The 50th anniversary of the opening of UGA’s Stegeman Coliseum won’t take place until Feb. 22 next year. However, since the basketball Dogs are currently playing their 50th season in the venue, the commemoration already is under way at Georgiadogs.com, where fans are voting to select the top moment in the arena’s history.
For those of us who grew up in the Five Points area of Athens, attended David C. Barrow Elementary School across the street and watched the structure that many thought looked like a flying saucer being built starting in 1962, this is a big deal.
The history of the multi-purpose facility originally known as the Georgia Coliseum is so intertwined with my own family history that I take personal offense when I hear clueless fans badmouth the arena and claim that the Bulldogs will never have a top-notch basketball program as long as they’re playing in “the Stegesaurus.”
Frankly, I think many of the people who talk that way likely haven’t visited Stegeman in years, probably not since the athletic department shared it with the ag school for cattle shows and rodeos — certainly not since it underwent a $3.6 million refurbishment a couple of years ago after having had a beautiful $30 million adjoining state-of-the-art basketball and gymnastics training facility opened in 2007.
Besides, the size and age of the arena doesn’t determine a program’s success. Certainly not in gymnastics or women’s basketball — in both of which UGA has been a longtime power — and not even in the arena’s flagship sport, men’s basketball, where the Bulldogs continue to struggle. Duke University’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, which is 24 years older than Stegeman and has 1,200 fewer seats, certainly hasn’t kept the Blue Devils from having one of the nation’s most successful basketball programs.
As anyone who attended one of the big games a couple of seasons ago when Mark Fox had an NCAA tournament-worthy team can attest, when UGA puts a talented team on the court, the Steg rocks with a fervor that the Cameron Crazies would find familiar.
But even with the Bulldogs’ intermittent success in men’s basketball, the past five decades have seen a lot of memorable moments, starting with that Feb. 22, 1964, dedicatory game when Red Lawson’s outmanned Bulldogs upset Georgia Tech 86-51.
That first game set an all-time attendance record because they let 13,200 people in even though the original seating capacity was 11,400 (now 10,523). Because of the building’s unique design — it’s actually two structures, the striking parabolic roof and the separate coliseum itself — my friend Dan Pelletier remembers one of his father’s colleagues in the UGA chemistry department who was a huge sports fan but nevertheless announced he was going to wait a few games and let the roof of the Coliseum “settle” before he attended. “He had grave doubts that the roof would hold up,” said Dan, who did go to that first game and remembers Coach Lawson played “an iron five” (no substitutes).
For families during my childhood the popularity of attending UGA basketball games really took off in the late ’60s when Ken Rosemond was coach and the Dogs had their first “big” man, 6-foot-11 Bronx native Bob Lienhard, who’s still Georgia’s career leader in rebounds. After 17 losing seasons, the Lienhard years saw the Dogs notch three consecutive winning campaigns.
My wife Leslie remembers that’s when her father started taking the family to games, driving over to Athens from Elberton and eating pizza afterward at Gigi’s on Baxter Street. And that’s when I started regularly going as well. As a teenager I was working part-time sports rewrite at the old Athens Daily News and they used to give me free passes to sit at the courtside press table. What a thrill!
Ironically, one of the greatest moments in Stegeman history, which came during the Lienhard era, involves a Georgia loss. On March 8, 1969, the Coliseum was packed for a sold-out game between Georgia and LSU that’s one of my friend Owen Scott’s favorite memories. The Tigers were led by Pete Maravich, who had one of his most impressive games, scoring 58 points. The Dogs led by 15 at one point in the second half but LSU roared back and the game went into double-overtime. In the end “the Pistol” proved too much, scoring 11 of the Tigers’ 12 points in the final overtime as LSU won 90-80.
But what folks who were there will never forget was the way it ended, as Maravich conducted a virtuoso dribbling display, putting the ball behind his back and between his legs as he kept it away from the Bulldog defenders. Then, finally, the superstar in floppy socks let go a ridiculous 35-foot hook shot that swished through the net as time expired. The Georgia crowd, appreciating what may have been the single greatest individual performance in an SEC game ever, swarmed onto the floor to congratulate him!
Georgia basketball went through some more lean years, including during my time at UGA in the 1970s, before Hugh Durham made it respectable again in the early 1980s, culminating in Georgia’s only Final Four appearance in 1983. (I always loved the way the student section shouted “HUGH!” when the coach was introduced at games.)
That tournament success ironically came without the era’s dominant Georgia player, Dominique Wilkins, who left school early to become an NBA legend. My brother Tim still has fond memories of “watching Dominique slamming 360-degree dunks” and seeing the Dogs play against another LSU star, Shaquille O’Neal. “He couldn’t hit free throws then, either,” Tim recalls.
A few years after that, my friend Steve Short fondly remembers the victory over LSU in 1990 “when Neville Austin (who couldn’t hit the side of a barn!) made a free throw to break a tie and help us win 86-85. What a wild game. LSU led 47-36 at halftime and the lead grew in the second half before the Dogs came back. When we held on to win, the crowd went nuts! That helped us en route to the SEC title. The crowd was absolutely awesome.”
Another favorite Stegeman memory of Steve’s is the 74-68 win over Kentucky in 2004, when Tubby Smith was coach and the arena was nicknamed the Tub. “We had beaten them in Lexington earlier,” Steve recalled, “and a sweep of the Wildcats is rather rare as you know.”
Another of Steve’s cherished Stegeman moments is a 78-51 win by Andy Landers’ Lady Dogs over Pat Summitt’s Lady Vols in the sold-out, nationally televised MLK holiday game on Jan. 17, 2000. Georgia, led by Deanna Nolan and featuring twin stars Coco and Kelly Miller, jumped on Tennessee early and never let up. “Summit called timeout after timeout, but nothing worked,” Steve remembers. “I loved every minute of it.”
To bring it into the next generation, my son Bill was a UGA freshman and one of the hundreds of students who rushed the court three times in early 2004 as Dennis Felton’s Dogs staged three major upsets, beating third-ranked and previously undefeated Georgia Tech in overtime, defeating Kentucky and topping Florida “in a rowdy Tuesday night game with a large student crowd due to the late start time on a weeknight.” The Gators felt so threatened by the flood of red and black onto the floor that the conference subsequently outlawed fans from taking the court after a game.
Bill also has fond memories of “seeing the gymnastics team win a bunch there, including beating Florida in front of a packed house in 2009 in an example of a team that always showed up for a big meet.”
The Gym Dogs also provided my brother Jon with his two favorite Stegeman Coliseum memories: a meet against Kentucky in 1996 in which Georgia’s Karin Lichey scored a perfect 40 — a 10.0 score on all four events — in the only time that’s ever happened in NCAA history; and Suzanne Yoculan’s 2008 team taking the fourth of its five consecutive NCAA national championships, this one particularly sweet because it was won on the Gym Dogs’ home floor.
There are many other high points in Stegeman’s history, of course, including serving as a venue during the 1996 Olympics. Having started a couple of months back with a list of 50 top moments — in men’s and women’s basketball and gymnastics as well as memorable nonsports events — the Georgiadogs.com voting is down to a bracket of 16 events, including some of the memories cited above.
Ironically, though, in talking with friends who, like me, grew up in and around the Coliseum, some of our most vivid and favorite moments there have nothing to do with sporting events and involve forays on the roof, lessons in the parking lot and a mix of rock ‘n’ roll and pomp and circumstance. I’ll cover some some of those memories in the upcoming second part of my salute to Stegeman.
(Special thanks to Claude Felton of the UGA Athletic Association.)
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg