March 2, 2010
Even in a loss, Cassell Coliseum is as special as ever

I received a note from Chris Cassell of Richmond saying that his grandfather, Stuart, would have celebrated his 100th birthday on February 25. The family had hoped to honor the occasion with a big home-court basketball victory over Maryland, of course. And while the Hokies lost a heart-breaking 104-100 double-overtime game to the Terrapins, it was a day that showed us all again how special the Stuart K. Cassell Coliseum can be – as if we needed a reminder.

For those who don’t know, Tech’s current home coliseum opened on January 3, 1962, when the Hokies beat Alabama 91-67.

“I was here coachin’ that day,” former Tide Coach Wimp Sanderson told me before the Maryland game.

Ironically, Sanderson was in Blacksburg to serve as the radio analyst for ISP’s national coverage of the game. “I’m probably the only one still alive who was at the game, and we lost that day,” Sanderson recalled, with his distinctive Southern twang.

“Came back in the 80’s and lost again. I told our people we ain’t never comin’ back here. You go ahead and check,” Sanderson suggested. “’Bama ain’t come back since. This is a damn tough place to play.”

Damn tough.

Virginia Tech has compiled a record of 494-145 during the 49 years it has played in its 10,000-seat arena at the corner of Washington Street and Spring Road. While it opened in 1962, the building wasn’t officially named in honor of Cassell until September of 1977.

Why Stuart Cassell? Unfortunately, not much has been written about his contributions recently, but this gentleman was one of the most influential people on Tech’s campus in the 1900s.

Cassell spent nearly a half-century on Tech’s campus as student, teacher and administrator. A native Virginian, he came here in 1928 and never left.

After receiving two degrees from Tech, Cassell taught and then was named the state’s executive officer for Agriculture Administration, with its headquarters in Blacksburg. Cassell turned the program – designed to help farmers during the depression – into a model for the rest of the country.

He moved to university administration in 1945 under President John Hutcheson, who named Cassell as his finance and business manager. Cassell basically became the ‘go-to guy’ for four university presidents. He excelled in terms of finances both on campus and with state legislators. And of course, he was an avid supporter of athletics.

He initially wanted the coliseum to seat between 12,000 and 13,000, but the university approved construction for a slightly smaller venue that would seat 10,000.

And today, it’s still a gem of an arena.

In an era where teams – both college and pro – are building spacious palaces with incredible modern amenities, Cassell is a throwback. Its steep sidelines offer incredible views of the court from every seat in the house. The intimacy makes it one of the loudest arenas in the country. It’s deafening. It’s intimidating. And it’s special, as we’ve seen again during the course of this season.

There are no cushioned seats. Tight, wooden seats that certainly weren’t built for comfort almost encourage each occupant to stand up and cheer.

Virginia Tech needed a major upgrade to its basketball facilities and got it with the new $21 million practice facility, which opened last summer. But the Coliseum itself? It remains absolutely magical and amazing. We’ve seen that throughout this current season with energetic and passionate crowds.

Twenty years ago, I had lunch in Richmond with the late Chuck Noe, Tech’s head coach from 1955-1962. We walked through The Fan to his favorite lunch spot and then back to his house on Grove to read through his scrapbook that he had kept over the years.

As he flipped through the pages – much of the newsprint had faded and yellowed – Noe kept going back to articles on the building of the new basketball arena in Blacksburg. Those stories mentioned how ‘big-time basketball would come to Virginia’ now that the Commonwealth had a major arena. It would be able to host NCAA Tournament games. It would help Tech recruit. It would be the biggest and best basketball facility in the region.

Sure enough, the first NCAA Tournament games played in Virginia were in Blacksburg in 1966 and ’67.

From Noe’s perspective, Virginia Tech’s Coliseum was ahead of its time. Cassell, who also proposed the construction of Lane Stadium in the ‘60s, was a visionary and a guy who wanted to help the Hokies have a home-court advantage.

That day in The Fan, Coach Noe kept asking things like “Do you think those steep seats happened by accident?” And, “Ya do know we wanted to make it even tougher for visiting teams than War Memorial was, right?”

Tech had played ball in the tiny War Memorial gym, packed with members of the Corps, for years. Tech didn’t win many games in the early 1950s, but it had a home-court advantage. When Noe arrived, things changed in a hurry.

The 10,000-seat building created a new era in Hokies basketball, and the home of the Hokies is just as special today as it was back then.

A confession here: The original thought of this column was that Tech’s double-overtime win over Maryland would be the “greatest game ever played at Cassell” – great because of the stakes and great because of the amazing performances by players on both teams, the passion of the coaches and the fact that this game went to double overtime.

The three-hour delay in the tipoff added to the story. A beer truck had backed over a fire hydrant, breaking a water main, pushing a 4 p.m. tipoff back to 7:07 p.m.

The extra time added to the anxiety of the players and the emotions of the fans, and the game was simply sensational.

The fact that Wimp, who coached against Chuck in that first game in 1962 was sitting there, made it even more poetic. Bell’s steal, JT’s 3 and Malcolm’s lay-up were just sensational plays. This was the best game. Better than Carolina in ’07. Better than Southern Miss in ’89. Better than Memphis in ’83.

Maryland won the game in the second overtime, so let’s call it “The Greatest Game we ever lost.”

But even in defeat, Cassell was its magical self.

ACC newbies who visit walk away after each game talking about the volume and intimacy of the crowd. Even today, it’s as special a place as it was 49 years ago.

“It’s our Cameron,” current Tech coach Seth Greenberg says, comparing the Hokies’ venue to Duke’s on-campus facility.

Virginia Tech’s administration has updated the facility with modern concession stands, video boards and more. But when it comes to game time, it’s got the charm that very few buildings have these days.

“This reminds of Cole Field House,” one Maryland insider suggested, almost longing for the days of the old barns, particularly Maryland’s arched home venue which had those wooden seats and steep angles – just like Cassell does today.

There are no super boxes, luxury suites or club seating at Cassell Coliseum. That hurts Tech’s ability to generate additional revenue from home basketball games, and quite obviously, puts the Hokies at a financial disadvantage compared to other schools in the ACC who can generate millions of dollars from such seating (as the Hokies do in Lane Stadium).

But from a pure basketball standpoint, is there a better place to watch a game in the country than Cassell?

Is there a place where the fans are intimately engaged in the game any more than Blacksburg?

It’s a shame Stuart Cassell isn’t with us anymore. It would’ve been fun to celebrate his 100th birthday at the arena bearing his name.

It’s the Wrigley Field of the ACC, and when Noe and Cassell sat down to discuss how the building should look, how it should sound and how would be a great place for players and fans alike, they nailed it.

All these years later, it’s still a magical place.

Dear Bill,

During the course of the football season, I never saw the Hokies line up in the ‘Wild Turkey.’ On third-and-short, there is nothing like Greg Boone plowing his way to the first down! How come we never saw it this past season? Thanks, Nicholas, Christiansburg, Va.


Greg hurt his shoulder early in the season, as you know. That limited his ability to run the ball in the “Wild Turkey” during the course of the 2009 season. The Hokies were successful on 43 percent of their third-down conversions in 2009, which was up from 38 percent in 2008. In fact, 43 percent is about the highest you’ll find on record in recent Tech history.


Our non-conference basketball schedule was terrible this year. What are we going to do to make it better next year? It's going to keep us out of the big dance. Steve, Fairfax, Va.


I posed that question to Coach Greenberg on Monday night’s Tech Talk Live! “We are going to re-visit how we pick some non-conference teams and do a bit more research on their rosters, who they’ve got coming back and who they’ve lost,” Greenberg said. “We want to play in made-for-TV games and we will play at least one of those next year. We are in a tournament in California, which is three games with excellent teams. We are going to play a Big Ten team at home in the ACC–Big Ten Challenge and we are going to continue our series with Penn State.”

Greenberg’s concern is some of the non-conference ‘buy game’ opponents this year had awful records. UNC Greensboro (7-22), UMBC (4-25), VMI (6-18), Longwood (8-18), Charleston Southern (9-16) and North Carolina Central (3-22) are examples. The look of the ‘buy’ games will likely be different in 2010-2011.

Dear Bill,

Just wanted to let you know that I was driving in Winslow, Ariz., (just like in the Eagles’ song) and heard the Hokies-Maryland game on XM. WOW. It was an amazing game, and it was like being at the game. I'm SO GLAD the games are on XM, so THANKS for making that happen. I hope this team can finish strong. If the Hokies make the NCAA on the West Coast, we will be there! Paul Castillo, Winslow, Ariz.


Thanks. Did you see the “girl in a flatbed Ford?” The XM Radio deal was put together by the ACC office. It does allow Hokie fans everywhere to hear our games. Thanks for listening.


During the BC game, which we lost by 20 points, you said these things happen to good teams, even in the NBA. Well, good teams don’t lose important games by 20 points late in the season. Kerry, Annandale, Va.


It happens every night and every year. Hey, look at the last game of the 2008 NBA Finals. Boston beat Los Angeles 131-92. That was a pretty ‘big game’ – the deciding game in the NBA Finals. And I’m sure you’d agree with me that a team with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, coached by Phil Jackson, was a pretty good team. They lost by 39 points with the NBA title on the line. It happens.


Name, in order, the top-five running backs in the Beamer-era at Tech. Mine are: 1) Ryan Williams 2) Darren Evans 3) Kevin Jones 4) Lee Suggs 5) Shyrone Stith. Thanks! Mike Williamson, Dallas, Texas


That’s a tough list to compile to be honest. As of now, I might have KJ and Ryan Williams as “co-No. 1’s,” but that could change by the end of this coming season. I’d probably have Branden Ore on my list. He was a very special back.


This isn’t a question, but a comment. I just read an article in The Roanoke Times regarding hate mail and messages that Sean Glennon has been receiving recently. For the first time in my life, I was ashamed of Hokie Nation. Here is a young man who gave us four years of his life. He played his best for us and did not complain when he was benched his senior year. He showed class and integrity when things were not going his way. This is how we thank him? So he didn’t play perfectly. Who does? He did get us 10 wins every season he played and I do not think that is something to sneeze at.

I would just like to tell Sean thank you for the time and effort he gave us at Tech. On behalf of Hokie Nation, I would like to apologize for the few idiots out there who do not know how to behave like civilized human beings. Amy Crabtree, Rougemont, N.C.


Did you happen to see the piece on Sean Glennon in the 2/9/10 Washington Post (online edition)? Every day, I consider myself proud to be a Hokie fan, but today just a little less so because of how some other fans of the program choose to represent all of us. Sean Glennon was a dedicated Hokie who sacrificed much for what the coaching staff told him was the good of the program. Perhaps those who criticize him have never had to sacrifice their dream for the good of a community, in which case, I hope they keep their selfish feelings to themselves. Matt Walker, Anchorage, Alaska.

Amy and Matt (and the others who wrote on this topic),

Thanks for expressing the thoughts that 99 percent of Hokie fans have on this issue. Sean Glennon is one of the top-five all-time passers in Virginia Tech history (4,867 yards). The kid threw 28 touchdowns and was 18-8 as the team’s starting quarterback. He was MVP of the 2008 ACC championship game. Don’t let a few knuckleheads with computers make you feel ashamed of the Hokie Nation because they hold some sort of grudge.

Remember, there are knuckleheads in every crowd, even some who wear orange and maroon. Sean understands this because he’s a classy, intelligent guy. The knuckleheads who are on his case likely never played on a team or truly understand the sacrifices Sean made as a player at Tech, and the terrific teammate he was to Tyrod Taylor. It’s mind-baffling. Sean will also be one of my favorite Hokies.


Looking at the depth chart for Boise State’s offensive line and comparing it to Tech’s defensive line, we give away almost 30 pounds per position. Does heavier equal better in the fourth quarter? Ted Petts, Stony Creek, Va.


Boise isn’t that big. The Broncos’ line is as follows:

Tackles: Nate Potter (6-6, 293) and Garrett Pendergast (6-4, 271).

Guards: Will Lawrence (6-2, 293) and Kevin Sapien (6-4, 286).

The center is Thomas Byrd (5-11, 284).

That’s about an average line for the ACC. Maybe a bit below average for the teams the Hokies have played in both ACC and bowl games.

For perspective, compare it to Tennessee’s: Chris Scott (6-5, 330), Cory Sullins (6-1, 270), Cody Sullins (6-1, 260), Jock McLendon (6-3, 324) and Aaron Douglas (6-6, 282) or Virginia’s offensive line: Landon Bradley (6-7, 275), Austin Pasztor (6-7, 315), Jack Shields (6-5, 285), BJ Cabbell (6-6, 305) and Will Barker (6-7, 320).

By comparison, Virginia is gigantic compared to Boise. The Broncos win a lot of games and their linemen are in excellent condition. They play a lot of snaps on offense and seem to be just as strong in the fourth quarter as any team in the county. That’s why that team has won so many games in recent years.

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