Fourth ranked Xavier comes to Washington this week, a good as time as any to remember the last time a #4 ranked team came to Washington--what was gained, and what was lost.
In the fall of 1981, Georgetown announced its first off-campus schedule since 1950, but noted that its biggest non-conference game, a Feb. 20 meeting with two-time Big 8 champions Missouri, had a scheduling conflict with the Ice Capades show at Capital Centre.
Instead of a big crowd at Landover against a team that would be ranked #4 in the nation, the game would be moved to a place called "McDonough Arena". In the Internet age that we live in, it boggles the mind that in 1982, no one at Missouri ever thought to ask "What the heck is McDonough Arena?"
In a subsequent interview, coach Norm Stewart said he assumed the "arena" was a structure along the lines of the buildings in the Big 8: Gallagher-Iba Arena, the Ahern Coliseum, the Lloyd Noble Center--the kind of places seating 7,000 to 12,000 fans, but not the NBA-type building that Capital Centre was. No worries.
So when the Tigers' team bus arrived late to the Key Bridge Marriott the night before, Stewart passed on a team walk-through and would get an early start at the gym by 9:00 am the next morning. Across the river, Al McGuire was holding court in the Center Pub and the little gym that could was about to become the talk of college basketball.
Somewhere, Dave Gavitt was smiling.
Norm Stewart and the Tigers walked into a buzzsaw on Feb. 20, 1982, where Georgetown made its debut on national television at an overstuffed McDonough Gymnasium. A crowd approaching 5,000 overwhelmed the capacity. McGuire couldn't help himself.
"I feel like I'm in a wine cellar!" he shouted over the noise overwhelming the NBC microphones.
"The fire marshal," he said, "must be out of town today."
Georgetown's 63-51 win was memorable in many ways. The team didn't lose a game for the next five weeks, and a freshman named Patrick Ewing became a household name. The most memorable game in 30 seasons at McDonough, it also marked the last game of any significance there. All these years later, little has changed in The House That Father Mac Built.
What does its future hold?
In 67 years, the gymnasium has welcomed Eisenhower and Nixon, Clinton and Obama. The GE College Bowl passed through town, as did Chuck Berry, a pro tennis tournament, assorted Vietnam War protesters, Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen, The Who, and even the Grateful Dead. (As the story goes, nearly 6,000 waited for the Dead on the evening of Oct. 23, 1970, except that the driver let them out at Healy Gates and they had no idea where the gym was.) It was also home to three generations of basketball memories, from Beins and Bolger to Duren and Shelton. Despite years of .500 basketball, Georgetown was 292-94 (.756) at home.
But in the last 36 years, Georgetown has played just 17 games on campus, two in the last nine years. The obvious answer is that Georgetown outgrew the gymnasium, but a larger question remains - what is its future?
First proposed in 1927 and not completed until 1951, McDonough Memorial Gymnasium is the oldest gymnasium of its kind in Washington, and among the 20 oldest on-campus facilities in Division I. Very little has changed in the building. Well into the 1990's, it used the same wooden flooring that came with the building. A phone booth stood off to the side of the main entrance. Pay phones did not survive the 2010's, but trophies dating back to the early 20th century have their home there, as they always have.
Built for just four men's teams at the sunset of major college football, the back of McDonough has served 29 teams and literally thousands of men and women over its years, while the front door, and the gym itself, feels like a walk back into time.
"The place we're in tonight still houses the coaches' offices, sports information and athletics administration offices and the sports medicine and training room facilities. It's functional place, not a dump," wrote the Charleston Gazette in 2014 ."It's just not intended to be the home to a powerhouse basketball program. And it isn't."
And it's worth a discussion what Georgetown wants to do with it--not today, not tomorrow, but down the road. When the Hoyas are drawing sellout crowds downtown, an on-campus gym draws only scant attention. Drawing 4,800 for DePaul and paying some of the highest arena rents in college sports at Capital One Arena is another issue.
What served as a de facto practice facility for men's basketball ended in 2016 with the completion of the adjacent John Thompson Center. And with no disrespect to the elder Thompson, if it wasn't for his son getting to the 2007 Final Four, it's likely the new place would have never been built. Georgetown had not constructed a new athletic facility since McDonough Gymnasium before the Thompson Center was opened, and it's not beyond the imagination that it could take another six decades before basketball gets to the front of the line on facilities.
At 67, McDonough is not the arena Norm Stewart envisioned, but its future seems increasingly tied to an indifferent past. Georgetown is nonetheless beginning the discernment process towards its next capital campaign, seeking to identify the capital priorities that will drive its trajectory for the next decade. Does the revitalization of McDonough Gymnasium have a seat at that table?
Many students and fans see a gym that is small by contemporary standards and assume there is no hope. Few would imagine crowds the size of the 1982 Missouri game in a building that now seats just over half that. At 2,200 seats, cut in half from a high of 4,400, there's not much of an argument that it doesn't fit Georgetown and the Big East.
What kind of renovation would work for Georgetown? There are many to discuss, but let's go back a few years.
"The April 22 issue of the Washington Post discussed the possibility of three words not heard on the Georgetown campus in two decades: "on campus basketball," wrote this site in 2000. "Although the subject has been the subject of hushed tones among hopeful fans and briefly discussed at the awards banquet, Ken Denlinger's story in the Post publicly discusses the issue of a renovation of McDonough Memorial Gymnasium, built in 1951 and the smallest facility among the soon-to-be 14 Big East schools."
The plan, outlined by athletic director Joe Lang, involved an interior renovation that would not involve neighborhood architectural approval, instead digging down into McDonough's foundation. In 2000, The HOYA wrote that "Plans include renovating within the [McDonough Gymnasium] walls, rather than creating a whole new structure, significantly cutting costs...After turning the court 90 degrees, the plan is to dig down and build a bowl that will contain the court...adding up to somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 seats. Investigations have deemed the plan feasible because there are no pipes resting under the area of the building that would interfere with digging. In addition, a practice facility would be added between the existing building and the observatory to avoid conflicts between the teams using McDonough."
Lang was careful not to call it an arena, or even a gymnasium, but a "convocation center", which spoke to University wide use. A price tag of $22 million was floated in the Post. The project soon got a cold shoulder up the hill, because while it might have been an athletics priority, it wasn't their
"The proposal was not considered a priority under Lang's successor (Bernard Muir), and given the backlog of unfunded athletic proposals from the 2000 plan (Multi-Sport Facility, an athletic training facility, a softball field aside the Southwest Quadrangle, etc.), this may have been one of those good ideas who died of institutional apathy rather than concerted opposition," wrote HoyaSaxa.com. In 2010, the convocation center was dropped from GU's 2010-20 planning documents.
As such there are no current plans to build a new indoor intercollegiate facility through 2036, whereupon McDonough will be 85 years old, assuming it still stands. But gutting an interior building is far, far less expensive than building a new one, and the opportunity to secure future philanthropy to reconstitute an on campus option at Georgetown would give the program the opportunity to avoid crippling rental costs from games in December that simply don't draw support anymore, students or otherwise. Average attendance has decreased for seven of the last eight seasons and Capital One Arena knows full well that Georgetown has no options but to pay their rent, and lots of it. Millions of dollars have gone to rent over the years, and millions more will follow.
It took nearly 10 years to get a boost from the Final Four into a groundbreaking ceremony, and it may take as long for people to see a future where a new arena for the Wizards and Capitals may not be advantageous to Georgetown, nor in a location favorable for attendance. If Ted Leonsis got a subsidy money to move the teams to Fairfax or Loudoun County, would he do it? He'd certainly consider it. Today's NBA arenas are considered obsolete by their 25th anniversary. Capital One Arena is 20. If Leonsis sells the team, would the next owner (or location) be as accommodating to Georgetown?
In 2011, we wrote: "By 2020, does the idea of on-campus athletics return to the discussion, particularly if enrollment or a changing athletic climate dictate? There remains a need for a central activity center for the campus, and available options are all but gone. The McDonough footprint still offers the opportunity to balance limited athletic contests with the academic and social opportunities which are all but impractical today."
Repeated for effect: Capital One Arena knows full well that Georgetown has no options.
If Georgetown was serious about giving an old building new life, they don't have far to look for evidence of same.
In 2017-18, Villanova University is playing all its games of campus, not for revenue's sake but for construction's sake. With a $22 million lead gift from investment banker William Finneran, the school raised $60 million to rebuild its on-campus facility into the newly named Finneran Pavilion, helping erase once and for all the name which brought the building to the Main Line in the first place.
Because, you see, before it was the Finneran Pavilion, it was the John E. Dupont Pavilion. An eccentric millionaire who was an heir to his family's multi generational fortune, DuPont earned a graduate degree at Villanova and had offered $5 million to build an on-campus gym if it was named after him and if Villanova started a wrestling program. As portrayed in the 2014 movie Foxcatcher, DuPont was convicted of murder in the 1997 death of Olympic gold medalist Dave Schultz, and died in prison. Villanova removed the name from the building at his conviction. While this was not the only name scrubbed from arenas of its day (the "Adnan Khashoggi Center" at American comes to mind), it was certainly one of the most public.
The new facility provides the Main Line with new seating, an enhanced concourse area, locker rooms, a Hall of Fame exhibit area, a video board, and the club-style accouterments of modern sports facilities, all without the tear down and building of a new arena. Villanova concluded that the cost for a comparable building would have topped $125 million and run into significant headwind from the local citizenry--though not as litigious as their Georgetown brethren, but sufficiently capable of throwing a decade-long wrench into the plans.
Finneran's gift will transform what was, in reality, a hybrid gymnasium and campus rec center into a full time basketball facility. "The Pavilion is in need of a complete overhaul now," read Villanova's web site. "After 31 years, the Pavilion's infrastructure has experienced significant wear and tear, and in order to provide an improved game-day experience for all fans this renovation cannot wait."
McDonough Gymnasium was already 35 years old when the Pavilion opened.
The Finneran project will not change capacity nor reconstruct the outer edges of the building (either of which would set zoning critics ablaze), but provide the renovation necessary to justify Villanova playing its games on campus and not in Center City at the Wells Fargo Center. The WFC can still host Georgetown and Syracuse and the big "weekend" games, while the Pavilion could provide mid-week games to a student-centric clientele, something McDonough would emulate if it only could.
A realistic discussion on McDonough renovation that does not involve foundational digging would involve removing the wooden ground level bleachers and cantilevering seating up to the second level, while the replacement of the 1951-era stage (most recently used as the "practice gym" in the pre-Thompson Center days) would provide an imposing wall of students behind a basket. These changes, along with needed interior work on the building, would likely fall in the same price tag as the Finneran project - $60 million - and raise McDonough capacity somewhere closer to 5,800 seats--more than the 4,600 that held in fans for the Missouri game and certainly more than the woeful 2,200 which is advertised today.
And before people jump on such a number and argue that residents won't allow it, or that there wouldn't be a place to park, take a step back.
The original gym was built with a capacity of 3,600 for an on-campus student body of just 2,000 and an undergraduate population of just 4,000. It wasn't built for thousands of cars along the Whitehurst Freeway because students filled the seats. In the 2020's, with an on-campus population topping 6,000 and an undergraduate population approaching 7,000, a 5,800 seat facility wouldn't be oversized. With driverless buses across the Key Bridge, a gondola across the Potomac, and all sorts of transportation options just around the corner, it is not unrealistic to consider that guests to mid-week games would do well not to drive into Georgetown on a Wednesday night, and instead take public transportation to campus--and if the oft-discussed Metro Blue Line construction ever makes it under M Street, there won't be that many cars allowed on the streets to begin with.
"When complete, the Finneran Pavilion, along with the Wells Fargo Center, will create an unmatched fan experience that sets Villanova apart from its peers. [A fan] survey also showed that there is significant demand for maximizing the experience [downtown] for fans who are only able to come to a handful of games each year. Therefore, we want to provide a complete weekend entertainment experience for our fans that includes restaurant and hotel options, various ticket and club amenity options, parking and much more."
But back to the on-campus element. The Villanova promotional material makes reference to a feature of Georgetown's 2000 Lang plan - convocations. "The building will "create a 'best-in-class' atmosphere to support various campus activities including commencement ceremonies and other University-wide events," it writes.
A facility that can host not just basketball but speakers, debates, concerts, and formal University events sells itself. Gaston Hall, the crown jewel of Georgetown spaces, could once house the entire student body and now accommodates less than ten percent of the undergraduate population.
It can be argued in 2018 that Georgetown would be foolish to turn away revenue with a smaller facility. Recent attendance patterns may suggest otherwise, and suggest a trend that also bears discussion. Back in the 1980's, the same Al McGuire posited that games of the future would be played before "studio" crowds, because the comforts of watching at home would be far better than being there. If virtual reality headsets and eight foot tall screens become the household norm in the next decade, are people really going to Capital One Arena to see DePaul or Coppin State?
A gathering space for the next century, not the last one, is the kind of strategic thinking that has long eluded Georgetown's brightest minds but which deserves a closer look.
And yet, for all the excitement of a new basketball facility, rational minds could also argue that it's just not needed. That does not preclude the work needed to take what will be an 70 year old building by the turn of the next decade and give it the rework needed to allow it to last another 75 years. And maybe basketball won't be a part of it.
Names like Cole Field House and Manley Field House are well known to Georgetown basketball fans of years gone by. Combined, the two facilities hosted over six decades of basketball, but today, there's not a hoop to be seen. As their teams moved to bigger homes and dedicated practice facilities, schools like Maryland and Syracuse had to make decisions about whether to raze the old buildings or reimagine their purposes. Both took the approach to turn Cole and Manley into indoor multi-purpose facilities, largely for indoor football practice but available for numerous team sports as applicable.
Is this a future for McDonough? The only spectator sports remaining on the gym floor do not draw many fans anymore--volleyball averaged 253 fans per game last fall, women's basketball just 588 this spring). Those are numbers that could be housed elsewhere if the decision is made to take the McDonough footprint - measuring roughly 40 yards wide and 50 yards long - and dropping a multi-sport indoor turf on the floor. That opens up opportunities for indoor practice for football, lacrosse, track, field hockey, even a baseball cage or two. That also offers the chance for a wooden court to host a game or two, but it would convert the building into more of a practice facility than a gameday one.
McDonough's future utility comes into play with another University effort. Approaching the ripe old age of 40, Yates Field House is a functional white elephant and increasingly likely that it must be torn down in the next 7-10 years. Concrete buildings to not stand the test of time and those with severe moisture and leakage, even less so. If Yates is closed in advance of a potentially $100 million recreational facility constructed on the site of the current Shaw Field, the obvious question awaits - where do you take 6,000 students and give them a place to exercise?
Remember, since the construction of Yates, Georgetown has added Village A, Village B, Village C, renovated the Nevils complex, added back the Ryan, Gervase, and Mulledy buildings, built the Southwest Quad, shoe-horned Arrupe Hall into a triangle of land next to the Reiss Science Center, and will likely build a large dorm next to Harbin Hall in the next decade. That's a lot of kids paying what will be tuition approaching $100K and they're not going to take long walks on the C&O Canal as a substitute.
And yet, McDonough actually served as an intramural center in the pre-Yates era, with midnight basketball games not uncommon as students worked around team practice schedules to get time on the courts. However uncomfortable the prospect, the gym might have to serve a similar role if the Rubik's cube of Georgetown construction projects cannot keep Yates functioning as a new building is fundraised, zoned, borrowed, and built.
While other schools have repurposed old gyms for non-athletic means (for example, Davidson's Johnston Gymnasium is now its student center), the intercollegiate, intramural, and recreational needs of Georgetown cannot rely solely on the current footprint to support the expectations of its students. GU's long held inability to secure excess land for expansion purposes makes talk of an "athletics campus" as likely as seeing the Boathouse right now. Any need to repackage McDonough still need the infrastructure upgrade that it has never had, in order to support teams and programs it never did before.
The fourth way is the Georgetown Way, namely, put it aside for another day.
There's a certain inertia at Georgetown when it comes to buildings. We gaze at the Healy Building and take comfort that for most of the last 150 years, it has stood the test of time. Old North has welcomed Washington and Lincoln. The Ark and the Dove are not candidates for renovation.
And thus it's easy to look at the last building down the hill and forget about it. Basketball's got their building, the other sports always seem to get by, and there are other pressing needs. Always.
The new Harbin dorm is coming, the library is 50 years old and needs work, The Leavey Center will be 30 years old this year, Village A won't be around forever and...well, you know. Constituencies get in line. Cooper Field (nee Multi Sport Facility) stood in line as the Southwest Quad, Davis Center, Hariri, and Arrupe all moved to the front of the line. The College needs a new academic building, the McCourt School needs its own building, faculty need offices, etc, etc.
It would be easy to envision McDonough in the 2020's as Georgetown's version of Fordham's Rose Hill Gym--an athletic reliquary: too small to use, too old to tear down, too irrelevant to inspire.
"We don't like to say 'old', we like to say 'historic," a Fordham official told the New York Times in 2014. "Everyone loves exposed brick, and we've got a lot of it."
As late as the 1960's, Fordham was one of the top basketball schools in the East. Vince Lombardi, an alumnus then in his early 50's, was tapped to lead a campaign to build a 10,500 seat arena that would have made Fordham basketball the talk of New York. Not far behind was Richard (Digger) Phelps, who took Fordham to a 26-3 season. But Lombardi died, Phelps moved to Notre Dame, and Rose Hill was soon forgotten. The Rams have appeared in one NCAA tournament - just one -- in the last 46 years.
At 9-17, it won't be this year, either.
A school of 9,200 undergraduates and over 100,000 alumni in the New York area, the Rams average 1,463 a game.
"I got here 20 minutes before the game and got a seat," said a Fordham junior to the Times. "I don't know if that's a good thing."
"I love it, but I think most people would say, 'Come on, you can't have a major Division I program playing in a place like that,' said former coach P.J. Carlesimo . "I do think it's a real problem."
Fordham can't afford to leave its gym and Georgetown can't afford to come back. If McDonough is left to atrophy, it will serve less and less of a role in campus life, left to Kenner League summer games and the fall convocation. Like Rose Hill, it has not been seriously renovated. Its infrastructure dates to the Truman administration, with radiators to heat offices and flooring that has long since seen better days. By the end of the next capital campaign it will be close to 75 years old and capacity will likely decline yet again, given the historically poor attendance in volleyball and women's basketball.
And memories, well, what memories? The youngest students who saw the Missouri game turn 55 this year. Will anyone remember those classic games with Alonzo Mourning or Allen Iverson played in the gym? Not likely, as the two never played a single intercollegiate game there. Since 2009, Georgetown has played just two men's games there. How many will it play in the future?
There are no easy answers when it comes to facilities, but they are conversations worth having, and soon. As Georgetown talks about its financial priorities in the next decade, it cannot just be limited to faculty chairs and financial aid as tuition approaches a sixth digit. Quality of life, and yes, athletics is a vital part of that quality of life, and that can't be ignored as it has been in the past. A student body that shares no common experiences is a student body that disappears as alumni.
"It doesn't feel like a palace and it doesn't feel like a relic," writes an article at CBS Sports.com on Kansas' Allen Fieldhouse, built five years after McDonough. "[It's] cozily tucked right on the edge of campus, but unless you're a fan of the game you wouldn't even know what's there unless you actually got to step through the doors. When you do you're not stepping into a time machine, and I think that's an important distinction. Butler's Hinkle Fieldhouse, The Palestra in Philadelphia and Rose Hill [at Fordham] ...have this power of instantly transporting you and holding ghosts in the room. [This] feels effortlessly timeless, in a modern way."
McDonough Gymnasium is not the Palestra, and doesn't need to be. But it needs to be something, and that is why this is a conversation worth having.