A half-dozen years ago, the future of one of Ohio's iconic sports venues -- St. John Arena at Ohio State University -- looked bleak.
Formerly the home of Ohio State basketball for 42 seasons, the arena between Lane Avenue and Woody Hayes Drive is now the venue for Buckeye wrestling, volleyball, fencing and gymnastics. It also is the site of the OSU band's pre-game football concerts-pep rallies known as "skull" sessions.
Completed in November 1956 at a cost of less than $4 million ($34 million in today's dollars), the 13,276-seat structure is named for former Ohio State basketball coach and athletic director L.W. St. John.
But although the latest plans call for new classrooms, labs and athletic fields to be located on the 20 acres where St. John Arena and its parking lots are situated, it's not likely that will happen for a few years.
"Eventually, without question, that building will reach the end of its useful life," Keith Myers, associate vice president of planning and real estate, told the Columbus Dispatch in January.
That was the day OSU President Michael V. Drake rolled out the latest plan in his "state of the university" address to the University Senate. The plan covers the entire campus, but doesn't include a schedule for most projects.
Since the Schottenstein Center (Value City Arena) opened in 1998 at Lane Avenue and Olentangy River Road, the demise of St. John Arena seemed inevitable. A 2010 Framework Plan called for it to be torn down and the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences to be relocated there.
But because St. John houses the mechanical systems for its neighbors -- French Field House and the OSU ice rink-- it can't be torn down without taking them with it. And the FAES college has decided to stay at its current location west of the Olentangy River.
Planners also recognize that St. John, site of the Buckeyes' 1960 NCAA men's basketball championship season, is important to the university's culture and history.
St. John was the first major sports arena I ever set foot in, having attended my first OSU basketball game in 1962, when Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek and Mel Noel were the Buckeyes' big three players.
My uncle, a 1959 OSU graduate who still lives in Columbus, took my dad and I to a handful of games at St. John, the Horseshoe and old Cooper Stadium (then home of the Columbus Jets minor league baseball team) in the 1960s.
In the 1970s, I attended several high school state basketball tournament contests at St. John, most notably in the years when Indian Valley South -- alma mater of West Virginia University coach Bob Huggins and his two brothers -- played there.
During my journalism career, I've covered the Buckeye Trail, Cuyahoga Falls and Tallmadge girls basketball teams during their state tourney appearances there.
The steepness of the upper sections of St. John led me to call the facility "the silo." I once sat two rows from the top behind one of the baskets, and it seemed like I'd topple out of my seat and roll down over fans in the rows in front of me.
I always thought it was a great venue, but it couldn't accommodate enough people, and a new, bigger facility was needed. Value City Arena has about 19,000 seats and, in my opinion, is Ohio's nicest arena for basketball.
When it was built, St. John was considered state of the art, with chairback seats, a four-sided spectator array with unobstructed views, soaring ceiling and gleaming silver four-barrel roof.
About five years ago, a new 4,000-seat arena called the Covelli Arena -- named after a family who contributed $10 million toward construction -- was proposed to house the sports played at St. John.
It recently was decided to merge two projects -- the Covelli Arena and the Jennings Family Wrestling Practice Facility -- because the Covelli project was $10 million over budget before construction even began. The combined complex is estimated to cost nearly $50 million.
Covelli Arena originally was to be built at Fred Taylor Drive and Ackerman Road, but the new site is just north of Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium (track and field) on Fred Taylor Drive. The arena is scheduled for completion in June 2019.
Once that happens, St. John Arena may be doomed, and it will be sad to see it go.
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