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The Nifty Fifty — 50 things you may or may not know about the Huntsman Center as it celebrates its golden anniversary

From spiral staircase to makeshift golf range to Magic and Bird, iconic arena has rich history

SHARE The Nifty Fifty — 50 things you may or may not know about the Huntsman Center as it celebrates its golden anniversary

The Huntsman Center, photographed in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 3, 2020, is celebrating 50 years.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The Jon M. Huntsman Center has been celebrating its 50th year of operation at the University of Utah over the past several months. 

Here are 50 things you may or may not know about the iconic arena:

1) It was originally called the Special Events Center, but officially changed its name in 1987 after philanthropist Jon M. Huntsman donated a generous amount of money to the U. athletic department.

2) Actually, the original full name was the Special Events Center and Physical Education Complex, including four buildings — three gymnasiums and a natatorium — along with the arena. 

3) The complex was designed by the local firm Robert A. Fowler Associated Architects. Planning began in 1965 and construction got underway in July of 1967. 

4) The original cost for the entire athletic complex was $10.4 million, which would be about $72 million in today’s dollars. The complex was financed with $6 million in student revenue bonds, $3.5 million in state appropriations and the remainder from federal and university funds.

5) Some wanted to call it “The Wigwam” and early advertisements even referred to the arena as such. But that didn’t last very long and a couple of years later Utah’s “Redskins” nickname was discontinued.

6) The arena’s official capacity is 15,000 with approximately 8,500 seats below the concourse and 6,500 above.


The arena’s official capacity is 15,000 with approximately 8,500 seats below the concourse and 6,500 above. In addition to basketball games, the arena has also hosted concerts, speakers and exhibition tennis matches, among other things.

Courtesy University of Utah Athletics

7) Before playing in the Special Events Center, the Utah basketball team played at Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse, just north of the current football stadium. The fieldhouse was built in 1940 and had a capacity of just under 5,000. 

8) The first basketball game was on Dec. 1, 1969, with a Utah starting five that included Mike Newlin, Ken Gardner, Jim Mahler, Walt Hawkins and Bob Martin. The Utes defeated Stanford 96-94 and shot 68 free throws and made 44, two records that still stand. Newlin sank 23 of 25 free throws, also current records.

9) Newlin said he would have lived at the SEC if he could have, but instead arranged for a maintenance worker to let him in most nights at 7:30 p.m. and he would practice by himself until just before midnight.

10) There is a spiral staircase consisting of 47 steps that goes from the former basketball coaches office on the north side down to the north tunnel about 100 feet from the opening to the floor. The story goes that coach Jack Gardner wanted a direct, easy escape up to his office to avoid the media and fans.

11) Steve Pyne, the assistant athletics director for event management, recalls that former coach Rick Majerus used the staircase when he first came to Utah, but would often become dizzy and have to come and sit in his office near the top of the stairs. In later years, Majerus stopped using the route because he became too large to use the narrow staircase.

12) More than 8 million fans have watched Utah men’s basketball games since the opening game.

13) The first event in the arena on Nov. 21, 1969, was comedian Bill Cosby, which kicked off three days of opening ceremonies that also included an open house for the public.


The women’s gymnastics team has averaged more than 14,000 fans for the past decade and set a record in 2017 with an average attendance of 15,244.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

14) The women’s gymnastics team has averaged more than 14,000 fans for the past decade and set a record in 2017 with an average attendance of 15,244. The gymnasts have won more than 95% of their home meets and went 24 years — from 1979 to 2002 — without losing a home meet. The largest gymnastics attendance was 16,019 for a meet with Michigan on March 6, 2015. The arena has hosted nine national gymnastics championships, 14 regional meets and two Pac-12 championships.

15) The arena ranks third all-time in NCAA Tournament games with 81. It has hosted the NCAA tourney 15 times, including 12 first- and second-round, two Western Regionals and the Final Four. Only Madison Square Garden in New York and Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City have hosted more NCAA games. 

16) The NCAA Final Four in 1979 featuring Michigan State and Magic Johnson and Indiana State and Larry Bird remains the biggest sporting event ever in the arena and is still the top-rated NCAA championship game is television history.


In this March 25, 1979 file photo, Magic Johnson, left, of Michigan State, and Larry Bird of Indiana State are shown during a news conference for the NCAA college basketball championships, in Salt Lake City.


17) There are four large rooms under the seats that serve as air chambers to circulate air, and either chill or heat the air, depending on the time of year and blow it out with large fans.

18) During the 1970s, one of the large quadrants on the west side of the arena was converted into a makeshift golf range, where ticket manager Monty Howard, an avid golfer, and others would practice their swings in the winter, hitting balls off of astroturf into large nets. 

19) Now a couple of those big empty rooms are used for storage where you might find all sorts of relics, from a framed team photo of the 1954 Utah basketball team to a third-place trophy from the 1967 Far West Classic.

20) High school state tournaments have been played most years since the arena opened and as recently as last week. The 1970 state AA high school basketball championship game between East and West high schools, nearly filled the place, drawing 14,200 fans.

21) BYU’s Jimmer Fredette set the record for most points by an opposing basketball player when he dropped 47 points, including 32 in the first half, on the Utes in a 104-79 Cougars victory in 2011.


BYU’s Jimmer Fredette shoots over Chris Kupets to score at the end of the first half as the University of Utah and BYU play men’s basketball Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Fredette scored 47 points, including 32 in the first half, on the Utes in a 104-79 Cougars victory in 2011.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

22) Luther (Ticky) Burden has the record for most points by a Utes player at the Huntsman Center, scoring 44 points against Denver on Nov. 30, 1974. Kelvin Upshaw and Keith Van Horn each scored 41 points, in 1984 and 1996, respectively.

23) The bright red seats in the arena are the original seats and except for a handful, haven’t needed to be replaced in 50 years.

24) Behind each seat in the arena is a 12-inch-by-8-inch white acoustical tile, looking a little like dried-up ramen noodles, which helps give the arena its superior acoustics, along with acoustical tiles in the ceiling.  

25) The first concert was the popular piano duo of the time, Ferrante and Teicher. Longtime Utah play-by-play man Bill Marcroft said it was his first experience in the arena and recalls being so impressed with the acoustics, calling the sound “absolutely perfect.”

26) After using the Crimson Court in one of the adjoining gymnasiums in the complex for many years, the women’s volleyball team has used the arena for its games since 2013.


Utah players celebrate a point against Colorado during an NCAA women’s volleyball match at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 25, 2016. The volleyball began competing in the Huntsman Center in 2013.

Nick Wagner, Deseret News

27) Marcroft remembers that coach Jack Gardner wanted the floor of the arena to be special and had workers set aside the very best wood to be installed on the floor. However in September, two months before the opening, right after it had been installed, the floor was flooded due to a  broken valve on an upstairs restroom, and a new floor had to be installed. Since then, the floor has been flooded two more times and has been replaced a half dozen times total.

28) The men’s basketball team has an .801 winning percentage, while the women’s basketball team is even better at .822.

29) The natatorium, directly north of the arena, features two Olympic-sized pools and a 14-foot deep diving pool, has seating for 2.000 and it hosted the NCAA Swimming Championships in 1970 with Indiana winning the title. 

30) The University of Utah has used the arena for its graduation ceremonies for several decades as have city high schools Highland, East, Olympus and West.

31) It takes an average adult about 450 steps and approximately four minutes to walk around the concourse.

32) The Utah men’s and women’s locker rooms have been renovated twice in the past two decades, but the opposing locker room remains one of the smallest you’ll find anywhere, even after being expanded in recent years. One old-timer said that was Jack Gardner’s idea, to make the opposing team as uncomfortable as possible.

33) For more than three decades, it was known for its 160-ton steel cloud, which hung over the court with a scoreboard and sound and lighting systems from the opening until 2006. The cloud looked kind of like the spaceship in the movie, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” According to Pyne, several coaches over the years asked if indeed, the movie industry came in and filmed “The Cloud” for the movie.

34) During construction of the arena, three workers were killed when scaffolding on the roof broke. A plaque in the arena commemorates the three men, Richard Jellinich, Carl Peterson and Buddy Watts, who lost their lives on Aug. 6, 1969. 


The Special Events Center was designed by the local firm Robert A. Fowler Associated Architects. Planning began in 1965 and construction got underway in July of 1967. 

Courtesy University of Utah

35) When it was built, it was the largest all-wood triaxial domed facility in the world. Most domes are built with steel.   

36) The Utah men’s basketball team has had a winning record at the Huntsman Center in 42 of the last 44 seasons. The only losing seasons? In 1972-73, the Utes went 6-10 at home and in 2011-12, they were 6-9.

37) On New Year’s Eve in 1996, the No. 7-ranked Utes, featuring future No. 2 NBA pick Keith Van Horn, faced off against No. 2-ranked Wake Forest, featuring future No. 1 NBA pick Tim Duncan. The game was close until the Demon Deacons pulled away for a 70-59 victory a couple of hours before midnight.

38) Perhaps the greatest finish to any game ever played in the arena occurred on March 4, 1985, in a first-round WAC Tournament game. Utah trailed by one point with one second to go and Wyoming had the ball. However, the Cowboy player overthrew his teammate, giving Utah the ball at the same spot. Gale Gondrezick threw it in to Manny Hendrix, who sank a 22-foot shot from the right corner at the buzzer for an unbelievable 61-60 victory. 

39) The largest basketball crowd ever was 15,755 on Feb. 27, 1993, when Utah played BYU and the Utes took an 89-83 victory. 

40) Concerts used to be common, but are rare these days because of the lack of access for equipment needed for modern concerts. The west tunnel is only 12 feet wide with a 10-foot, 7-inch ceiling, so forklifts are required to bring in equipment. Pyne said bands don’t want to come here because of the cost.

41) The greatest concert ever, in the opinion of many, was on Oct. 7, 1975, when Elton John was at the height of his fame. He performed without a warmup act before a sellout crowd with two sets of two hours each. The concert didn’t finish until after midnight.

42) Among the entertainers who have performed besides John are The Jackson 5, the Bee Gees, Steve Martin, the Carpenters, Dave Chapelle, the Temptations, John Denver, Three Dog Night, the Beach Boys, Linda Ronstadt and Neil Diamond.

43) Famous people who have spoken at the arena include the Dalai Lama, former President Gerald Ford and former Vice President Hubert Humphrey. 

44) Besides basketball, volleyball and gymnastics, the arena has hosted tennis matches, NBA preseason and Summer League games and professional wrestling.

45) The arena has 44 rows and from the floor to the top of the arena it has 97 steps from top to bottom. 

46) The arena was built with no elevator, but a freight elevator was installed in 1983 near Portal 7 that is most often used to help older patrons get from the top to bottom and back and avoid using the stairs.

47) A $6 million renovation in 2014 removed the steel cloud and replaced it with a steel grid structure, LED lighting and a new sound system. A new video scoreboard was installed in 2018.


Atlanta Rigging Systems employees build a working platform during renovations at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 12, 2014.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

48) The Jon and Karen Huntsman Basketball Facility opened in fall 2015 just northeast of the arena. At a cost of $36 million, the four-story 101,000-square-foot facility, connects to the arena through tunnels.

49) Brent Larsen and Craig Galloway have been ushers for Utah basketball games for all 50 years the arena has been open. You can find Larsen at the top of Portal 22 and Galloway at the base of the stairs from Portal 3 at men’s basketball games. 

50) In recent years, studies have been undertaken with possible plans to renovate the inside of the arena with a wider concourse, a grand entrance, luxury seating, while perhaps reducing capacity somewhat, but according to athletic department officials, those plans are not in the immediate future.