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Built to last: Iowa's Carver Hawkeye reaches age 25

Built to last: Iowa's Carver Hawkeye reaches age 25

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The “House that Lute Built” quietly reached a milestone late last week.

Carver-Hawkeye Arena — a facility that was tagged with that nickname after former Iowa basketball coach Lute Olson watched it evolve from a vision to reality — celebrated the 25th anniversary of its opening Thursday.

While four Big Ten universities have opened new venues since the Iowa City arena opened during the winter of 1983, the home of the Hawkeyes continues to accomplish what it was intended to do.

“It’s a great place to watch a sporting event, be it a basketball game or a wrestling meet,’’ Iowa director of athletics Gary Barta said. “It always has been. After 25 years, it may be in need of a makeover, but it remains one of the premier venues in the country.’’

A renovation is in the planning stages, but first-year Hawkeyes coach Todd Lickliter finds a lot to like about the place.

“The game-day atmosphere so far has been great, and I can only imagine how imposing it would be for a team to come in here and play when the place is full,” Lickliter said. “We’re working hard to find that out.’’

Olson was not the first Iowa coach to propose a new facility to replace its antiquated predecessor, the Iowa Field House.

That would have been Ralph Miller, whose high-octane teams won two Big Ten titles in his six seasons at Iowa.

Miller campaigned for a new building in the late 1960s, and scale models were built. But when Miller and the school’s athletic director, Forest Evashevski, both left Iowa in 1970, talk of a new arena left with them.

By the time the university announced plans in 1979 to construct a new facility, the need was real.

The Field House had been in use for more than five decades, and the 13,500 bleacher seats were neither roomy nor comfortable. Student seating was located in four balconies, where steel beams created obstructed views from every angle. Restroom and concessions facilities were extremely limited.

“There was no shortage of reasons for why a new arena was important,” former Iowa director of athletics Bump Elliott said. “From a functional and competitive standpoint there was a need, and Iowans like they always do, responded.”

Iowa announced a campaign to raise funds for a new $18.4 million facility in December 1979.

At a time when his program was on the brink of Iowa’s most recent appearance in the Final Four, Olson championed the cause.

“Lute was a good salesman, and he was selling something that people saw a need for.” Elliott said.

Iowa was hoping to secure about $8 million in donations to fund the project. In one year, more than 10,000 contributors had pledged $9.96 million to the project. Bonds, repaid through student fees and ticket surcharges, along with $3.3 million in state appropriations and university investment income provided the remainder of the needed money.

Construction began in July 1980 on a natural ravine on the northwest side of the Iowa campus. The arena’s unique look, which included steel support beams above the facility’s roof and a subterranean structure that reduced energy costs, drew critical acclaim within architectural circles.

The facility includes 20,000-square feet of floor space at the arena level and 60,000-square feet of office and locker room space.

It was scheduled to be ready in time for the start of the 1982-83 basketball season, and in fact Iowa billed its final home game in 1982 as a farewell to the Field House.

The Hawkeyes lost that game, falling in triple overtime to Minnesota 57-55, but they found themselves back on the same court the next season when it became apparent that the new facility would not be completed in time.

Iowa played its first four home games in 1982-83 at the Field House before opening Big Ten play at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Jan. 5, 1983 against Michigan State.

“I recall all of the anticipation about going over to Carver,” said Michael Payne, a sophomore starter on that team. “I think we had been at a tournament (the Rochester Classic) right before we played our first game there, and I remember us all going to the arena right away when we got back to test it out. It was the middle of the night, but we were anxious to get in.”

Olson would have preferred to have played a few pre-Big Ten games in the facility, but ended up moving the rims from the Field House to Carver-Hawkeye to ease the transition.

Basketball wasn’t the first event hosted at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. A crowd of 8,031 was on hand on Jan. 3, 1983 to watch Iowa’s second-ranked wrestling team top fourth-rated Oklahoma, 35-7.

The crowd reportedly also included a few birds flying overhead and one “black furry varmint” that ushers chased down an aisle.

At the time, Iowa wrestling coach Dan Gable called Carver-Hawkeye Arena “a fascinating place.”

“I have never seen an arena where the fans are so close to the floor. It’s almost like they are right on top of you,” Gable told the Quad-City Times on opening night. “The one thing that I noticed was that it was a little drafty on the floor. Our guys weren’t sweating like they should have been.”

Two days later, Olson’s Iowa basketball team found itself sweating out the conclusion of a game against Michigan State.

Facing a Spartans team that included freshman Scott Skiles, the Hawkeyes did not shoot well in their Carver-Hawkeye Arena debut and ended up losing 59-57 when Bob Hansen’s 3-point basket at the buzzer was waved off because Steve Carfino had stepped out of bounds before passing him the ball.

After the game, Olson lamented, “When I saw Michigan State’s players jumping up and down in front of the bench when Bobby shot, I knew that something had happened, and I knew that it wasn’t going to be good.”

Iowa won its next home game four days later, and after playing its 400th game at Carver-Hawkeye on Wednesday against Indiana, the Hawkeyes are 314-86 there, a 78.5 winning percentage.

“It’s home, a great place to play games,” Iowa junior Tony Freeman said. “We’ve won a lot of games here, and when people come into Carver they know this is our house.”

The Hawkeyes’ house has hosted a number of national collegiate sporting events and welcomed celebrities and political figures over the years. Former President Jimmy Carter and the Rev. Jesse Jackson have spoken there. Billy Joel, Stevie Nicks, Elton John and Paul Simon have performed there.

Iowa City-area residents also know that the facility houses a multitude of trade, home and craft shows on its concourse during weekends when the Hawkeyes aren’t calling Carver-Hawkeye Arena their home.

Steve Batterson can be contacted at (563) 383-2290 or

Carver-hawkeye Through the years

A timeline of noteworthy happenings in the history of Carver-Hawkeye Arena:

December 1979

A campaign to raise funds for a new arena is announced by University of Iowa officials

July 1980

Construction begins

January 1983

Carver-Hawkeye Arena opens, hosting a dual wrestling meet between Iowa and Oklahoma on Jan. 3 and its first men’s basketball game two days later between Iowa and Michigan State

May 1983

The facility is officially dedicated at a ceremony on May 7, one week before it hosts its first graduation ceremonies

May 1984

USA Wrestling hosts its U.S. Olympic Trials at the arena.

February 1985

A crowd of 22,157 jams the facility for an Iowa-Ohio State women’s basketball game

March 1986

On March 15, Iowa wins the first of three NCAA wrestling titles it has won in its home arena. One week later, the facility hosts the NCAA Mideast Regional in women’s basketball.

January 1988

The facility hosts the first regular-season women’s basketball game ever to be sold out 30 hours before tipoff. Iowa defeats Ohio St., 75-64

January 1991

Carver-Hawkeye Arena hosts the first nationally-televised women’s basketball doubleheader, two games in the Big Ten-SEC Challenge

March 1991

Iowa wins its second NCAA wrestling title at home, welcoming a record crowd of 69,264 to the three-day tournament

February 1992

Iowa defeats Iowa State 29-8 in wrestling in front of an NCAA dual-meet record crowd of 15,291

March 1997

California wins the first NCAA men’s gymnastics finals ever hosted by Iowa.

April 2000

The NCAA men’s gymnastics finals return to Iowa. Penn State wins the championship.

March 2001

Minnesota wins the NCAA wrestling championship at Iowa, the last time the event was held on the campus site.

December 2006

The Iowa Board of Regents gives its approval for the university to begin planning for renovations at Carver-Hawkeye Arena


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