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Upgrades to Marriott Center may impact students the most

BYU fans cheer in the first half of play as BYU and Baylor play Saturday, Dec. 17, 2011 in the Marriott Center in Provo.
BYU fans cheer in the first half of play as BYU and Baylor play Saturday, Dec. 17, 2011 in the Marriott Center in Provo.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

PROVO — It was talk of a building.

It was not conference expansion rumors, the BCS, BYU's status as an independent, the first year in the West Coast Conference or future football schedules that took center stage in Friday's casual press meeting with BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe.

The Marriott Center is undergoing plastic surgery — that was the big news.

BYU has decided now is the time to take the 40-year-old Marriott Center and give it a long overdue face-lift.

Holmoe told reporters Friday that the school will massage political, financial and physical barriers and begin making changes to the 22,700-seat facility on May 1.

There might be some ruffled feathers among some students and some longtime donors, who might be moved to another seating area, but these changes are needed for myriad reasons, primarily comfort and safety.

There's a longtime joke in Provo that when the Marriott Center was planned back in the late 1960s and constructed in the early 1970s, the seats were designed according to a certain model by then-Y. President Ernest L. Wilkinson, a diminutive man who stood about 5-foot-6.

The Marriott Center and the University of Kentucky's Rupp Arena were the standard for many years for "big" college basketball arenas. But the BYU facility has been cramped, uncomfortable, and some of the bench seats on the north side have actually been dangerous when students have stood and jumped on them during contests.

"As students, we've been spoiled to have access to some of the best seats in the Marriott Center," said law student Heath Waddingham, who has been a student at BYU since 2003. "I had tickets on about the 10th row for Jimmer vs. SDSU, and having full vision of the entire court that made it one of my favorite BYU athletics experiences of all time.

"I understand how the school's obligations to legacies and the opportunity to sell those seats makes moving the student section desirable or necessary. I even understand how it may be beneficial to the team to put students right next to the opposing bench to yell mildly rude comments (let's face it, a lot of what BYU students say at games is tame) at the enemy, or to put them behind the opposing team's basket to mess with opposing shooters at the end of a game. But from my point of view, I'm going to miss having the great seats."

Holmoe said the lower bowl bench seats in sections 21 through 27 will become premium padded chair seats. The player bench and press tables will be located below these new premium seats and the Courtside Cougar section on the north floor area will go to the opposite sideline.

The student section will be moved to the west portion of the arena, where the visiting team's basket is located during the second half.

This move will open up more premium seating and the plan is to make the bowl area more consistently filled. Existing ticket holders will be given options to purchase seats that are considered more valuable and comfortable.

Seating for the Marriott Center will go from just under 23,000 to 20,900, according to Holmoe.

In addition, a new sound system will be installed, and both the men's and women's locker room facilities will be renovated.

In the short run, this change in the seating will impact students the most. To give up a sideline seat for a baseline seat is a significant change. BYU officials are selling this move as an advantage for the Cougars to have student voices and noise under the opponent's basket at the end of the game.

"I am a student at BYU and I am deeply disappointed with the newly announced Marriott Center renovations," said David Stauffer. "Moving the student section farther from the court seems like a bad way to reward the BYU students who have been so faithful. I understand the desire to remove benches and put in more seats, but at what cost? So we can have wealthier non-student BYU fans sitting closer to the court? People who generally remain seated throughout the game?

"There's a reason why the Spectrum at Utah State is such a difficult place for opponents to play," Stauffer said. "They put the students front and center, which can be menacing for visiting teams. BYU made a move that could cause the Marriott Center to lose much of it's intensity. I'm really, really sad to see this."

Holmoe answered myriad questions about BYU's athletic programs, including the status of potential membership in an expanded conference like the Big 12.

Holmoe said he is keeping in communication with athletic directors and other key administrators of schools and conferences in case something happens, but it is his sense that things have slowed down for the time being.

"There is nothing happening right now," said Holmoe, who admitted he has been in discussions as a matter of practicality, with people in other leagues to keep his hand on the pulse of the college landscape.

"This talk will be ongoing. There are conferences that are jockeying, but for the most part, it is dying down. It used to be daily but now it might be weekly or monthly. I certainly need to keep in touch with key friends of mine in the business. That open communication continues."

Holmoe says you hear everything from a "doomsday" to a "best conference in the country" discussion but BYU has a contingency plan for every one of them and will continually adjust those plans as is necessary.

Talks of a new BYU basketball practice facility are ongoing, but only in the talk stage.

Holmoe said rumors of potential football jersey changes are premature but there have been discussions with Nike that are continuing. When asked if fans could see a black jersey or a combat jersey for this season, he said that is likely.

When asked if there are seating changes for LaVell Edwards Stadium, Holmoe said he is working on a complex set of challenges to get all students in one section of the stadium, but it will take time.

In the meantime, Marriott Center talk was play of the day.