Friday, January 21, 2005

The Memories as Veterans Memorial Auditorium Turns 50

It’s too bad that buildings can’t talk.

If they could, Veterans Memorial Auditorium would be running off at the mouth in a very big-time way.

The huge brick building on the north edge of downtown Des Moines—between Center and Crocker on Fifth Avenue--celebrates its 50th birthday Feb. 1, and it’s got a lot to be proud of.

Indeed, it would have millions and millions of memories.

I’ve never referred to it as “Vets” or the “Barn.” I’ve always called it Veterans Memorial Auditorium in the first reference and the Auditorium thereafter.

That’s what I plan to do in this column while remembering the smell of the hot dogs being prepared in the concession stands; the cloud of cigarette and cigar smoke that hovered over the playing floor; Drake students roaring, “Here We Go Bulldogs!” in 1969; Maury John ordering the players’ benches moved to the other side of the building, in front of the students; Drake beating Louisville; Drake beating Maury John; Kurt Warner throwing touchdown passes for the Barnstormers; the boys’ and girls’ tournaments; the emotions.

The Iowa Events Center website says the Auditorium “opened on Feb. 1, 1955 with the Des Moines Policeman’s Ball, attended by an audience of 7,000 people. Although the Auditorium was not officially completed yet, this was Des Moines’ first look at the brand-new $5.25 million shrine to the city’s veterans.”

When Drake was playing its home basketball games at the Auditorium, I saw a ton of them. I was there as a writer for most of them, as a spectator for others.

In those days, it was the place to be. When Maury John was the coach, Drake had a better basketball program than Iowa State and was on a par with Iowa.

I have some strong memories of games Drake won at the Auditorium and of some other events I saw there.

But first……

The man who has forgotten more about Drake athletics than anyone else can remember is 87-year-old Paul Morrison, now the university’s sports historian and before that the school’s news bureau director, athletic business manager and sports information director.

Morrison said he has attended “several thousand” Drake basketball games over the years as Drake Fieldhouse, the Auditorium, the Knapp Center and even the Argonne Armory.

“We played one game at the Argonne Armory on Feb. 15, 1936 because there was a coal strike and we couldn’t play anywhere else,” Morrison recalled. “It was quite an event. We beat Oklahoma A&M, 29-19.”

Oklahoma A&M’s coach was none other than Henry Iba, who became a legend and had a 655-316 record at the school [later renamed Oklahoma State] from 1934-1970.

When the Auditorium was being built and talk began about Drake playing some of its games there, Morrison said the feelings around the campus were positive.

“I didn’t hear any strong negatives about it from the students,” he recalled. “They had to travel from the campus to downtown, but they kind of liked that.”

Morrison said Drake’s first game at the Auditorium was on Jan. 11, 1957. Iowa State beat a Bulldog team coached by John Benington, 97-71.

“The attendance was 7,492,” Morrison said. “Gary Thompson scored 27 points for Iowa State, and hit his 1,000th point against us. Red Murrell scored 28 for Drake.”

Morrison said that was the only game Drake played at the Auditorium in the 1956-57 season.

”In 1957-58, we played four games there—including one against Cincinnati in which Oscar Robertson played for Cincy,” he said. “They beat us, 74-72, and we also lost at the Auditorium to St. Louis, Iowa State and Bradley.

“The 1958-59 season was Maury John’s first at Drake. On Dec. 20, we beat Colorado State, 78-66, at the Auditorium for our first victory there in six tries. Our game was part of a doubleheader in which Iowa State played Oklahoma City.”

Morrison said Drake played two more games at the Auditorium that season, four in 1959-60, nine in 1960-61 and four in 1961-62.

“From the 1962-63 season to March 2, 1992, we played all of our games there,” Morrison said. Rudy Washington was our coach in the final Drake game at the Auditorium, and we lost to Illinois State, 76-75.”

The 7,002-seat Knapp Center has been the home of Drake basketball ever since. However, the Bulldogs will open the new 16,558-seat Wells Fargo Arena to collegiate basketball on Nov. 20, 2005 when they play an opponent to be determined in the opening game of a doubleheader. Northern Iowa will play in the second game of the Mediacom Communications Two Rivers Shootout.

Back to the Auditorium for a few seconds, Morrison remembers when the players who made up the core of John’s 1968-69 team that went to the NCAA Final Four and finished with a 26-5 record were freshmen.

“They couldn’t play varsity basketball as freshmen in those days,” Morrison explained. “But the Drake students and other people would come early on game-night so they could see Dolph Pulliam, Willie McCarter and the others play in the freshman games.”

The Drake games at the Auditorium of which I have the fondest memories both had Louisville as the opponent. One was in the 1968-69 season.

The game was played March 1. On Jan. 25, Drake had lost at Louisville, 84-70. I was on hand for both games.

The March 1 game was loaded with emotion. Drake was on a seven-game winning streak—with victories over Memphis State, Iowa State, North Texas State, Bradley, Wichita State, Tulsa and Cincinnati.

Drake’s students were ready. When Louisville’s players were introduced, the students covered their faces with newspapers. [That not only prevented them from looking at Louisville’s players, but permitted them to read my pregame story!]

“Dolph Pulliam takes credit for that idea [of the students covering their faces],” Morrison said.

At the time, Pulliam was an outstanding guard for the Bulldogs, with defense as his specialty. He also made theatrical flops to draw offensive fouls.

With students chanting, “Here we go, Bulldogs!”, Drake wound up burying Louisville, 101-67, then also beat the Cardinals, 77-73, a week later in a Missouri Valley Conference playoff game at Wichita, Kan., en route to the NCAA Midwest Regional at Manhattan, Kan.

Another huge Drake-Louisville game was played at the Auditorium on Jan. 23, 1971.

Dave Wicklund, a 6-foot reserve guard, came off the bench to score the winning basket on a length-of-the-floor pass from Jeff Halliburton.
Two seconds remained when John called his players over during a timeout.

“Coach said, ‘OK, Wicklund, you’re going to shoot the ball,’ Wicklund told me.

“And, generally, the play called for Halliburton to throw the ball to about the other team’s free throw line so I could shoot it from there if I had the time.

“But this time I had to catch up to the ball. And I went in for the layup that won the game.”

Wicklund said he didn’t even know if the shot was successful because he was knocked to the floor by a Louisville player.

The 1970-71 season was John’s last at Drake. He then went to Iowa State, and continued to bring his teams to the Auditorium to play the Bulldogs.

On Dec. 15, 1973, John’s team lost to Howard Stacey’s Drake squad, 61-60, there. John had already told me that he had inoperable cancer of the esophagus.

Talk about emotion at the Auditorium. Wow.

Then there was the time when Al McGuire brought his Marquette team to the Auditorium to play Drake. Always looking for an edge, John had told workers to move the players’ benches to the other side of the building so the students would be seated behind McGuire and his players.

McGuire complained that the students threw pennies at his head. The benches were moved to the other side for Drake’s next game.

In those days, people were permitted to smoke in the narrow walkways at the Auditorium. That smoke formed a large cloud over the playing floor in the last half and threatened to send thousands of people to the first-aid room in the building because of shortness of breath.

I put in a number of long days and nights while covering the State High School Boys’ and Girls’ basketball tournaments at the Auditorium, and I’ve still got the splinters off the press row seats to prove it.

I was there for some of Kurt Warner’s Arena League exploits for the Barnstormers, I saw ice shows, Home and Garden shows, Boat and Vacation shows and concerts.

There was only one Auditorium.

Happy 50th birthday. I’ll light the candles.

Vol. 4, No. 301
Jan. 21, 2005