ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- When covering New Mexico in the early 1990s, the one thing I heard over and over was that the Lobos were a big-time program and needed to be treated as such.
Fans demanded that the Lobos schedule schools like Indiana and Kentucky, unaware that there was no recruiting benefit for those programs to schedule a home-and-home. Television wasn’t calling for made-for-TV matchups and those teams were smart enough to realize that playing at The Pit almost always meant losing at the Pit.
So the schedule usually was soft, yet The Pit (officially University Arena) remained a hidden gem in college basketball for its reverberating noise off its flat roof high above the floor, 37 feet below street level.
But the arena remained a bit of a relic, built in 1966 and untouched through the modernization of sports society. There were no suites. There were no flat-screen televisions. There wasn’t a digital video board, not even on the ends since no video board could be suspended from the ceiling because of the risk of it caving.
The arena lacked hand rails going up from the floor to the top. Concessions were at times like rationed prison food (the “Lobo Dog” comes to mind). The concourse was narrow, feeling at times like a fire hazard. The bathrooms were small and crowded. Handicap access wasn’t exactly plentiful.
The NCAA tournament has often made The Pit its home, most notably with the memorable 1983 Final Four that ended with NC State shocking the sport with a buzzer-beating title win over Houston. The NCAA returned multiple times, including the West Regionals in 2000 and 2005.
But that too was going to be a memory if the arena didn’t go through some sort of extreme makeover. The outside of the building had been given a little paint recently and the words “The Pit” were put on the fašade. But that was about it. The place still looked like a warehouse.
But past coaches from Gary Colson to Dave Bliss to Fran Fraschilla to Ritchie McKay didn’t even consider the possibility that The Pit would take on a new look. Neither did Steve Alford, who didn’t take the job from Iowa with any promise that the arena would receive elective surgery.
UNM athletic director Paul Krebs said he remembers sitting in a meeting about the possibility of doing a $20 million facelift. But he knew that if the project was going to be done, it had to be done right -- to take The Pit to a new century, not just a new decade.
He was right.
For the $60 million project, the University received $18 million in state funds and got another $42 million in revenue bonds that were funded by athletics.
After touring the facility this week, Alford’s statement that The Pit should be the best facility west of the Mississippi has some merit.
Led by the efforts of associate athletic director Tim Cass and assistant athletic director Greg Remington, The Pit will be one of the top facilities in the West. While UCLA’s historic Pauley Pavilion goes through its desperately needed renovation over the next year, University Arena has jumped ahead as a first-class, pro-level facility on campus.
With a new student housing village behind The Pit, this area is truly being transformed. And the NCAA took notice of the refurbished facility as Remington said there is an understanding that the tournament will likely be back on a regular basis (The Pit is already a first-round site for the women in 2011 and men in 2012).
Developers preserved the most-treasured aspect of the arena -- the ramp that is a daunting halftime run for opposing teams -- but made it wider. The walls along the ramp were painted red and the famous wording, “A mile high and louder than ….” will remain. There are now 40 suites, with 38 of them sold in a poor economy. The number of flat screens went from zero to 158 and the technological aspect of the arena will be seen for miles with a video side of the building that will light up when the Lobos win.
Video boards on each end of the arena are now in full view for all fans, players, coaches and officials. A kitchen was put in to allow for more food choices, along with plenty of catering and socializing space, with elevated views of the captivating Sandia Mountains. A hall of fame is also going to be on display, as well as a touch-screen video board that will pop up historic UNM moments. The men’s and women’s locker rooms, as well as the weight and training-room facilities, are NBA-like.
Now you can debate putting college kids in such a luxurious facility, but to the fans here, the Lobos have always been their version of a pro team, much like Kentucky is in the Commonwealth.
The Lobo fans will get their first view next month -- and they’ll like what they see.
The Pit was always the most famous building in the Mountain West (and previously the WAC), but now it’s clearly the most modern -- and will challenge any other college facility in the West.