On Dec. 2, 1967, the University Events Building opened its doors for the first time, and the Michigan basketball team, led by Rudy Tomjanovich, fell to Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky, 96-79.
The facility, dubbed “the Great Dome,” replaced Yost Field House as the Wolverines’ home court to satisfy increased ticket demand. Interest in the men’s basketball team had been revitalized by Hall of Famer and three-time All-American Cazzie Russell, who led Michigan to the Final Four in the 1964 and 1965 seasons, and another NCAA tournament berth in the 1966 season.
Commonly referred to as “The House that Cazzie Built,” the Events Building was renamed Crisler Arena in 1970. And then, for 40 years, it remained relatively unchanged.
Crisler Arena started to feel dingy and dark, and the program lacked a practice facility to lure recruits to Ann Arbor. Players on both the men’s and women’s team had to share Crisler Arena’s floor and rarely had the opportunity to put in extra work.
But over the past few years, renovations began to brighten up the inside of the recently renamed Crisler Center. And over the weekend, the men’s and women’s programs celebrated the dedication of the brand new Player Development Center.
“We were not competitive (and) we knew it,” said Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon. “Frankly, we were not competitive for too long, and it hurt us. When you’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the football stadium next door, and a young student-athlete who’s trying to decide where to go play basketball gets driven past the Big House and sees that we only have one gymnasium floor, we don’t have the infrastructure of support that many of the other premium basketball programs have. It’s very difficult to recruit.”
With the $23.2 million PDC now complete, Brandon is shifting his focus to the second phase of the renovations — namely, the addition of a new atrium entrance and redesigned concourse areas. Initially, the entire project — currently under construction — was to be completed in 2014, but Brandon announced on Sunday that it should be done by next year.
“The Player Development Center is now done, the arena is done, but the biggest piece of this is now underway and will be completed about a year from now,” Brandon said. “You’re taking a very old, established structure and you’re expanding it, you’re renovating it, you’re refreshing it and doing it in a way that really makes it competitive in today’s world.”
Brandon also released his latest plans for what the new glass-enclosed atrium will include. The Crisler Center’s atrium and concourse will serve as an unofficial museum of all things Michigan athletics and will “feature and celebrate” all 29 varsity programs.
“My vision for the concourse area is: during pregame and during halftime, I want that to be a destination venue for the people who come here,” Brandon said. “You will walk from area to area and there will be flat-screen televisions with videos and highlights and pictures and huge graphics, and there will be one basically devoted to every one of our sports and every one of our teams. It’ll really be a celebration of Michigan athletics in the concourse and then you go into the arena and you watch basketball.”
One corner will also be the first home of Michigan’s Hall of Honor — the Athletic Department’s version of a hall of fame. Inductees to the Hall of Honor, which was founded in 1978, were publicly praised upon their induction but otherwise went unrecognized.
“We’ve put some incredible people in that and most people don’t know who they are,” Brandon said. “They don’t know what happened. You’re going to see one section that will be devoted to the Hall of Honor, where each year, there will be the new recipients who will really be celebrated and recognized, and then every recipient will be memorialized in this area.”
With the opening of the PDC came an opportunity for Brandon and Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein to reach out to former players. The program has been criticized for not maintaining close ties with alumni and its history, especially after scandals soured much of the 1990s.
That’s what made this weekend — which brought notable alumni including Russell, Tomjanovich, Campy Russell, Phil Hubbard and Daniel Horton — so important.
“One of the things I stated the first day I got this job was that we really wanted to do everything we could do to reach out and bring the Michigan family together, and that’s not just one sport — that’s all of our sports,” Brandon said. “Our men’s basketball program, with the coaching changes we’ve had over the years and some of the other things that have happened, it’s really caused a lot of these former student athletes to scatter and not have reasons to come back to Ann Arbor.
“These things have not been organized and coordinated — well now they are.”
Brandon said he “couldn’t be more thrilled” with the weekend’s turnout, but even though the current celebration is focused on the present, he is already looking ahead to the future.
“This is just the first of what we plan to do many times, and that is: come up with reasons, celebrations, opportunities to bring back former players, bring back former coaches and celebrate Michigan basketball,” Brandon said. “We have a natural opportunity to come next season because we’re going to hold a massive celebration when we complete the entire Crisler project.”
To do so, Brandon is planning to host a big-name opponent to create a buzz-worthy event that will draw fans and former players to the grand opening in January or February of 2013.
“We absolutely want there to be a big-brand opponent that comes in that just rounds off the whole weekend,” said Brandon, who isn’t sure who the opponent will be. “We want to have a big game, we want to have a big turnout of former players — men and women — hopefully some former coaches and really celebrate the investment that we’ve made in this program, as well as the tradition and history of Michigan basketball.
“We’re already planning that. It’s going to be a big deal.”