Monday, December 13, 2010

Sun Dome Finally Opens, 12/2/80

Last week, the University of South Florida marked the 40th anniversary of the first intercollegiate men’s basketball game in school history. When the basketball program began in 1970, however, it had yet to find a suitable place to call home. At the time, the only venue on campus to watch basketball was a 1,500-seat gym more suitable for pick-up games and intramural competitions than spectator sports.

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 and 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.

Not all was perfect with the Sun Dome – as it eventually would be named -- as construction problems and cost overruns delayed the project. By March 1980, the roof had been completely installed, but the building remained a work in progress.

With the third floor still under repair, a capacity of 6,000 fans per game would initially be allowed into a building designed to hold 10,000. The show had no choice but to go on, however, as the Sun Dome would be open for business, ready or not.

Although the Bulls officially opened the Sun Dome against the Florida A&M Rattlers on November 29 – a 65-63 defeat in front of 5,213 fans – the official dedication of the new building would not come until December 2 in a nationally-televised game on ESPN against the Duke Blue Devils.

The Blue Devils were led by Mike Krzyzewski, in his first season at Duke after serving as head coach at Army from 1975-1980. The Bulls had a new coach as well, with Lee Rose coming to USF from Purdue where he compiled a 50-18 record in two seasons. Rose had a proven record of success, having taken two different schools (Purdue and UNC-Charlotte) to the Final Four in a five-year span.

Rose would have his work cut out for him in trying to prepare his Bulls for the heavily-favored Blue Devils. With the national spotlight on their team and new building, the Bulls could be forgiven if they suffered a bit of stage fright, which is exactly what happened.

Before they knew what hit them, the USF-record crowd of 6,030 found the home team down 21-6 after Duke went on a 19-point run in a span of about five minutes. The Bulls clawed their way back into the game, however, with a spurt of their own.

Contributions from Tony Grier, Willie Redden and Rob Rutledge helped bring USF within two points of Duke, 28-26, with 2:55 left in the half. After trailing by 19 early, the Bulls were fortunate to only be down by seven points at the half 39-32.

Duke refused to let up in the second half, shooting 71% from the field. Despite USF’s best efforts, they simply could not match Duke basket- for-basket.

Despite having outscored the Blue Devils 66-62 after trailing 19-6, USF fell to Duke 83-72. The Bulls fought hard against a college powerhouse and showed plenty of promise for the season ahead, though the outcome hardly mattered in the grand scheme of things.

“It was great to finally get a place to call home,” says former USF play-by-play announcer Jack Harris. “Opening the Sun Dome was a tremendous step forward for the basketball program.”

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