In the summer of 1969, Utah basketball player Mike Newlin persuaded construction workers to let him hammer a wooden plank into place on the free-throw line in front of the home team’s bench. When the Utes staged their first game in the Special Events Center in December, Newlin practically lived at that spot.
Stanford coach Howie Dallmar simmered after Newlin made 23 of 25 free throws in Utah’s 96-94 victory. Ute assistant coach Jerry Pimm kidded him, “You didn’t think we were going to lose the first game in this building, did you?”
Regardless of what forces conspired in the Utes’ favor, the win launched a 50-year era that will be celebrated this season, with members of the ’69-70 team appearing at a game (possibly Dec. 4 vs. BYU). The Dalai Lama, pro wrestlers, tennis legends, Utah gymnasts who draw sellout crowds and musicians such as the Jackson 5 and Elton John have appeared in the 15,000-seat arena that’s now named the Huntsman Center and hardly looks a half-century old.
“That’s a good-lookin’ 50,” said Donny Daniels, a longtime assistant coach who has returned to the basketball staff.
Updates that include a widened concourse, bigger offices and hospitality areas for donors are being discussed. The school hopes to enhance a facility that was built primarily for men's basketball, before women's sports took hold in the Title IX era.
The late Jack Gardner, who made two Final Four appearances as Utah's coach from 1953-71, was a driving force of the project. “It was his baby,” said Pimm, who succeeded Gardner. “That's the legacy he wanted to leave.”
Gardner helped launch a statewide move from historic field houses to modern arenas. By 1977, Utah State, BYU and Weber State also had new venues. “Everybody had to come of age and raise the money and get the arenas built,” Pimm said.
Newlin, the first big star to be showcased in the arena, would have been perfectly happy to play in front of 5,000-plus fans in Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse, considering his southern California high school didn’t have its own gym. He recalled a recruiting visit in 1967, when his hosts were “hiding the fieldhouse from me,” even though it seemed adequate to him. Newlin thrived in the new building; his 26.0 scoring average as a junior in ’69-70 ranks second to Ticky Burden’s 28.7-point season of ’73-74 in the Huntsman Center era.
Chris Hill originally came to Utah as a basketball graduate assistant in 1973; his retirement in 2018 after 31 years as athletic director gave Steve Pyne the longest-running tenure with the arena. “It’s a showcase for the campus,” said Pyne, who has a 40-year work history with the facility, starting behind the scenes of the 1979 Final Four as a Granger High School sophomore.
Now the school’s assistant AD of event management, Pyne focuses on staging games. Aaron White operates the building, following the work of Brian Nielson and Pyne. When he took over the maintenance responsibility, Pyne was told, “Here’s the expectation; raise it.”
That commitment helps explain why the building has aged so well, although it is somewhat outdated. Since 2010, the school has partnered in its NCAA bids with the downtown Vivint Smart Home Arena, offering more amenities. Concerts largely have moved out of the Huntsman Center, due to the logistics of bringing in big stages and other production elements.
Pyne personally backed a semi-truck down the ramp, delivering floor-mounted beams for a Kenny Rogers show. He also helped a young Whitney Houston with wardrobe changes, watched Garth Brooks swing from the rafters, chatted with Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant before a WWE show and orchestrated the introduction of the school's “Swoop” mascot, from a cage in the iconic cloud that hovered above the floor for 45 years (the cloud was removed in 2014 to make way for a new sound system, followed by a modern video board).
Cables connected the cloud to the basket stanchions, and Pyne recalled how former basketball coach Rick Majerus discovered that a dunk would make the basket shake for 30 seconds or more at the other end. So he instructed the 265-pound Walter Watts to hang on the rim, affecting the opponent's next possession.
Majerus' success brought big crowds to the arena, renamed the Jon M. Huntsman Center in 1987, honoring the philanthropist's contributions to the school. Jimmy Soto, a Ute athletic administrator who played at the start of the Majerus era, said, “We had some unbelievable crowds during my time.”
Utah assistant AD Steve Pyne on his 40-year history with the Huntsman Center. pic.twitter.com/b56cjOyhb0— Kurt Kragthorpe (@tribkurt) July 16, 2019
Utah assistant AD Steve Pyne on his 40-year history with the Huntsman Center. pic.twitter.com/b56cjOyhb0
And the crowds are loud, thanks to acoustical tiles under every seat that retain sound. Parker Van Dyke, who completed his Ute basketball career in March, ranked the Huntsman Center volume “as loud as any Arizona game” or even Kentucky's Rupp Arena, where he played last December.
Competing in the arena where he watched the Utes play in elementary school “never got old,” Van Dyke said. “I felt the same kind of feeling every time I took the floor.”
Van Dyke's Ute fandom dates to a December 2002 upset of No. 1 Alabama. That's among many memorable games in the building. Pimm savors a 1978 win over No. 5 New Mexico, with Jeff Judkins and Buster Matheney combining for 54 points. In '85, Wyoming needed only to safely in-bound the ball with one second remaining. “Everybody was leaving the arena, and I was ready to leave too,” said Manny Hendrix, now a Ute administrator. But the Cowboys' pass sailed out of bounds, giving Utah a last shot. Hendrix hit from the right corner, giving the Utes a 61-60 win.
Utah lost to No. 2 Wake Forest with Tim Duncan in ’96, but 20 years later, Brandon Taylor’s 3-point dagger clinched the Utes’ first win over Arizona in the Pac-12 era.
So what's next? “This is an amazing building,” Ute athletic director Mark Harlan said. “The bones are solid. … When you have something as special as the Huntsman Center, you've got to keep it that way. This building is special to the University of Utah, it's special to the Huntsman family, and the future of our department is going to be largely dependent on the future of this facility, going forward.”
Increasing the work area for staff members is one priority; Harlan said of some current spaces, “I don't know if it's fair to call them 'offices.' ”
Modernization may include premium areas for donor gatherings, a loading dock and expanded back entrance. As with the planned expansion of Rice-Eccles Stadium, the school will conduct an extensive study about remodeling.
Whatever happens, the wooden beams and dome structure of the building will remain as they looked in 1969 when, as teammate Kenny Gardner remembered good-naturedly, Newlin “was bound and determined to make the first basket.”
Newlin, an English scholar in college and an 11-year NBA veteran, went on to score several hundred more points in the building. A longtime Houston resident, Newlin can recite all kinds of names and addresses from his Salt Lake City years, but one detail escapes him. He credits an arena employee for leaving a door open, enabling him to shoot late at night. “I wish I knew his name,” Newlin said. Fifty years later, the unknown, helpful worker remains part of Huntsman Center history.
Editor’s note: Paul Huntsman, a son of benefactor Jon M. Huntsman Sr., for whom the Huntsman Center was renamed in 1987, is the owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.
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