McKale Memorial Center


The McKale Memorial Center, named in honor of UA coach and Athletic Director J. F. (Pop) McKale was the last of the Place and Place-designed buildings on the UA campus.

When the McKale Center's history is viewed in one place and at one time, it might be called a fiasco. And yet, it is a beautiful structure and will serve the university's basketball needs for many years.

It is located to the west of Campbell Avenue on an alignment with Fourth Street, if the street were extended. M. M. Sundt was the contractor and completion date was 1973, although it was conceived several years before under the administration of UA President Dr. Richard A. Harvill. Its cost is listed officially at $8, 145,077.

The Arizona Alumnus magazine, in its Spring, 1985, edition (Volume 62, No.3) had this to say about Pop McKale: Three of University of Arizona's most enduring athletic traditions - the Wildcats, 'A' Mountain, and 'Bear Down' - all began early in the illustrious career of James Fred 'Pop' McKale.

McKale came to Tucson in 1911 to accept a job at Tucson High School. His state championship baseball teams were known for their victories embarrassing the college teams at the UA and Tempe Normal. A student petition was presented to University President A.H. Wilde, asking him to hire McKale as Athletic Director and coach of all sports. Although he was opposed to the hiring, Wilde announced McKale's appointment on June 2, 1914, at a salary of $1,700 per year.

Wilde's successor, Rufus B. von KleinSmid, was not much more enthused with the benefits of collegiate athletics, and records for 1915 show that McKale's total appropriation to run his program amounted to $835!

McKale Memorial Center. Three enduring traditions: The Wildcats, Bear Down, 'A' Mountain. All began with James Fred 'Pop' McKale.
McKale Memorial Center. Three enduring traditions: The Wildcats, Bear Down, 'A' Mountain. All began with James Fred 'Pop' McKale.

Despite meager resources and an inexperienced group of players, McKale's first football team made history. On November 7, the team traveled to the west coast to play Occidental, then one of the reigning gridiron powers in California. Occidental won 14-0, but the loss was responsible for a great university athletic tradition.

Covering the game for the Los Angeles Times was young correspondent Bill Henry. Henry, in his story, wrote: The Arizona men showed the fight of wildcats and displayed before the public gaze a couple of little shrimps who defied all attempts of the Tigers to stop them. When the news reached the campus the phrase 'the fight of wildcats , was repeated over and over. The name stuck. The McKale legend was born.

If Lew Place's idea had been adopted by the UA, McKale Memorial Center would not have been built, but surely a similar memorial would have been erected. Place, knowing that the McKale Center and the new Library were on the planning boards, had an idea that could have saved the state a lot of money and could have solved the congestion now experienced at UA football games. His idea was to tie Bear Down gym in with the Science Library and make Bear Down a stack area for the library system. That would have eliminated the need for the new library.

Place had the idea to cover the UA stadium and to use it as a new gymnasium and to build a new stadium.

Place tells this story:

"As I related earlier, the McKale Center was delayed because money appropriated by the Legislature for it was put into bonds and there were no monies for the architect's fees. We didn't start on the work until the third year and it took us over a year to do the complete set of drawings and specifications. By the time we were ready for builders' bids, the cost had doubled to $8 million. Dr. Harvill was on my back like a bear, saying it was my fault. He still says it."

That is when the idea of not building· McKale at all came to the Place firm. Lew Place says: "When we found out what had happened to the estimate, Warren Moon wrote to an outfit in Kansas City and sent them a layout of the football field and stadium. They sent back some preliminaries and an estimate of the cost. They would roof the entire stadium for $2 million, with steel trusses and roof. We would have had to put the end across the north end and air condition it of course. Now, there would have been a field house and dormitories and places for everything, including a basketball court. "

Warren Moon said: "First of all, you could have had basketball court there and an indoor baseball practice field. You could have had a certain amount for indoor track. "

Place said, "There was the matter of football. Warren and I told Harvill that we could design a stadium that would have held the same amount of people, on the west side of Interstate 10, between the Interstate and the Santa Cruz River. There was plenty of land for parking. Access to the stadium would be from Broadway and 29th Street, east to west, and, of course 1-10. We would have excavated the football field. "

Moon: Just like the University of Michigan. That's exactly the way it is there at Ann Arbor.

JFC: Who turned down the idea?

Place: Harvill. That was one of the times he told me that if I didn't shut up, he'd get somebody else to do the McKale Center. So I shut up.

Moon: I think one of his fears was that it was too far from the campus.

JFC: I don't remember reading anything in the newspapers on this. I think I remember some speculation about abandoning the stadium before that huge enlargement and building a new one out east.

Place: There was nothing in the newspapers about covering the old stadium and going west with a new one.

Moon: I don't think Harvill let anyone out of the office without shutting him up.

Place: All they would have had to do was bring the football players out to the new stadium in busses. I had told Harvill that they could rent the new stadium out to other functions and make money off of it, for a lot of community events, when they weren't using it for football. But Harvill was against that. When he was president, he would allow nobody but the university to use the campus buildings.

Place said that McKale, when it was eventually designed, could have been used for many purposes other than basketball. But the administration said that basketball was the only purpose to be considered, except, perhaps Peter Marroney's department.

Peter Marroney, head of the Drama Department at the time, said in an interview that McKale Center was originally designed to include facilities for large pageants.

"Dr. Harvill put me on the planning committee for McKale Center. The committee was charged with appraising facilities similar to what McKale was going to have. My particular assignment was to appraise the facilities for the large pageants and dramas that were to be presented in it. "

Lew Place said that the high ceilings were designed to allow eighteen-wheeler trucks to get down onto the floor. Also, designed were areas where curtains could be placed and then be folded into certain sections of the walls. Makeup rooms were provided for.

Marroney said that after all the plans, no extravaganzas were held there. "When McKale finally opened, John Schaefer was president of the UA. We had what we called the drama labs, which were approved. The building had to be multi-purpose before we could get money from the U. S. government for it. So, being multi-purpose, we had the drama labs. The drama labs were two rooms for the makeup rooms, for all the proposed events. Who gloms onto them, but Fred Snowden. " (Fred Snowden was hired to coach UA basketball in 1972. He was from Michigan, a man with charisma, good humor, and a good recruiter.)

Marroney continued:

"Snowden didn't like the large dressing rooms for his basketball players. He wanted compact rooms. I must tell you that when they finished those rooms before Snowden came, they had some woman in the Home Economics Department who selected the colors. And the rooms were a pinky rose. It was as sweet as it could be. 

"Then, Snowden wanted the rooms re-painted and they painted them a nice blue-grey. The Drama Department didn't use McKale at all. We didn't stage one thing there." Lew Place said, "In the planning, the UA let Marroney have his dressing rooms and a portable stage. I wanted to put a slab on the flooring and; we could have used tan bark for other purposes as they do in many places across the country. For example, in the Coliseum in Phoenix (which Lew Place helped design) they have a rodeo. The Sundt company poured what I think is the most beautiful concrete floor ever poured. It was absolutely the smoothest. I suggested to them that they use pallets for the basketball court. Hardwood pallets. All of the professional basketball teams in every stadium and coliseum they play in use them. Then when the game is over they can be picked up and taken out. Then the floor can be used for something else, like Madison Square Garden. But they wouldn't do that. They put on a vinyl, permanent floor. I wrote a letter to the university saying that I was dead set against such a floor and that I would have nothing to do with it. I wouldn't handle the specifications or anything. It was a 3M Tartan floor."

Place said that within two years the floor "bubbled up" and now he said, they have put a wooden floor in McKale. Warren Moon had further comments on the financial problems with the McKale Center. He said:

"What originally happened with the McKale Center, is that Lew Place, who had always been very partial to the university, accepted a commission to design the center. It was to be an arena seating 20,000 persons, at a budget figure established by the Legislature, not by any architectural estimate. The Legislature's estimate was too low for the size of structure that the university wanted. The compromise, if I recall correctly, was for 14,000 seats."

The conversation with Moon on the McKale Center got down to the architect's payment. Lew Place didn't receive his full commission for it.

Moon said, "I would guess that on at least 50 percent of the jobs he did at the university, Lew Place never got what a really pressing architect might get. He was never a person to go out and go after the extras that some architects find in a job - for services." 
The McKale Center, like all other buildings, had problems.

Place said,

"There was a concrete column that cracked when they put some load on it. It was in the northeast corner of the center. We fixed it by filling it with pressure grouting. 

"Some reporter from the Tucson Citizen, a young fellow with a beard and moustache, came over to see me and he wanted to know all about that crack. I asked him how he knew it was there. He said that he'd been checking up on McKale to see if everything was going all right. I said that checking up was all right with me, but that we'd been sending an inspector out there every day and that the university had seven inspectors there. The crack is just one of those things that happen.

"The reporter began to get nasty about it, because he said I wasn't telling him anything. I finally said to him, 'Look, you get the hell out of here. And if you don't get out, I'm going to throw you out.' I got up and walked towards the other side of the desk where he was sitting and he ran out the door. He said, 'I'll be back, and I said, 'You'd better not be back, son. If you come back, I'll shave that beard off you so somebody will recognize you. ' 

"I called Paul McKalip (executive editor of the Citizen at the time) and I told him what had happened and I said I just about threw him bodily out. McKalip said that's what he told me you did. And that reporter wanted to start all kinds of lawsuits and I told McKalip, all you have to do, Paul, if you want any information, come to me. Call me on the phone and I'll give it to you. But don't ever send another reporter over here!"

Moon explained about the crack in the column. "It was something very inconsequential because that type of thing happens. It is not unusual. You just drive grouting in to fill the void under pressure and it just makes it solid again. None of the columns ever failed."

The $8 million McKale Center was also a headache for the builder, the Sundt Company. Stuart Clingerman, now retired as a supervisor with Sundt, tells this story of the final days before the first basketball game was played at McKale:

"The first indication of anything wrong with the bleacher seats at McKale was five or six days before the first game to be played there. Jack Sheaffer (head of the photo department at the Arizona Daily Star at the time) was there to take pictures. He was resting in one of the seats when it collapsed. The stud of the seat bottom somehow became disengaged and the seat bottom pivoted so that the front edge fell to the floor. 

"Jack slid gently down. We inspected the seat and decided it was out of adjustment. We corrected this (as we thought) and began testing it and other seats. We stood on them, jumped up and down, but we could not make one do what it had done to Jack (who is not a 90-pound weakling). 

"The seating subcontractor came and also tested the seats, but could find nothing wrong. 

"Four days before opening there was a delegation from the university that came to look around. They made their tour and were sitting in a group of the bleacher seats. One by one the seat bottoms pivoted, the front fell to the floor, and one by one the delegation slid gently down. Panic time.

"We called the manufacturer and told him of our problem. At first, he didn't believe us and said that the seats were merely out of adjustment. After about an hour on the phone, he agreed to make some tests and let us know. The next day (three days before the opening game), we got a call informing us that, indeed, something was wrong with the seats. It seemed that the body heat from someone sitting for a period of ten minutes or more caused the plastic seat bottoms to soften and bend down in the middle. 

"This shortened the seat from side to side and caused the studs on the seat to disengage from the brackets on the frame. Their engineers were working and would let us know. By this time they were as concerned as we were. The next day, two days before opening, we got a call from the factory in Detroit, 1 believe, that they had the problem solved and were making an extra part which they would send as soon as it was tested.

"On the day of the opening we called the factory and were told that the extra parts were being flown that day by Lear Jet, and that we would have the shipment by 10 a.m. "That gave us just about enough time to fix the seats by 5:30 p.m. practice time. The game was to start at 7:00 p.m. 

"I hired twenty carpenters on standby for 10:30 a.m., bought the tools, sent a truck to the airport and waited. About 10 a.m. we got a call from Kansas City that the jet had some minor trouble and the parts would be here by noon.

"I hired ten more carpenters on standby for 12:30 p.m., bought more tools and waited. About 12:30 p.m., we got a call from Kansas City·again. They were just taking off and would be there by 3:00 p.m. The tension was building. There was some discussion of folding the bleacher seats and refunding the money spent for the tickets. "By this time all the big shots from the university, Sundt, and Place were there biting their fingernails. 

"I have never seen anything like the way the carpenters took hold. I had four or five laborers there also. They opened the boxes and began distributing the parts to each seat. The new piece was a short length of tubing curved slightly, flattened on the ends and punched to match the holes in the seat bottoms. Those laborers laid out the pieces with the bolts and nuts without any supervision at all. The carpenters started installing and things were underway. 

"There were electricians adjusting lights, sheet metal men doing last-minute jobs, ironworkers, installers, and some painters doing touch-up. 

"When they quit at 4:30 p. m., they aske if they could help. Not one of the carpenters objected so we had all those trades working on the seats. 

"The president of the seating company and his production manager had come with the seat parts. They couldn't believe that those good union men would cooperate in such a fashion. 

"The seats were all repaired and tested just at 5:30 p.m. when the basketball team started its practice. 

"Handshakes and congratulations were exchanged all around and I went home for a drink."
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