In the beginning, the Golden Brahmans -- as the Bulls were known in those days -- played against community college and freshman teams. The team called Curtis Hixon Hall, located on Ashley Drive some 10 miles south of the school's campus, its temporary home. During the first decade of the program, USF would also host "home" games at the Ft. Homer Hesterly Armory, the Civic Center in Lakeland and the Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg. This would change once and for all with the construction of a multipurpose arena located on the southeast corner of the school's campus.
In 1977, the Florida Board of Regents agreed to approve funding for the 10,000-seat facility that would serve as home for USF's basketball programs. Ground-breaking for the $7 million arena took place late in 1977, with a targeted opening date of Fall 1979.
First, however, the arena needed to be named. In April 1979, WLFA's Jack Harris -- who also served as the basketball team's play-by-play announcer -- came up with the idea to have a contest to determine the facility's name. The "Whatchamacallit" contest, as it came to be known, promised to deliver a unique name for the unique arena featuring an air-supported, fiberglass Teflon-coated roof.
As with any contest of this nature, the entries ranged from the unimaginative to the creative to the self-referential. Such entries included the "Cecil Mackey Snap Judgment Center," in reference to former university president Dr. Cecil M. Mackey; wordplay names based on the school mascot such as "Brahman Common," "Bull Pen," "Full O' Bull Hall" and the "Angus Arena"; bizarre submissions such as "Circus Maximus," "Gama Rama," "Campus Pollywog," "Omnipod" and "Xanadu" also dotted the nearly 600 entries received.
On April 9, 1979, the University of South Florida "Whatchamacallit" finally received its name. A committee headed by USF President John Lott Brown, determined the winner based on a Final Four selection of entries.
Brown announced the name on Harris's morning radio show, revealing the name that has stuck for the last 30 years: The Sun Dome. Other finalist names included the Brahman Coliseum, Sun Arena, Suncoast Coliseum and Suncoast Spectrum. Richard Bowers, the university's athletic director, called the Sun Dome an "ideal name."
"We're on the Suncoast, in the Sun Belt Conference," Bowers said. "We're going to start hosting the Big Sun Tournament, and the sun is a dominant feature of this area. Put it together with the fact the facility is covered by a Teflon dome, and what else could you call it?"
USF student Gini David, as the first person in the contest to submit The Sun Dome as a suggestion, earned two passes for every event at the arena for 10 years. Men's basketball coach Chip Connors called the selection of the name "perfect."
Not all was perfect with the Sun Dome itself, however, as construction problems and cost overruns delayed the project for two more years. By March 1980, the roof had been completely installed but the building remained a work in progress. In March 1981, USF director of facilities planning Mike Patterson predicted it would take another year to fully complete the project.
The Sun Dome opened Nov. 29, 1980, as the Bulls took on the Florida A&M Rattlers. The roof leaked and the Bulls lost by two points, 65-63. The official dedication game, however, would come later on Dec. 3, 1980, in a nationally televised ESPN contest against the Duke Blue Devils. The Bulls lost that one too, 83-72, but a new era in South Florida athletics had begun.
Jack Harris remembers that despite the glitches, just being in a permanent facility made all the difference.
“It was great to finally get a place to call home,” he says. “The Sun Dome was a tremendous step forward for the basketball program. Those were exciting times, to say the least, and we saw some pretty good basketball on that brand spanking new floor.”
As for the “Whatchamacallit” contest, Harris reveals now that it wasn’t really as wide-open as some might have believed.
“We pretty much knew from the beginning that the name was going to be The Sun Dome,” he recalls. “We put the contest out there, nevertheless, to allow someone to suggest it and win, and make sure we hadn’t overlooked an even more impressive name.”
Regardless of how the dome earned its moniker, the name hit the mark as evidenced by its continued use. In an era of soulless corporate sponsored arenas, it's good to know that The Sun Dome still shines on to this day.