Field House of Dreams
On the night of March 1, 1955, the KU men’s basketball team headed into the locker room at halftime leading archrival Kansas State by 11 points. Shortly after the athletes had vacated the floor, the lights in the building dimmed and a voice boomed across the darkness: “Tonight we are gathered together to participate in a dedication, specifically the dedication of a building … this great new field house at the University of Kansas … a building of which the university and the state may be justifiably proud.”
It was indeed a proud night for KU, and even more so for Dr. Forrest C. “Phog” Allen, since it marked the culmination of nearly a quarter century’s worth of efforts to secure an indoor athletic arena such as the one more than 17,000 spectators had turned out to dedicate.
In 1927, while he was still assembling a record that would make him a coaching legend, Allen first enunciated his dream of coaching KU basketball in an enormous field house. The University, which could hardly wrestle enough money from its boosters and the state legislature to ensure sufficient classrooms for its students, was in no position to consider seriously undertaking the construction of a new recreational facility. The onset of the Great Depression made certain that Allen’s hope for a major new athletic center remained purely a fantasy through the 1930s. But when the economy finally started booming again due to World War II mobilization and defense spending, KU boosters and alumni joined Allen and the Athletic Department in a renewed call for the construction of a field house.
The rationale for such a structure was based on several factors. On purely practical grounds, the 3,800-seat Hoch Auditorium, which was then the Jayhawks’ home court, had become wholly inadequate to a student body that had grown to 9,000. In addition, as Allen once told a Kansas Senate committee, the floor of Hoch “was laid on concrete” and lacked “resiliency,” causing his players to suffer “sprains, bruises, and shin splints.”
The cross-state rivalry with K-State also undoubtedly played a part, since that school was also seeking appropriations for a new field house, and indeed secured its funding somewhat ahead of KU. In later years, yet another rationalization contended the field house could perform double duty as an armory and ROTC drill hall during times of war. And left unsaid, but surely understood by many, was the fact that an expansive new arena would be a key element in Allen’s hopes to recruit nationally.
Shortly after the end of WWII, the Board of Regents had authorized Chancellor Deane Malott to “initiate studies as to a site and the possibilities of a bond issue to cover the major cost” of a field house. In February 1947, State Representative Alfred B. Page introduced a bill into the Kansas House that would provide $650,000 for the construction of such a facility. Members of the House Ways and Means Committee, however, “let it be known … that they took a rather dim view of the University of Kansas’ plea” for the new building, and on March 25, officially killed Page’s bill.
Nonetheless, the KU continued planning and sought to find an appropriate location for the “winter sports” structure. It seriously considered two possibilities. The first potential location was on the northern grounds of the University, “across from the Union Building.” However, a lack of parking space, as well as a fear of having “to give up some of our practice field whic[h] even now is cramped,” led the Board of Regents and Athletic Director E.C. Quigley to favor the alternative location. Although they could not formally approve the location until after the legislature had allocated funds for its construction, they decided to erect the building “a little south of the Military Science building” on the southwest portion of the campus along Michigan Street (which in November 1954 was renamed Naismith Drive).
In early 1949, University officials again began to lobby state legislators for a field house, and the project began to gain momentum. Although some students still favored delaying the erection of a new field house until the need for additional classroom space had been met, “the great majority of students – perhaps 60 to 70 percent,” according to the Kansas City Star, favored the push for a new athletic facility.
This time so did the state legislature. Topeka proved more amenable to funding the project, albeit with the caveat that the funds might have to wait until 1951. But when the legislature then went ahead and granted the University $750,000 for the field house, KU accelerated its plans. By December 1949, Charles Marshall, the state architect, advised the Board of Regents that “work had been started in his office on preliminary plans for a field house at KU” with the intent of finishing the blue prints and specifications by the fall of 1950.
Even with these positive developments, things did not go as smoothly as the KU community might have hoped. With the outbreak of the Korean War, the National Production Authority (NPA), a federal wartime regulatory agency, gained the power to divert materials to the needs of the military. The NPA’s initial (but unofficial) report in 1950 suggested that construction of the field house might have to wait, but later the agency reversed its position.
After this turnabout, Tom Yoe, director of the KU News Bureau, wrote to the secretary of Kansas governor, noting, “it would be unwise” to even mention the informal NPA opinion as it might open up an avenue “for challenge by any ‘anti’s’ among the public.” Indeed he felt “there [was] enough risk in the NPA suddenly issuing further restrictive directives, which would preclude the project, without tempting the NPA to back up on the green light it already [had] given.” (The NPA ended up giving KU the go-ahead in large measure because the University’s ROTC was to train at the field house and thus the new structure could be considered an armory as well.)
The state legislature granted the University an additional $1.8 million in 1951, and so, with sufficient funds in hand, KU set an expected completion date in August 1953. Unfortunately, the University proved unable to acquire the structural steel necessary to finish the project. Concrete pilings that had been poured in March 1952 lay unused for the remainder of the year and all of 1953 as well. Construction did not get underway again until February 1954 when workers set in place the first piece of structural steel. A year later, the building was nearly ready for opening.
For a brief while, a rather tepid debate surfaced over the name of the new field house. Some believed the honor should belong to KU’s first coach and the inventor of basketball, James Naismith. Others favored honoring Allen, who was widely recognized as the “father of basketball coaching.” And still others supported a hyphenated Naismith-Allen compromise approach.
In the autumn of 1954, the University Daily Kansan offered its readers an opportunity to vote on the name of the new structure. Allen won in a landslide, receiving 914 more votes than Naismith – an overwhelming demonstration of campus opinion, since fewer than 1,000 ballots were cast. In October 1954, the Board of Regents unanimously voted to name the building after Allen, but hoped to “wait until the day of the dedication before making the announcement.” Word leaked out in early December, however, and the board confirmed the building would be named in honor of the current coach. When the news reached Allen, he responded with suitable gallantry, claiming to “feel very unworthy and deeply grateful.”
Prior to March 1, the 1954-55 basketball season had proven to be rather forgettable. If the team members were tired of walking from the dressing rooms of old Robinson to Hoch Auditorium on game days that winter, it showed in their losses to mediocre teams on their home court. The Jayhawks had yet to win a conference game in the friendly confines of Hoch, where they had played for 28 years. (If this venue was not kind to the team in 1954-55, it surely had been in seasons past – all told the Jayhawks went 204-38 in the old auditorium.)
The lone highlight of the season had occurred when KU upset K-State in Manhattan at the dedicatory game of Ahearn Field House. (Though the Wildcats’ home court had opened in 1951, it wasn’t dedicated in honor of former K-State Athletic Director Mike Ahearn until February 12, 1955.) On March 1, fate presented the Wildcats with an opportunity to return the favor and spoil the dedication of Allen Field House.
In the days leading up to the event, a proliferation of articles celebrating the “monarch of the midlands” appeared in regional papers. The new building was to be the second largest field house in the nation, smaller only than one belonging to the University of Minnesota, but as local newspapers assured Jayhawk fans, it was superior in every way but size. The new field house had cost $2,613,000 and had used 2,700 tons of steel, 700,000 bricks, 245,000 board feet of lumber, and had required 4,500 gallons of a drab green paint (reflective of its supposed secondary use as an armory) to cover its interior walls.
With a crowd of 17,228 on hand – still the largest crowd ever to fill the arena – the Jayhawks took the court against their cross-state rivals with Assistant Coach Dick Harp filling in for Allen. (The head coach had deliberately absented himself from this game so as not to put undue pressure on his players on the night of his greatest personal triumph.) At the half, KU led 44-33.
A halftime pageant ensued that lasted more than 30 minutes. Written by KU speech professor Allen Crafton, “The Story of Basketball” related the history of the sport from its creation to its international rise in popularity, focusing primarily on the accomplishments of Naismith and Allen. A total of 103 former basketball players, from virtually every team the University had fielded (including E.H. Owens, a member of the KU’s first team in 1899) lined the north and south ends of the court. Following speeches by KU Chancellor Franklin Murphy, Kansas Governor Fred Hall, student body president Bob Kennedy, and Board of Regents member Oscar Stauffer, the alumni association presented Allen with the keys to a new Cadillac, “courtesy of his innumerable friends and admirers.”
Allen responded with a brief speech. An appreciative crowd interrupted him several times with roars of approval before he could “humbly accept this field house as a tribute to all the players past, present and future at the university.” As the halftime ceremony closed, the KU Band struck up “Auld Lang Syne” and Allen made his was to the locker room.
The Jayhawks held off the Wildcats for the remainder of the game, winning 77-67 and claiming their only home victory of the season. Exuberant fans, meanwhile, learned that they could literally make the new field house shake by stomping their feet (apparently much to the chagrin of some of the state legislators present).
However, even on the night that honored him for his past successes, Allen was looking ahead. For nearly a decade, he had been trying to recruit nationally, and had in fact met with some limited success. (His first and most famous national recruit was Terre Haute, Indiana native Clyde Lovellette, who had led the Jayhawks to the 1952 NCAA title.) He hoped that the new building would facilitate his efforts to attract the best high school players in the country to Lawrence.
Allen’s hopes were realized the following summer when he landed the biggest catch of his recruiting career – a high school center from Philadelphia by the name of Wilt Chamberlain.
Mark D. Hersey
Department of History
University of Kansas