Williams Arena is only five years away from its 100th birthday. The home of Golden Gophers basketball turned 95 last February and if you ask Ben Johnson the facility, despite its age, is still special.
Johnson’s opinion counts and not just because he is Minnesota’s head men’s coach. He played in the building for the Gophers for two seasons, from 2002-2004, and was an assistant at Minnesota from 2013-2018. Before he was in college the Minneapolis native also watched the hometown team in the iconic building that features intimate seating and a raised floor.
Johnson, 42, told Sports Headliners he remembers his first game in Williams Arana like this: “You can get 13,000 people in here being wild and being loud cheering for their team. I thought that was pretty cool.”
Looking like an airplane hangar or barn on the outside, the revered building is the oldest arena in the Big Ten and among the most ancient college basketball venues in America. Named for former Gophers’ football coach Dr. Henry Williams, the arena once had the largest seating capacity in the country for college basketball, 18,025. With a wink to the fire marshal, the Gophers and Iowa packed “the Barn” in 1955 with a record crowd of over 20,000.
Renovations over the years, including partial replacement of bench seating, have brought capacity now to 14,625. Filling the building with fans was on Johnson’s mind the other day. His team is practicing this summer with the goal of major improvement from the last two seasons when the Gophers finished at the bottom of the Big Ten standings. Last winter the Gophers didn’t sell out a home game, not even against border rivals Iowa and Wisconsin. Johnson knows a packed house with delirious fans can create an electric atmosphere helping his team win games that otherwise might end in losses.
“We have to do our job and have a really good product and get people excited to come out, but they definitely make a difference,” he said. “And if you can win your home games in this league you set yourself up really well for post season play…and to have a successful Big Ten league season, and that’s what we want to do.
“We want to have every advantage we can to put our players in a position to have that special year. …I’ve seen it as a player and a coach that when Williams Arena is full—and it’s packed and there’s juice and energy in there –that for sure is two, three, four wins without a doubt. “
When a facility is 95 and has limited glitz and fan amenities compared to state-of-the-art buildings, speculation surfaces about the building’s future. Johnson acknowledged “people are always asking and wondering” but he isn’t aware of any major renovations or tear down planned for the arena.
Fans may also wonder what impressionable 17-year-old recruits think of the facility that is older than their great grandparents. Does the arena’s age present Johnson and his staff with a challenge in recruiting?
“It’s never come up as an issue,” Johnson said. “If anything, I think they really like it because it’s historic. It’s a venue that’s different with the elevated floor…makes it unique. Our guys actually love it and look forward to competing on it (the floor and venue). And I know our new players that haven’t played there think it’s pretty cool and have heard stories and are really looking forward to this year.”
“The Barn” is not for everyone, though. With no windows in the interior, the building relies only on artificial light. There are still bench seats that are uncomfortable for older fans. There are also seats where patrons crane their necks around poles to see the action. Concourse space is cozy, and the building won’t win any design prizes for the size or feel of its bathrooms.
But when the old building is filled and rocking with fans, there is an atmosphere to rival any in college basketball.
Because of Johnson’s roots here he has long appreciated the venue. “You see new arenas that don’t have that home feeling. I think that is what separates us. I’ve been in a couple (of other) older arenas and there’s a mystique to it. Kind of a magical feeling…there’s a history.”
In five years, Williams Arena will be feted with a birthday celebration like no other in its history. Johnson wants to be around then and have an outstanding team worthy of that milestone. “Without question, that would be pretty special,” he said.
Kirk Cousins is known as a polarizing figure and that comes through when reading Twitter comments about him prompted by the just released NetFlix docuseries “Quarterback” that chronicles the lives of NFL QBs Cousins, Patrick Mahomes and Marcus Mariota. Tweeters offer Cousins love, dislike and everything in between.
Odds seem likely 85-year-old Jim Marshall, known for his Iron Man playing streak of never missing a game in 19 seasons with the Vikings, will finally be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2024. Marshall is up for consideration again and his peers, including the late Bud Grant, think the former defensive end who is in the Vikings Ring of Honor is overdue for induction.
Speculation continues as to where defenseman Matt Dumba will play next season, but it seems all but certain the free agent won’t return to the Wild.
Congratulations to family, friends and former teammates of the late “Miracle on Ice” hockey hero Mark Pavelich who contributed to the new mental health facility in Sauk Centre, The Ranch. Pavelich, the great 1980 hockey Olympian and former Minnesota North Star, committed suicide in 2021.
Fired Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald uses the same agent (Bryan Harlan) as the Gophers’ P.J. Fleck. Harlan BTW is the brother of Kevin Harlan, the original broadcast voice of the Timberwolves and a national sportscaster icon for years.
MLB.com speculated yesterday that if the Mets make 35-year-old left fielder Tommy Pham available in a trade this summer the Twins could be interested. A right-handed bat, Pham is batting .301 in his last 30 games.
Don’t expect the Twins to part with manager Rocco Baldelli any time soon, even if the club slumps during the second half of the season. If it’s a rough finish Baldelli might well have reason to worry about his job security.
Bill Robertson, former WCHA and USHL commissioner, is reviewing consulting opportunities from sports and entertainment entities as he makes his transition into semi-retirement and relocation from Eagan to Buffington, South Carolina.
Gopher pitcher George Klassen, who can throw over 100 miles per hour, and Gopher second team All-Big Ten outfielder Brett Bateman have signed contracts with the Phillies and Cubs respectively. Klassen was taken in the sixth round of the MLB Draft earlier this month and Bateman was drafted in the eighth, with both reporting now to minor league operations.
Sorry to learn of Joe Pung’s recent passing. He was captain of the 1964 football Gophers and a second team All-Big Ten center that year.
Popular emcee and former Gopher football and basketball public address announcer Dick Jonckowski reports he is cancer free since last September. He will be a celebrity host starting on September 7 for the Jay Buckley Baseball Tour to Boston, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh.
The CORES lunch programs featuring prominent speakers, mostly from Minnesota sports, has been in place since 1985 but now there is a transition with long time organizers Jim Dotseth and Phil Ferek unable to continue their leadership. CORES speakers over the years have included Bud Grant, Rick Spielman, Jerry Kill, Mike Veeck, Pete Najarian and John Gagliardi who drew a record turnout of 216 attendees. Anyone interested in potentially stepping forward to assume leadership in the volunteer-based organization should email firstname.lastname@example.org. CORES is an acronym for coaches, officials, reporters, educators and sports fans.
Sam Bennett, who finished as the 2023 Masters Tournament low amateur, speaks to the Twin Cities Dunkers Tuesday, July 25. Bennett is one of four young pros who have been given sponsor exemptions for the 3M Open scheduled July 24-30 at TPC Twin Cities in Blaine. The others are Brazilian Fred Biondi, and Minnesotans Derek Hitchner and Frankie Capan III who were state champions at Blake and Stillwater respectively.
The Minneapolis Aquatennial begins Wednesday with the Torchlight Parade. Three Grand Marshals for the parade will represent the Lynx in recognition of the franchise’s 25th anniversary: coach Cheryl Reeve, GM Clare Duwelius, and Carley Knox, president of business operations.
Longtime Twin Cities TV news and sports anchor Jeff Passolt is retired living in Florida but spending summers at his lake home in Wisconsin. A native of Minnesotan, Passolt’s knowledge and recall of the state’s sports history is impressive.