Beloved, historic arena to undergo renovations

Kentucky basketball defeats LSU 77-45 at memorial coliseum on Saturday, Jan. 9, 1960.

Jake Maynard

Memorial Coliseum has been a part of UK’s campus for the better part of a century, yet it is often overlooked by fans. As Kentucky continues to expand and update its campus, one could be forgiven for thinking that Memorial Coliseum is just another old building waiting to be torn down.

Memorial Coliseum opened in 1950 and housed the men’s basketball team until Rupp Arena was constructed in 1976. For the first three years Memorial Coliseum was open, Kentucky’s basketball program went undefeated in the arena.

Memorial Coliseum saw two of Kentucky’s eight men’s basketball national championships. It also hosted NCAA championship games 10 times.

Memorial was also a home to six Naismith Hall of Famers: Adrian Smith, Frank Ramsey, Louie Dampier, Cliff Hagan, Dan Issel and Pat Riley.

Hagan, Issel and Riley may be the most memorable of the six, and for good reasons. Hagan became both an NCAA and NBA champion, a five-time all-star and scored more than 14,000 professional points. Issel is the men’s basketball all-time leading scorer with 2,138 points and would go on to score more than 27,000 professional points. Last, but certainly not least, Riley is a six-time NBA champion and is best known as the man behind the Lakers’ Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar days.

When the men’s basketball team moved out of Memorial, the building become a home to the volleyball, gymnastics and women’s basketball teams– which immediately became a huge success at Memorial. With a 23-12 record, the women’s basketball team made it to the third round of the NWIT in their first year as a team.

In 1979, Valerie Still joined the team. Still played for four years with the Wildcats and went on to become the all-time leading scorer (2,763) and rebounder (1,525) in Kentucky basketball history for both men and women. In the 1981-82 season, Still led the Wildcats to their first women’s basketball championship.

Kentucky’s women basketball program held a winning record for their first 10 years in Memorial Coliseum. In the 1987-88 season, Kentucky ended with a record of 14-15, their first losing season in program history.

It took the Wildcats some time to get back into a winning record, but in the modern Matthew Mitchell era, the Cats are perhaps the best they have ever been. Mitchell holds a 69 percent winning record, the greatest of any women’s basketball coach in Kentucky history.

Mitchell prides his teams in running on hard work and discipline– a culture that was not an easy one to build, but it is now a team environment in Memorial Coliseum.

As a current assistant coach and former player for the Wildcats when the modern winning culture was being created, Amber Smith is a prime person to talk to about changes with Memorial and the team it houses.

Smith, who played a role in building a team that is successful enough to earn renovations like the team’s new 1,800 square foot video board, is proud of getting to be a part of the change.

“It’s pretty awesome to see that a lot of time and money is going into our program because we have been successful,” Smith said. “It’s good to just like be a part of that and see that.”

Some may argue that it is best to leave the arena untouched due to its history, but Smith said she believes that change can be a good thing. She wants the program to stay modern, and the building with it.

Smith’s belief in moving forward doesn’t come from a lack of knowledge of the building’s history; in fact, she’s even given tours of the building before. Smith appreciates the history of Memorial and even believes that it is what makes the wins mean more.

“When I decided to come here and play for Kentucky, I wanted to be a part of change and help build the program into a national program,” Smith said. “So, to have the opportunity to come back and help players develop… at my alma mater is just special.”

Whether or not Memorial Coliseum gets a full renovation, two things will always be true: Memorial Coliseum will be a basketball history landmark and Kentucky will find a way to keep its program special.