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Bradley Hilltopics

Spring 2008 • Volume 14, Issue 2

Field House memories

by Justin Phelps ’05

The mainstay on Main Street … the venerable venue … the fabled Field House … and to Bradley opponents, the Snake Pit. Robertson Memorial Field House still has a unique smell to it. Take a walk around the inside, and the noise from historic games in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s still echoes from the walls, the famed raised floor, and the theater seats. Let your imagination run wild, and you can still smell the freshly popped popcorn, hear the bounce of basketballs, and the roar of the Bradley faithful as the team emerges from its locker room. When the Field House is torn down this spring after the women’s basketball season, the 59-year-old building will be replaced with a state-of-the-art, 4,500-seat arena and a dedicated practice facility for the men’s basketball program. While these much-needed facilities will create new memories for current and future students, many Bradley alums and Peoria natives will cherish memories of Robertson Memorial Field House.

Field House memories
[Title image: Skye Johnson ’09]; Field House entrance, 1949; Lipizzan horses, 1971; Hannibal Circus, 1972.

In its heyday, as many as 8,500 fans would pack Robertson Memorial Field House for Bradley men’s basketball. Tickets were in such demand; Peorians found a way through the doors and sat in the aisles to cheer on the Bradley Braves against nationally ranked teams like Louisville, Cincinnati, Tulane, and Indiana State.

The home crowd — once described by legendary DePaul coach Ray Meyer as, “10,000 natives ready to riot” — helped Bradley amass a perfectly rounded 400-100 record at the Field House before the team moved downtown to Carver Arena for the 1982–83 season. The advantage was in large part the noise level. “Playing Bradley in that Field House was as about as tough of an assignment as you would get. Not only did they have good players, good teams, and outstanding coaching, but you couldn’t communicate with your own players because of the acoustics in that place,” said longtime Louisville coach Denny Crum, who was 2-4 at the Field House. “The noise level was unbelievable. You literally could not coach your team unless they were six inches from you.”

For Joe Stowell ’50 MA ’56, who coached the men’s team from 1965 to 1978 and the women’s team for a couple years in the ’80s, the challenge of coaching was in the location of his seat. “The only bad thing about coaching here is you sat below the floor,” said Stowell, who was involved in more games at the Field House as a player, coach, and broadcaster than anyone. “At that time you couldn’t get up on the floor, or it was a technical foul. Now coaches roam the sidelines. So you had to stay down there, and really, you’ve got the worst seat in the house.”

Dave Snell ’76, radio voice of the men’s basketball team for 29 years, became a Bradley fan as a child. He says players were like actors on a stage on the raised floor. “The whole atmosphere was like theater,” he said. “The players would come out in the spotlight. It was like a show. And then the game would start, and Bradley would always win. The first game I saw was against Idaho State in December 1963. After the first time, I was hooked.”

Field House memories
Registration, 1958; Tony Vuckovich ’09, NCAA send-off 2006; Packed Field House, 1950; ’50s Field House commencement.

From the first hint of popcorn, to the organist’s rendition of “In the Mood” as the Braves warmed up, the atmosphere at basketball games is what many alumni remember. “The smell,” Snell said, “it’s unique. I’d probably describe it as a basketball scent. It’s like no other I’ve experienced at any other arena.”

For Greg Florey ’69, it was the unity of the crowd. “The most enduring memory of the Field House is the consistent ritual 20 minutes before a game,” wrote Florey, who became a fan in middle school. “From his perch across from the student section, the organist was able to get the first glimpse of the Bradley team exiting the locker room and filing toward the court along the student bleachers. As the first player reached courtside, the organist stopped playing his tune in mid-note and blasted out the notes to the Bradley fight song, ‘Charge on!’ The crowd would stand as one, and virtually every fan would shout, ‘Here come the Braves!’ At that moment, there was a unanimous feeling of exhilaration, confidence, and invincibility I have not witnessed in any other setting.”

For other fans, sitting after the national anthem was occasionally an event in itself. “We sat high up on the north side,” Edith Gorenz Anderson ’48 wrote about games she attended with her husband Harold Anderson ’49. “There were so many people in each row you had to sit down fast after the national anthem to have room, and heaven help the guy on the end if he wasn’t fast enough.”

Scores of memories

The atmosphere at Robertson wouldn’t have been so memorable if it weren’t for the product on the floor. From national runner-up finishes in the National Invitation Tournament and NCAA tournament in its first season at Robertson to the record seven-overtime game against Cincinnati in 1981, the Braves had scores of memorable moments.

At the top of the list for many is “The Game of the Century” — No. 4 Bradley vs. No. 1 Cincinnati in 1960. Cincinnati’s Oscar Robertson, who was 0-3 at the Field House, scored an arena-record 46 points, but Bradley won 91-90. “The Braves had a three-point lead with seconds to go,” David Jackson ’60 remembered. “Oscar backed in for a final shot, and the Braves were very careful not to foul him. He made the shot and the clock ran out. The Field House was so crowded that night, even with a student ticket I sat in the aisle the whole game.”

Fred Filip ’59 tells a unique story from the game. “I and a friend on the Field House crew, Garry Norder ’63, grabbed the Field House cat, who was black, and locked him in the Cincinnati locker room the night before the game,” wrote Filip, a Field House worker as a student and a season ticket holder for 35 years. “It was a noontime start on a Saturday. I figured when the team was ready to open the door, the cat would be eager to get out. Sure enough, they opened the door and out came a black cat.”

The seven-overtime game in 1981 is another of the most memorable. The two-point loss to Cincinnati was one of the few defeats at the Field House for the Braves, who had a winning record at Robertson for all but one season. The game still stands as the longest in NCAA history.

Then there are the four “last games” at the Field House in 1982. Between Missouri Valley Conference tournament and NIT games, the Braves played four postseason home games after the 1981–82 season. Each could have been the last at the Field House, but Bradley’s 77-61 win over Tulane in the NIT quarterfinals was the official last game and set the men’s win-loss record at Robertson at 400-100 (until a 1993 game against Illinois Wesleyan). The team went on to win the NIT after many felt the NCAA tournament selection committee snubbed the Braves.

The Field House wasn’t limited to Bradley basketball. Caterpillar had a team that played in the National Basketball Industrial League and, for many years, four area high school teams would play in the Illinois High School Association’s Class AA sectional tournament on the raised floor. “It’s a special place to play with all the history,” said Jeremy Crouch ’08, who played five games in three years at the Field House as a standout from Pekin. “Growing up around here, this is an icon for basketball.”

For area high school basketball players, a chance to play in the hangars was the ultimate dream. “Winning my senior year here was by far the best memory,” said Ryan Phillips ’10, who played on the Richwoods High School team that won the Peoria Sectional in 2005.

For James Robertson, playing on the raised floor for Richwoods meant playing in the building named after his great-grandfather. The son of William ’83 and Sally Grimm Robertson ’83 and grandson of William “Corky” ’53 MA ’64 and Delores Frels Robertson ’54, James played in one of the last high school games at the Field House in January in the River City Shootout. “It’s one of the most special things you can do in high school,” said James, who practiced shooting there as a child with his father and grandfather. “It’s one of the greatest venues in the state. There’s so much history, and there were so many great players like Oscar Robertson and Mitchell Anderson ’82 … to be walking and playing on the same court as them is unreal.”

More than a sports venue

The Field House was far more than just the home of the Braves. Consider this list of events: registration, Caterpillar children’s Christmas parties, blood drives, campus carnivals, concerts, Holiday on Ice, science fairs, roller derby, and numerous speakers, including Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower during his presidential campaigns in the ’50s and President Gerald Ford in 1976.

Field House memories
Prague Symphony Orchestra, 1972; The Carpenters, 1972; Muddy Waters, 1975; Barry Goldwater political rally, 1964.

The Meri-N-Ettes were a staple as halftime entertainment. “I remember being chosen to be a Meri-N-Ette in 1968, the early morning practices on the raised floor, and the first time in uniform walking up onto the floor to perform,” Jolyn Dorick Trzyna ’71 wrote. “There was nothing like that energy! Because I am tall, during my senior year I was the ‘head’ of the line. Imagine the rest of the line queuing on you as you march straight down the length of the floor.”

John Gibson ’57 MBA ’68 was in attendance in 1973 when Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen made what was likely his final talk in his home diocese of Peoria. David Oedewaldt ’60 remembers target shooting under the east bleachers for the Air Force ROTC between 1956 and 1958.

Field House memories
Jack Benny; Bill Cosby, 2002; Student Expo, 2003; Final Field House commencement, December 2007; Roller Derby, 1972.

Marilyn Voss Leyland ’67 said one of her earliest memories of the Field House was the Caterpillar children’s Christmas party, which featured circus-type acts like clowns, trained animals, and jugglers. She recalled mass polio immunizations given in the Field House in the 1950s and school science fairs in the 1960s.

Then there were the graduations. Many alumni wrote about the intense heat in the Field House during spring commencement. “Graduation at the Field House in June of 1966 was in stifling heat,” Lawrence Martin ’66 wrote. “And President Van Arsdale’s shortened commencement address was not only a relief but also an exclamation point for going ‘onward’ but never forgetting Robertson Memorial Field House.”

Cliff Hasselbacher ’49 was a member of the first class to graduate at the Field House, which was only half complete for the ceremony. “It was so hot,” said Hasselbacher, who held season tickets for section B, row 6, seats 5 and 6. “Most of the men wore only their underwear under the robes!”

In December, President Joanne K. Glasser’s first commencement address was the last at the Field House. “This hallowed place has been one of tremendous excitement through the years, as it is today,” she told the graduating class of about 400. “But this ceremony is bittersweet, too, for it is the last commencement at Robertson. So besides being an important milestone for you, it is for the University, as well, as we say goodbye to this old friend.”

Field House memories
1946; 1949; 1964 (courtesy of Peoria Journal Star); 2007.

History of Robertson Memorial Field House

1946 A war-surplus hangar is constructed for educational uses.
1949 President David B. Owen announces plans to add a second war-surplus hangar for athletics and performances. The building is dedicated as Robertson Memorial Field House, after Coach A.J. Robertson.
1949 Bradley men’s basketball wins its first game at the Field House, 73-57, over Houston, but falls to Purdue, 71-65, in the dedication game.
1951 Holiday on Ice visits for one of several shows in the ’50s.
1952 Plans are unveiled to install a planetarium in the Field House.
1964 A brick facade is added to the Field House at a cost of $85,000.
1964 Signature letters are added above the ticket office entrance on Main Street as a gift by the ’64 senior class.
1982 Bradley men’s basketball moves to the Peoria Civic Center in downtown Peoria. Women’s basketball and volleyball continue to play at the Field House.
1992 A new weight room is completed.
1993 The Braves return to the Field House for a regular-season game for the first time since moving, and defeat Illinois Wesleyan, 81-63.
2002 A new scoreboard is installed.
2003 Renovations on the student-athlete facilities in the Field House begin. By fall 2004, changes include a new fitness center, study/media center, lounge, and new women’s basketball offices.

Field House memories

By the numbers

8,300 Seating capacity when the Field House opened.
2,100 Number of season tickets sold when Bradley offered a five-year season-ticket plan in 1949. At a cost of $25 per year, the deal was a bargain. More than $320,000 was raised to help fund the new building.
30 Approximate number of inches the floor is above ground.
40 Feet above the playing surface at the building’s highest point.
$600,000 Total cost to build Robertson Memorial Field House in 1949.
16 Weight in tons of the $16,000 floor modeled after the Cow Palace in San Francisco. The floor was made of 160 panels, bolted in a jigsaw assembly.
400,000 Number of people who attended an event there in its first six months.
400 Number of wins for Bradley men’s basketball at the Field House until the team moved to Carver Arena in 1982. The team was 400-100, won four NIT championships, and was an NCAA tournament runner-up twice while the Field House was its home. A 1993 win against Illinois Wesleyan pushed the record to 401-100.