College Mens Basketball

Time Machine: Iowa's Field House was beloved 'dump'

The 'great old building' has lots of memories

A group of Iowa cheerleaders provide entertainment for a capacity crowd at the Iowa Field House in Iowa City in 1980. (The Gazette)
A group of Iowa cheerleaders provide entertainment for a capacity crowd at the Iowa Field House in Iowa City in 1980. (The Gazette)
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Editor’s note: This is a continuing series of Eastern Iowa sports history “Time Machine” articles. Mark Dukes worked at The Gazette from 1973 to 1998, the last 14 years as sports editor. 

Steel pillars obstructed the view of some fans. Temperature was difficult to control. The roof leaked on occasion. Locker room showers often dispensed only cold water.

Despite its flaws, the Iowa Field House became a beloved facility east of Kinnick Stadium on the University of Iowa campus. So much so that fans still trade stories of their favorite times attending events there.

“There’s a million stories and a lot of memories,” said Phil Haddy, who worked in the sports information office for 41 years, 17 as its director. “There was just a warmth and homeyness in there.”

 

Before Carver-Hawkeye Arena was built in the 1980s, Hawkeye sports teams played in the Field House. It was constructed in the mid-1920s at a cost estimated at $500,000 and officially opened in 1927.

A story in the Jan. 13, 1927, Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette described the facility as “the most massive building of its kind in the world.” Original seating capacity was 7,000, although upgrades eventually took it to 13,365. The swimming pool, which was 50 yards long and 17 feet deep on the diving end, was the largest indoor facility in the world.

The men’s basketball team played in the new Field House Dec. 4, 1926, defeating St. Louis University. But dedication weekend wasn’t until Jan. 14-15, 1927, although the facility was not yet finished. An estimated 7,000 people attended the opening basketball game, a 19-point loss to Michigan. The next day, the wrestling team faced Wisconsin and the swimming team opposed Illinois.

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Weather was frightful on the day of the basketball game, 12 degrees below zero. The Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railway offered round-trip train transportation for 99 cents. A game ticket was $1.

The Field House hosted NCAA basketball regional tournaments in 1954, ’56, ’64 and ’66. The men’s basketball team won six Big Ten championships and the wrestling team 12 conference titles before they moved to Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The Field House also hosted 15 boys’ state high school basketball tournaments at various times between the 1920s and 1960s.

It also was the site of several concerts. Among the headliners to play the Field House were the Beach Boys, Grateful Dead, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd and Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass.

By the time Glenn “Stick” Vidnovic arrived on campus, the Field House was 40 years old. Vidnovic, who averaged 17.3 points on the “Miller Six Pack” team of 1969-70, was recruited by Iowa assistant Lanny Van Eman out of McKeesport, Pa.

“I’d been to Syracuse and Miami before Lanny took me to Iowa City,” said Vidnovic, still No. 4 on Iowa’s career free-throw percentage list (85.6). “I couldn’t believe what a dump (the Field House) was when I saw it. But Lanny said to me, ‘Yeah, but it looks really good on game nights.’

“It was a great home court advantage. There was a whole lot of metal in the place and seats on the floor were wooden. It got loud. I don’t think I ever saw an empty seat in there.”

Haddy concurred.

“There was probably no other place that got louder when it really got shaking,” he said.

And some were not paying customers. Several stories surfaced over the years of fans finding passageways in the building that would allow them to sneak into games.

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Vidnovic, who like Haddy still lives in Iowa City, said the Field House certainly was not without its drawbacks, though. For many years, smoking was allowed in the facility.

“You showered and it was usually with cold water on a cold floor and bring your own soap,” he said. “On game day, you hung your coat downstairs in the locker room, then have to walk clear down to the other end to get your uniform. These guys today don’t know how good they have it, but back then we didn’t know any better.

“I think my sophomore year there were hanging lights from the top before they put in the false ceiling. Smoke would come from the concourse and hang among those lights over the floor. It was quite a smell between the popcorn and the cigarette smoke.”

Haddy was public address announcer of Iowa wrestling for 45 years. He said the Field House provided a huge home advantage for the wrestlers, as well.

“Probably in the early ’70s, when Gary Kurdelmeier was coach and Dan Gable joined him as an assistant (in 1972), fans started filling up the stands,” he said. “There were no louder crowds than the wrestling meets against Iowa State and others.

“I think one of the biggest crowds was in 1980 when the basketball team returned from the regional on the East Coast and the wrestling team came back from the West Coast after winning the NCAA tournament.”

 

On Sunday March 16, 1980, thousands of Hawkeye fans traveled to the Field House to welcome the two teams and had to wait until nearly midnight before both arrived. The wrestling team won the NCAA Championship in Corvallis, Ore., the third of Gable’s nine straight titles. The basketball team, on the strength of Steve Waite’s three-point play with five seconds left, defeated Georgetown in Philadelphia, 81-80, to reach the Final Four.

The last scheduled game in the Field House was Feb. 27, 1982, a triple-overtime loss to Minnesota. But because construction fell behind schedule, the Hawkeyes didn’t move into Carver-Hawkeye until the following January. The last game at the Field House actually was Dec. 11, 1982, a victory over Southern California.

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The first event in Carver-Hawkeye was a wrestling victory over Oklahoma Jan. 3, 1983. Iowa played its first men’s basketball game in the new facility Jan. 5, 1983, a loss to Michigan State.

The Field House has been repurposed and renovated several times. The 90-year-old building today is home to a multiuse recreational facility that includes a variety of courts, classrooms and offices.

“It’s a great old building,” Haddy said. “It had a lot of functionality and still does.”

And a lot of history.

Contact Dukes at markdukes0@gmail.com with your thoughts and ideas

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