape gum off your shoes.
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