I love Cassell Coliseum. Some of my first Hokie sports memories happened there and to this day whenever I smell popcorn, I'm reminded of that sweet-smelling burst of warm air that greets visitors walking through the door into the home of Virginia Tech basketball.
The trouble is, Cassell is over fifty years old and severely outdated compared to other ACC venues. Former athletic director Jim Weaver said back in November that he feels the upgrades made so far give the arena another ten years of viability. So what should Virginia Tech do about it?
With new athletic director Whit Babcock taking over effective March 1, there will be plenty of changes in the athletic department, and the men's basketball program provides an excellent opportunity to make his mark early in a very public fashion.
First, let's start with some history because I just can't help myself.
Construction on Cassell Coliseum began in 1961. The effort to build a new facility was spearheaded by Virginia Tech's chief business officer Stuart Kent Cassell, who also helped push forward the efforts to build Lane Stadium.
The project was completed in 1964, and in the end the construction cost $2.7 million or approximately $20 million in present day dollars. For comparison, the Hahn-Hurst Basketball Practice Center that opened in 2009 adjacent to Cassell cost $21 million.
The Cassell is in an ideal location across the street from the main dorms on Tech's campus, and nestled between Hahn-Hurst and the Merryman athletic center. It's also near ample parking. And if Tech was to construct a new facility from the ground up it would cost considerably more than those figures.
For comparison: On the reasonable side, Miami's BankUnited Center opened in 2003 at a cost of $48 million. And on the high end is Virginia's beautiful John Paul Jones Arena built which was built for $131 million in 2006. An important fact to note is that both of those facilities were built with the option to host many non-basketball events in mind, something that may or may not be important for Virginia Tech.
Disclaimer: I'm at best an amateur architect and designer so the feasibility of some suggestions may be questionable. Let's take a look at the potential options.
New Arena at Cassell Coliseum Location
This is a bit messy, but certainly possible.
After what would assuredly be a massive fundraising effort—somewhere in between the above numbers, say $150 million, you begin tearing down Cassell immediately following the 2024 season.
Next you put an auction up on HokieSports selling off seats, pieces of railing, even authentic chunks of Coliseum concrete. Crazy people like me would love to own a piece of history and there's a surprisingly robust market for that kind of unique memorabilia. It won't generate a ton of money, but every little bit will help with such a costly undertaking.
As soon as the site's clear, the new arena goes up. The problem is this will likely take a minimum of one season and maybe more if it's like Miami's 7,972-seat BankUnited Center. Tech would need a similar sized facility, plus maybe a few more seats. A capacity of 8,500 to 9,000 would be ideal.
If construction goes off without a hitch (unlikely) the team might only be displaced for one full season and the first half of the next, opening the new arena in January of 2026.
Of course, the team wouldn't have anywhere to play in Blacksburg in the meantime. They'd have to call the Roanoke Civic Center home and offer free bus shuttles to attempt to get students to games.
Editor's Note: Never happen. They didn't do it in January 1996 when the Hokies were forced to play at Radford and then at the "Roundhouse" in the 'Noke, when the huge snowstorm caved the roof in. Have you seen the price of gas these days? Besides I'm sure Weaver had it written into his separation agreement that nothing fan-friendly ever be funded until 2074. Kind of like the Warren report. --Flyers 13
Perhaps a bigger issue is that the Jamerson Athletic Center is connected to Cassell and contains offices for coaching staffs in all sports. It could remain open, but there might be a draft.
New Arena on Washington Street Tennis Courts
The footprint of Cassell would just barely fit here, but it would be mighty tight.
You could connect the facility right into Hahn-Hurst. Jamming the buildings together should help slightly on location space.
At some point Cassell would come down and if recent trends are any predictor, they would put up a parking garage.
Given the proximity to Jamerson and the Merryman Athletic Center, you could instead add on to that part of the athletic complex.
It's a prime spot at the corner of Washington Street and Spring Road so facilities for non-revenue sports might be an option.
Extensively Renovate Cassell Coliseum
This option would also likely require the team to play in Roanoke for as long as construction lasts.
It wouldn't just be putting new woodwork in the concourse this time around. There are a number of upgrades that need to happen.
Replacing all the old wooden seats with slightly larger, cushioned seats would solve a chief complaint had by many over the years. You could even have cup holders! This would slightly reduce the total number of seats, but fan satisfaction would significantly increase.
You also have the opportunity to turn the Bowman Room—open to all Hokie Club members—into an actual club.
Put in a halfway decent kitchen, televisions everywhere, nice furniture and make it a place people would really want to hang out in. It doesn't replace having actual club seating, but it should help boost Hokie Club interest in basketball.
Students have to be court-side. I have no idea what the structural limitations are, but if you can figure out a way to alter things to place several rows of students down low—especially on the side that shows on television—without blocking the view of people in the good seats behind, it will make the place look and sound much better.
I'm thinking along the lines of the "Oakland Zoo" at Pittsburgh or the "Izzone" at Michigan State.
The video scoreboards were just replaced this off-season, but by the time this project rolls around it will be time for another upgrade in the audio/visual department.
Honestly, I haven't been able to decide on a preferred course of action.
As much as I'd like to keep it, upgrading Cassell is only an option if the existing structure allows it. Even if you can rearrange things, there will be limits that wouldn't exist if you started with a brand new arena.
Finances present a major hurdle, but Whit Babcock has a strong fundraising background including the $86 million he put together to renovate Cincinnati's Nippert Stadium.
Of course even with private donations, a new arena or a renovated Cassell will likely require some kind of corporate sponsor. Convince some regional company to become the title sponsor of Hokie basketball, put their name on the court and suddenly you have a big chunk of the funding for this project.
Another new revenue stream, especially with a brand new facility would be concerts.
This used to happen back in the day and I would assume was discontinued due to a lack of modern facilities in Cassell. You need a lot of wattage for today's shows and a complete electrical upgrade would almost assuredly be required. I also doubt the acoustics are the best in the Coliseum, but it certainly has a high noise threshold. If we need to dampen some of the sound, well, that's what the College of Engineering is for.
Even with the amazing new Moss Arts Center, there's still a market for other concert series' on campus. Concerts at Cassell has a nice alliterative ring to it. Or concerts at the brand new Kroger Center, whatever works.
Again, some of these ideas are feasible and some are surely far more complicated than they appear to an outsider like me. I don't pretend to have all the answers and I'm sure there are issues I didn't address.
Consider it brainstorming out loud and a jumping off point for some forward thinking surrounding basketball at Virginia Tech.
We certainly need it.