Last week, Stadium Journey released its annual Top 100 venue experiences in North America and wouldn’t-you-know-it Penn State was the only college or university to have two of its facilities crack the list.
Beaver Stadium, one of collegiate football’s most storied and recognizable buildings, checked in at no. 23 on the rankings, a feat lovers of cold metal bleachers and barely-above-porta-potty-quality bathrooms will undoubtedly be rejoiced by.
Joining Penn State’s no-frills gridiron cathedral among the Top 100 was the basically-brand-spanking-new Pegula Ice Arena, proving that an $88 million donation from multi-billionaire’s Terry and Kim Pegula is enough to warrant the no. 71 slot on Stadium Journey’s list.
But while the Marsha and Cindy Brady’s of Penn State athletics earned their spots due to the historical significance and glitz-and-glamour oozing from their rafters, it cast yet another black eye on State College’s Jane Brady - the Bryce Jordan Center.
Constructed in 1995, the 15,261-capacity home to Penn State’s men’s and women’s basketball programs has aged about as well as a box of Franzia left open and in the sun for 22 years.
Save for the occasional fresh coat of paint and screen printed graphic, the arena has remained unchanged since it opened. Designed during an era where an onus was on multi-purpose functionality, the BJC, as it’s affectionately known, has never made watching a basketball game a priority, thus creating some truly terrible sight lines for those in the stands.
And despite having a capacity among the top half of Big Ten arenas, the Lions average attendance (6,991 a game in 2017, 75th overall for Division 1 programs) doesn’t come close to filling the building. When looking at average attendance against building capacity, the Bryce Jordan Center only filled to 46 percent its allowance last year, a ranking good enough for dead last among all 14 Big Ten programs.
The next closest school to Penn State in the attendance basement was Rutgers, who checked in with 58 percent building capacity met. This made the Nittany Lions the only Big Ten school not to cross the 50 percent capacity mark and finally gives the Scarlet Knights something to brag about.
One could blame this yearly struggle on the relatively lackluster play of the team, or some questionable decisions by the program, however Nebraska lead the Big Ten with a 102 percent capacity figure in 2016-‘17 and the Cornhuskers are far from a college basketball powerhouse.
So while Nebraska and Penn State share a lot of similarities as basketball programs struggling to find consistency there is one notable exception that may explain the glaring differences in attendance figures; Nebraska has a brand new, pretty-freaking-awesome arena and the Nittany Lions play in an 22-year-old library crossed with a foreclosed-on Bat Cave.
What puts Penn State in a tough spot though is the BJC’s relatively young age compared to arena trends sweeping across the sporting landscape. Throughout professional and collegiate athletics, teams are leaning towards one of two philosophies when finding a place to call home: Either renovate a historical significant venue to mesh modern amenities with tradition and heritage or build a shinny new building that puts fans closer to the court while sitting in the lap of luxury.
Beaver Stadium subscribes to the former while Pegula Ice Arena has the latter on lockdown. But the Bryce Jordan Center misses the mark across the board.
This nondescript experience compounds itself along multiple lines as save for the annual THON hoops game, where a portion of the gate revenue is donated to the Four Diamonds Fund, Penn State basketball games lack the energy and excitement of almost any other sporting event found on campus, and I’m including fencing in that equation.
This creates yet another unique challenge for Pat Chambers to navigate as home court advantage doesn’t exist in State College. That is, unless you count the buildings ability to psych out its opponents with its dim lighting and eerily quiet sea of blue seats and black curtains.
What makes this even sadder though is this wasn’t always the case in Happy Valley.
For 67 years the Nittany Lions played its home games on the West side of campus at Rec Hall. This field house-style arena, designed by Charles Z. Klauder, the brains behind Philadelphia’s college basketball Holy Grail the Palestra, seated a little under 7,000 people.
But what the building lacked in elbow room it more than made up for it in atmosphere. To borrow from a phrase that Penn State hockey coach Guy Gadowsky often uses to describe Pegula Ice Arena, games played at Rec Hall were like taking a section of Beaver Stadium and jamming it into a loud, hot, sweaty, closet.
Alas, back in the early 90s, Penn State athletics saw Rec Hall as a disadvantage and sought out support from the state of Pennsylvania to construct a new arena.
”Penn State has this image we project, but when you walk into Rec Hall that image dies,” then-women’s basketball coach Rene Portland said, in a quote that has aged poorly to quite poorly.
”Well, I do think there have been a few instances where we might have lost a kid because of our facility,” said former men’s coach Bruce Parkhill in a 1990 Daily Collegian article.
To Bruce’s credit, he wasn’t wrong. The quality of your facilities absolutely plays an important role in recruiting. So while it’s head was in the right place, the university ultimately created a new problem by failing in the execution.
And it was out of this misstep that the Bryce Jordan Center was born.
I know entertaining what-ifs is an exercise in futility but it’s fair for Penn Staters to wonder what the program might look like had the university elected to either renovate Rec Hall or wait on the construction of a new arena rather than build the BJC.
Could the program have found some stability? Would scoring tickets to a basketball game come at a premium in State College? Would the Lions be able to avoid consistently finding themselves coming in last on lists like this?
We’ll never know.
Pat Chambers, to his credit, has done the best he can to create intrigue and atmosphere around his program.
During his seven year stint as coach, the Nittany Lions have twice returned to Rec Hall, once in 2013 for a game against Princeton and twice in 2015 where they met Canisius and Louisiana-Monroe.
In an even more ingenious and impressive move, Penn State traveled 192 miles southeast of State College last year to play a ‘home’ Big Ten game at west Philadelphia’s aforementioned Palestra. The Lions more than managed to fill the building and left their home-away-from-home with a victory over Miles Bridges’ Michigan State Spartans.
I’m not sure anyone who was involved with or at that game could call the experience anything other than a success, outside of maybe Tom Izzo. Unfortunately, a lot of behind the scenes negotiating went into making that game a reality, including getting an agreement from the Spartans, and the Lions were unable to make a visit to the Palestra an annual occurrence.
While it would be a little unprecedented, there has to be a way for the Big Ten to step in and sanction the Palestra as an alternate venue for the Nittany Lions. Playing one Christmas break game in the City of Brotherly Love is a win-win for both Penn State and the conference, who’s desire to create a presence on the East coast has lead to some brash decisions as of recent memory.
As for Penn State getting a much needed lift when it still plays its games in the literal shadow of Penn State football, there’s at least a distant glimmer of hope.
Earlier this year, Penn State athletics released a master facilities plan which covered everything from giving Beaver Stadium the Six Million Dollar Man treatment to a new Olympic sport training facility.
Being saved from the usual Home Alone treatment, the plan outlined construction of a new basketball practice facility and eventual renovations to the Bryce Jordan Center to be completed at some point over the next 20 years.
And while no detailed renderings are available, rumblings based on comments by athletic director Sandy Barbour and athletics COO Phil Esten hint at the main mission of the renovations to be creating a more intimate atmosphere for basketball games.
But the problems with these potential renovations are twofold.
Firstly, what if renovations don’t come until the tail end of that 20-year window? In that scenario the BJC would be just north of its 40th birthday and make it roughly the same age that Nassau Coliseum, Meadowlands Arena, and the Pontiac Silverdome (RIP) are now.
The only thing those three buildings have in common is they became untenable for their tenants who all moved on to newer and flashier things. Can Penn State really survive playing at the Bryce Jordan Center for another 15-to-20 years without any major changes?
Secondly, renovating the Bryce Jordan Center doesn’t alleviate the challenges faced with often being treated as a second-class tenant in what’s suppose to be its home building.
Back in 2011, during the backend of a season that saw the Lions fight its way to an NCAA Tournament berth, Penn State was infamously forced from the BJC so Bon Jovi could rehearse an upcoming concert tour.
That’s right. He didn’t even play a show in State College. He just practiced. A thing the Lions were forced do at the universities IM Building, a gym used mainly for volleyball, squash, and student pickup games.
Jon Bon and his glorious head of hair weren’t the first or last acts to temporarily evict Penn State hoops either. Elmo, John Cena, and Nickelback have all displaced the Lions at one point or another.
So what are the Nittany Lions to do?
Well, if Penn State really wants to turn around its long floundering basketball program it might take more than just a renovation to an aging building.
The Lions need a new home. One that fits them just right.
Think the Liacouras Center, UD Arena, or Cintas Center but ensconced in blue and white.
A place that doesn’t have a bad seat in the house and encourages people to come out for the ambience alone if nothing else.
The university has been blessed in the past with a fairy Godmother dropping the bag to create something out of nothing. Along with Pegula Ice Arena and its no. 71 ranking on Stadium Journey’s list, Terry Pegula’s $88 million also bought an NCAA Tournament appearance in only the program’s fourth year of existence and an almost immediate contender for a National Championship.
So could Penn State basketball be similarly blessed?
Well if her track record is any indicator, and if she can find the $70ish million necessary to invest in a new arena, Sandy Barbour has shown a willingness to spend money on new buildings, albeit with questionable results.
Paging Mark Parker. Or Patricia A. Woertz. Or, what the hell, Terry Pegula again.
Which super rich Penn State alum wants their name on a building? Who wants to be the individual synonymous with ushering in a new era of Penn State basketball at their alma mater?
Realistically though, what are the chances that a new arena comes to fruition?
Well barring a Google Alert sparking a major philanthropic investment, it’s a long shot that’s going to take a miracle to pull off.
But if sports has taught us anything it’s that miracles do exist and sometimes the long shots pay off the biggest.
Penn State is ready to cash in that winning ticket, they just need someone to write the check first.