Mad About U: Four Decades of Basketball at University Hall
By Chris Graham and Patrick Hite
The following is an excerpt from Mad About U: Four Decades of Basketball at University Hall, a book on the history of University of Virginia basketball at University Hall, which closed in 2006.
The book was published in 2006 by Augusta Free Press Publishing.
To order a copy, contact us at [email protected].
Bill Gibson had the second-ranked Gamecocks right where he wanted them.
Gibson had come up with a game plan to counter the powerful South Carolina squad that focused on basically taking the air out of the ball for long stretches – and it was working.
Virginia was within four points at the half and three points in the final stages when star guard Barry Parkhill drained two free throws to cut the deficit to a single point.
After a USC turnover, Gibson then signaled to his team to hold the ball for the last shot – which he was setting up during the timeout that he called with 00:18 showing on the scoreboard clock overhead.
The coach told his team that Parkhill was to take the final shot – and drew up a play that featured a modern-style isolation set that would allow Parkhill to back his defender into the lane to free himself up for a short jumper.
After the inbounds, the Cavaliers worked the ball around as the clock ticked down – 11, 10, nine …
A pass to Parkhill in line with what Gibson had envisioned on the sidelines gave the guard the opportunity to back his defender down.
Eight, seven …
Parkhill turned and fired from the right side of the foul line.
The ball went cleanly through the hoop, and following a last-second miss by South Carolina on the other end, UVa. had recorded its biggest basketball victory to date.
Nobody on hand for the historic win in University Hall – coaches, players, writers, fans – had even of an inkling of an idea of what it would mean to Virginia basketball that everything had gone according to Bill Gibson’s plans.
University Hall had opened five years before Parkhill’s Jan. 11, 1971, jumper that beat South Carolina. It had replaced the 2,000-seat Memorial Gymnasium that had been built in 1924 in a very much different day and time at the University of Virginia.
“Mem Gym was built in the 1920s for a student population of 1,500 to 2,000. The University’s population was in the area of 5,000 students in 1959. And within 10 years, it had increased by another 5,000 students,” said Richard Guy Wilson, an architecture professor and architectural historian at UVa.
“There was dramatic growth everywhere in higher education. There was growth immediately after World War II, and then stagnation, and then rapid growth with the arrival of the baby boomers and people of my generation who were born during World War II. So University Hall was a response to this growth in addition to being a response to the entry into the ACC,” Wilson said.
Virginia had joined the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1953 – and keeping up with the Dukes and North Carolinas and North Carolina States was very much a consideration as the athletics department considered its options regarding upgrades to its facilities.
Work got going on the $4 million University Hall project in 1960 with the selection of a Cambridge, Mass.,-based architect, Lawrence Anderson, who was well-known and well-regarded in architecture circles at the time. The design for the new arena that he came up with was nonetheless considered “unusual” by his otherwise admiring contemporaries, though, Wilson said.
“What he was drawing from was the major central building for the Summer Olympics in Rome in 1960. There was a very well-known Italian architect, Pier Luigi Nervi, who had experimented with reinforced concrete-cable sorts of structures – which are basically circular in form,” Wilson said.
Anderson also raised eyebrows with his vision for the exterior of U Hall – which in contrast to Mem Gym and other buildings on Grounds was decidedly not in the mold of Jeffersonian-inspired Colonial Revival.
“From that point of view, it’s very, very significant – because in a sense you might say it was the very first modern building that was put up here at the University,” Wilson said.
Attention was also paid in the planning and design to coming up with something that could serve purposes outside of the realm of athletics.
“When you look at when they built this place, the committee that was associated with the design for this had a lot of folks on it from the drama department. So a major part of the focus for this was not about sports. It was about performances,” said Mark Fletcher, an associate athletics director at UVa. who has overseen a slew of athletics-facilities projects at the University in recent years.
“You can see in the aisles that there are lights that are on the steps. That’s only for one reason – when you had a production in here, they could turn on the lights just like in a movie theater,” Fletcher said.
But while University Hall has over the years played host to a number of theater productions, music concerts and even a White House education summit, the building had its share of critics who talked up its poor acoustics and issues with sight lines, among other things.
Bob Moje, a University graduate who led the planning and design work on the new John Paul Jones Arena, said he thinks University Hall has been “unfairly maligned as a bad building” in that respect.
“One good thing about a round building is that it focuses all the sound into the center – so it does create acoustically sort of an acoustic home-court advantage for basketball purposes. But one of the downfalls of U Hall was that U Hall was supposed to be a multipurpose building – but the acoustics were very difficult in there, so that limited its effectiveness as a multipurpose building,” Moje said.
“That said, University Hall was not a bad building. It’s just a sort of product of its time,” Moje said.
“It was built back in an era when efficiency was the focus – and there was not a whole lot of embellishment to buildings at that time. The building came out of a very simple idea of trying to use an innovative, repetitive, casting of concrete idea as an economical way to make a big space,” Moje said.
“There were a number of buildings in that era that were built like that. U Hall was a good example of that – but it was sort of a victim of its time in history,” Moje said.
Even with the growth in interest in sports that spurred the need for a new basketball arena, college athletics at the University of Virginia and really across the college-sports spectrum weren’t quite what they are now.
It was a couple of decades before people would start talking about what we know as March Madness, for instance – and the term final four was still a while away from being in need of capital letters.
At Virginia in 1965, the year University Hall debuted as the home for Virginia basketball, there was a now almost-quaint emphasis on the student part of student-athlete that was visible in stories like those of John Naponick, a two-sport star who played on the UVa. basketball team that opened U Hall.
“That’s one of the reasons why I went to the University of Virginia. I could have gone to 125 different colleges around the United States. I chose Virginia because it was the best balance of a program where you could play sports, but yet being a student was a really valuable part of the experience,” said Naponick, who is now a public-health administrator in Louisiana.
“They talk about student-athletes – but Virginia was a place where I felt that was in fact true. I could be a student and be an athlete. It wasn’t a big football mill,” said Naponick, known in his days on Grounds as “Big John,” a 6-10 center on the basketball team and defensive end on the football team who could see his future – and despite his obvious on-field talents, he decided that it wasn’t going to be in sports.
“My professors at the University of Virginia advised me not to play professional football,” said Naponick, a fifth-round pick of the Oakland Raiders in the 1968 American Football League draft.
“My professors said, No, don’t do it. Don’t go into football. Go into medical school, because if you look at the rest of your life, you’re going to have to work for a while. Football, there’s a chance that you might make it, you might not make it. The average playing career of an NFL lineman is five years. Just go to medical school,” said Naponick, who ended up taking his shot at pro football with a year in the Canadian Football League before enrolling in med school.
Even with standouts like Naponick in the fold, neither of the big-revenue programs at Virginia were at all consistent winners.
“My senior year, we beat Maryland to finish up the season 5-5. And The Washington Post had a story that said after struggling for 20 years, Virginia finally reached mediocrity,” Naponick said.
“We went from being a losing team to going 5-5 – which I thought was great. We really got out of the hole,” Naponick said.
The opening of University Hall offered the promise of something similar happening with the basketball program. On the day of the building’s first game, Dec. 4, 1965, there was a sense of optimism that hadn’t always been there with respect to sports teams wearing the orange and blue.
“I remember there was a lot of enthusiasm and excitement about the game – not only because it was the first game there, but because it was against a nationally ranked team in Kentucky,” said Jim Connelly, a 6-5 swingman who averaged 19.5 points per game in his three seasons on the varsity.
“We’d played our first game already at William and Mary and won that one, so we were off to better start than we had in those days sometimes. So there was a lot of expectation about it – and a chance to play a top-ranked team outside of the ACC,” Connelly said.
The game and the opponent – the Kentucky team that opened U Hall with a 99-73 thrashing of the home team would eventually lose to Texas Western in an NCAA final that was the subject of the 2006 feature film “Glory Road” – were only among the reasons for the enthusiasm and excitement.
“University Hall was dramatically different. The floor was flat, for one thing – no humps or bumps or soft spots,” Connelly said, referencing some of the more memorable features of Mem Gym.
“Building University Hall was obviously a significant step up for the program in terms of just visibility, having a facility there that could help with the recruiting program. There was a lot of enthusiasm about getting into a building that more replicated some of the facilities in other schools that we played in,” Connelly said.
“The facilities were just 10 times better. We had our own locker rooms and our own lockers – and there was less in the way of community showers and the kinds of things that you had in the old Memorial Gym. We had a state-of-the-art training room. We had accessibility to whirlpools without waiting in line. So it was a dramatic improvement over what the old facility was,” Connelly said.
The reversal in fortunes that people could sense with the newfound commitment to Virginia basketball evidenced by the planning, construction and eventual opening of University Hall didn’t happen overnight.
It would take until the 1970-1971 season that saw Parkhill hit a last-second jumper to knock off South Carolina before the Cavs would post even a winning record.
Many in Virginia basketball circles view the Parkhill jump shot, then, as a turning point of sorts. But to be fair, to pin that winning record and everything that happened thereafter – the 1976 ACC tournament championship, the multiple NCAA appearances, the Sweet 16s, the regional finals, the two Final Fours – on a 12-foot jump shot would be overstating the importance of that jump shot, and understating the years of hard work and perseverance through a long run of losing seasons that preceded it.
“If nothing else, I always hearken back to my mother,” said Jim Hobgood, a 1973 Virginia grad who enrolled in 1969 in the midst of the run of losing seasons.
“I played in a very successful high-school program in Pennsylvania – and my mother, when she first came to University Hall, and I was playing as a freshman on the freshman team, she spent half the night out in the mezzanine area, as I always joke, crying. I don’t think she was crying, but she was out there stressing – what the heck has he done? The first game that she saw in University Hall, there was probably two or three thousand people there, half of them for us, and half of them against us,” said Hobgood, who now serves as the color analyst for radio broadcasts of UVa. men’s basketball games.
Parkhill was another class of ’73 recruit – who arrived in Charlottesville, as Hobgood had, with a simple goal in mind.
“I wanted to be a part of proving that you could win at the University,” said Parkhill, now an associate athletics director at UVa. who works in the development office of the Virginia Athletics Foundation.
“What I feel most proud of to this day is the fact that we were competitive. We did win games, and we proved that you could win at the University of Virginia. And I think it’s been built from that point forward. We really did build the foundation.”
As much as he hears from people about his jumper that beat South Carolina, Parkhill does what he can to remind people that it wasn’t just one jump shot or even one game that set Virginia basketball on the course that it went on from Jan. 11, 1971, forward.
“The South Carolina game was huge, but that week, in a period of eight days, we beat Clemson at home on a Saturday, we beat South Carolina at home on a Monday, we beat Wake Forest at home on Wednesday, and we beat Georgia Tech at home the following Saturday. Those were four huge wins, and we got ranked in the top 20 for the first time ever after that stretch,” Parkhill said.
And as Hobgood remembers, U Hall went from being a place that had his mother wondering what her son had done to becoming a basketball hotbed in short order.
“We went from the situation where the first home games that I saw in University Hall as a freshman were very poorly attended, and then two years later, students were camping out in University Hall in order to get tickets. So within a year or two, the whole dynamic of the program had changed,” Hobgood said.
That is the U Hall that Gus Gerard, a two-year starter at the end of the Bill Gibson era, remembers fondly.
“I was a freshman, and we were playing the University of Maryland freshmen, who had five future All-Americans on their team. The crowd was there early because the varsity that night was playing Tom McMillan and Len Elmore, and they were ranked in the top three or four in the country. U Hall was full of fans for our freshman game, and we beat the freshmen of Maryland. And then watched Barry Parkhill and Frank DeWitt and Jim Hobgood run a clinic on Maryland,” said Gerard, who played on the varsity in 1972-1973 and 1973-1974 before leaving school early to play in the American Basketball Association.
“The crowd was just unbelievable. As a freshman, to see that, it was unbelievable for me – the memories of seeing that game, and what a perfect game the varsity played that night, it was just unbelievable,” Gerard said.
Andrew Boninti, a 1975 grad who came to the Mid-Atlantic from his native New York City not knowing much more about Virginia than the fact that it played in the ACC, saw the University community come to embrace its basketball program in his time in Charlottesville.
“Everybody was just close together,” said Boninti, now a real-estate developer in Charlottesville. “You knew people by their names in the community – and people knew you. You’d see them at the restaurants. It was just a very, very, very nice feeling.
“One thing that I find – because I still play at the gyms with the college kids – is that one of the things that they say is, What kind of crowds did you have back in the day? Back in those days, we would always have a full house,” Boninti said.
“It was a lot of energy, a lot of fun – but what separated it was the closeness. People would bring you cakes and sing ‘Happy Birthday’ at the games. People were really, really into the players – and the players were really into paying attention to the individual fans,” Boninti said.
The back-to-back-to-back winning seasons in 1970-1971, 1971-1972 and 1972-1973 were followed by a disappointing 11-16 season in 1973-1974 that ended with Gibson leaving for South Florida and a disciple of Maryland coach Lefty Driesell being handed the keys to University Hall.
Why Terry Holland wanted to leave Davidson, which at the time was considered a step or more up the ladder from Virginia in the coaching pantheon, was as big a question at the time as the one related to why Gibson had left for the Sunshine State.
“Davidson was still regarded by most as a better job than UVa., but the gas crisis and the television money and exposure of the ACC was clearly giving ACC schools an advantage for the long term, from what I could see,” Holland said.
In the short term, though, Holland faced a hard reality. One standout, Wally Walker, was getting ready for his third knee operation, and another, Gerard, was about to forego his senior season to sign with the ABA.
Undaunted, the new coach made it clear in short order to his players that he wasn’t going to accept anything in the way of excuses.
“It was very obvious from the time Terry Holland arrived that the program was going to go a different direction,” said Dan Bonner, a co-captain on the ’74-’75 team, who later served as the coach of the women’s basketball team at UVa. and is now a nationally known college-basketball broadcast analyst.
The first day practicing under Holland, the team did jumping jacks, Bonner recalled. After five or six, Holland blew the whistle and told the players they were doing the exercise wrong. He even went as far as calling them lazy, then made the guys run laps before resuming the jumping jacks.
“It was obvious this was a different world,” Bonner said.
Holland, ever the shrewd motivator, also made sure to play up the idea that the deck was stacked against his first Virginia team to his advantage.
“None of us ever believed that this was true, but Dean Smith supposedly said over the summer in some interview that Virginia, with the loss of Gus Gerard, would probably not win an ACC game. Now, why would Dean Smith say that? It just doesn’t make any sense. But that’s what was plastered all over the paper,” said Boninti, who served as co-captain of the 1974-1975 team with Bonner.
“That’s what we had up on our locker room leading up to the game with North Carolina. ‘Dean Smith says Virginia will never win a game.’ And we had won a few – we’d beaten Duke twice, we’d beaten Clemson. But they’re coming to U Hall with Phil Ford, Walter Davis and Mitch Kupchak, the whole group,” Boninti said.
“The night before the game, I said to my wife – I was married when I played – I said, ‘We’re going to beat North Carolina tomorrow.’ She said, ‘Wow, you are?’ I said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to catch them tomorrow. And when we do, I’m going to jump over the bench and come up into the stands to see you.’
“So, lo and behold, we make two foul shots at the end of the game, and we beat them – and of course all of the fans rush out on the floor. I jump into the stands like I’d said I would do – and Dean Smith has to eat his words. It really was a pretty special day,” Boninti said.
“People from the ’70s will remember that day for Dean putting his foot into his mouth – which probably he never did. Terry probably invented it in order to give us motivation to beat them. That’s what I think,” Boninti said.