What is more agreeable than one's home?
This is an article from the Oct. 24, 1995 issue
The philosopher Cicero posed that question a couple thousand
years ago, and the Commodores of Vanderbilt University would
answer it thusly today: Absolutely nothing. Over the last five
seasons Vandy has won fewer than 40% (31-47) of its games away
from home, yet it has prevailed in 81.6% (62-14) of games played
at its distinctive--opponents would choose another
adjective--home, Memorial Gymnasium, a quaint redbrick structure
shoehorned between the football stadium and the baseball diamond
in the middle of Vanderbilt's Nashville campus. Vandy's numbers
in Southeastern Conference games are even more striking: The
Commodores are a paltry 14-27 (.341) on the road, a heroic 32-9
(.780) in Memorial Gym.
College basketball has always been about home courts, much more
so than its professional counterpart. Think fast: Do you
associate any NBA team with a home court except for the Boston
Celtics, who now play in the brand-new FleetCenter? For every
Boston Garden there are a dozen Memorials, gloriously quirky
arenas--bandboxes and domes, well lit and dim, ancient and
modern, loud and, well, louder--that can turn into houses of
horror for visiting teams.
Will it continue to be so? That's hard to say. In 1998 Murray
(Ky.) State will move out of old 5,550-capacity Cutchin
Fieldhouse, where the ceiling is low and the noise level
(courtesy of the Racer Rowdies) is high. The team will move into
a new $20 million on-campus arena seating 8,000. "Every coach in
the league has been telling us we'll regret going into the new
building," says Murray's first-year coach, Mark Gottfried, who
takes over a team that was 34-4 the last three seasons at
Cutchin. "They tell us it's worth 10 to 15 points."
In other college towns, coaches and athletic directors fight to
maintain the tradition--and the competitive
advantage--represented by the home court. "I don't want to take
this thing away from the students," says Gonzaga coach Dan
Fitzgerald of the on-campus Martin Centre, known locally as the
Kennel, where the Bulldogs have won 145 of 183 games under
Fitzgerald and where the fans are well prepared to do their part
come game time. "I don't know what the students do between three
and seven, but I'll tell you one thing--it isn't holy water,"
says Fitzgerald. So for now, Gonzaga will say no to the
"downtown people" (as Fitzgerald calls them) who want the
Bulldogs to move to the new 12,100-capacity Veterans Memorial
Arena in downtown Spokane.
Some coaches are loath to acknowledge another team's home court
edge. "I'd never say one place is difficult to play," says
Northern Iowa's Eldon Miller. "Coaches may think and feel it,
but they won't talk about it." Other coaches like to dismiss any
notion of home court advantage by claiming that the players make
the arena, not vice versa. "The thing that made Duke so tough at
home over the years wasn't so much the players' feeding off the
fans," says Long Beach State coach Seth Greenberg of Duke's
fabled Cameron Indoor Stadium and its resident Cameron Crazies.
"It was that they had great players."
That's true to a certain extent, of course. North Carolina, for
example, has won 91.2% of its home games over the last five
seasons, but the Tar Heels have also won 74.8% of their away
games, best in the nation. Similarly, Indiana has won 94.1%
(64-4) of its home games over the last five seasons--even though
Assembly Hall is peopled largely by an older, alumni-type crowd
that dutifully wears Indiana red but rarely raises the roof.
Other factors make the Hoosiers tough at home: the intimidating
presence of Bob Knight, a home schedule heavy on sacrificial
lambs, and the fact that the talent-rich Hoosiers win a lot of
Still, there is much to this home-sweet-home thing. Ninety-four
straight nonconference foes over 12 seasons have fallen at Duke:
Is it logical to think that the Cameron Crazies had nothing to
do with that? And how does one explain the strange power of
Tennessee-Chattanooga at the UTC Arena, called the Roundhouse,
where the Moccasins are an incredible 149-28 (.842) since 1982?
"I can see balls dancing on the rim at the Roundhouse, then
mysteriously falling off," says Joe Cantafio, who in eight
seasons at VMI and one at Furman has never won in Chattanooga.
Or how about the innocent-looking gym with the innocent-sounding
name--John Kresse Arena--in Charleston, S.C.? The Cougars of the
College of Charleston are 186-22 in 13 years there under--guess
who?--John Kresse. "What makes it special is that they renamed
the place [in 1994] while I'm still alive," says the 52-year-old
Kresse. And why does every coach in the Pac-10 pull out the
schedule before the season and say a little prayer when he comes
upon the date for the trip to McArthur Court in Eugene, Ore.?
Here are some of the ingredients that go into the making of a
home court advantage.
History It is not absolutely necessary that a home court be
steeped in campus lore. But it helps. A team should feel at one
with its arena, which the Oregon Ducks certainly do in the
seen-it-all ambience of McArthur. When it opened in 1927 with a
capacity of 6,000, Mac Court, as it's called by just about
everyone, was the largest basketball arena west of the Missouri
River. The Oregon students had been called crazy when they voted
in 1926 to assess themselves $5 each per quarter to finance an
arena that doubters said they would never fill, but almost 70
years later they're still packing the splendid four-story,
ivy-covered anachronism that now holds more than 10,000. Oregon
coach Jerry Green says he once counted 35 broken windows in the
building, and birds are a common sight during games and
practices. But the idea has always been to make repairs without
changing the arena's essential character. And the fans are still
crazy. "I've been to Duke and I've been to Kentucky," says
Green, "but this building is as exciting as it gets anywhere on
a game night. It's a very, very special place."
Oh, the sounds that Mac Court has heard. Sinatra crooned there,
Elvis rocked there, Thomas E. Dewey campaigned there, and the
Reverend Jesse Jackson testified there. Those sounds were
doubtless more pleasant than the one made during the evening in
the 1930s when an elephant plunged through the floor and landed
in the shower room below. That was the last time the circus was
invited to Mac Court, though Oregon's opponents consider any
game there a circus.
The history of Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater, Okla., is
basketball's history. The arena, built in 1938, is named in part
for one of the college game's pioneers, Hank Iba, and current
Cowboy coach Eddie Sutton speaks often of feeling Iba's spirit
when he's on the sideline. Small wonder. Sutton was playing for
Iba back in 1957--the year the arena was named for him--when the
Cowboys entertained Wilt Chamberlain and his No. 1-ranked Kansas
Jayhawks. Sutton scored a career-high 18 points, and the Cowboys
won 56-54. Need another reason to feel the spirit? Iba's funeral
was held in the arena in 1993. "I get the same feelings in here
as I do in my arena," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski whispered to
Sutton during the ceremony.
The Pit Factor Gallagher-Iba would be a tough place to play
even if it had been built last week. The capacity of the arena
is only 6,381, and players enter and exit the court via a narrow
swath cut directly through the crowd. When Billy Tubbs was
coaching at Oklahoma, he always wore plain pants and a
short-sleeved shirt in Gallagher-Iba. "The crowd's so close that
people were always spilling something on me and ruining my
clothes," says Tubbs. "I couldn't afford to wear suits there."
The advantages for the home team in an arena specializing in
claustrophobia are obvious--fans are literally in the face of
the opponents and know that any noise they make will increase
exponentially as it bounces off the walls and ceiling. The
environment in a small building is so charged that the very
atmosphere becomes a factor in the game, just as the creaking
stairs become a character in a horror film. "The proximity of
fans makes it seem like there are more than there really are,"
says Missouri coach Norm Stewart of Gallagher-Iba. "And the
configuration also gives the impression that the court is much
longer and more narrow." If veteran coaches like Stewart get the
heebie-jeebies there, imagine what happens to inexperienced
And imagine what happens to those players and their coaches when
Pistol Pete, the Cowboy mascot, fires off a six-gun every few
minutes. Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson calls Gallagher-Iba the
toughest place in the country to play because of the noise
level: "I left that place one time and I still had a headache
two days later," he says.
Even the most disciplined teams have problems playing in the
pits. After Citadel athletic director Walt Nadzak watched his
Bulldogs lose to the College of Charleston 55-53 before a
raucous crowd at Kresse Arena in 1993, he wailed, "Get some
better security in this place or we won't play here again." Of
course, nothing much changed following Nadzak's complaint, and
the next time they played there the Bulldogs lost again. What's
so hard about playing at Kresse? Only that the fans (it holds
3,500) are within inches of the court on one side, a few feet on
two others, and on the fourth, as a backdrop to one basket, a
plain wall stands a mere 10 feet behind the baseline. Outside
the gym, just an alleyway away from that wall, is a
bed-and-breakfast and a Chinese restaurant. Many are the
visiting teams that have felt like retreating to the inn at
halftime and ordering out for some kung pao chicken.
Wacky Fans Fans give life to buildings, and there are several
arenas where the locals provide an advantage for the home team
simply with the volume of their voices. When former Oregon
All-America Stan Love says Mac Court is the loudest place he has
ever been, it means something; the brother of Beach Boy Mike
Love is no stranger to noise. "Sometimes it was so loud in
there," says Love, who played from 1968 to '71, "the only thing
you could hear was your heartbeat." Former Oregon star Stu
Jackson, now the general manager of the Vancouver Grizzlies,
still remembers with awe the racket in Mac Court when the Ducks
upset the Bill Walton-led UCLA Bruins 56-51 in 1974. "It got so
loud in there the scoreboard began to shake, visibly shake, at
the end of its cables," says Jackson. "The fans recognized what
was happening and started to get even louder and stomp harder,
to the point that the players, coaches and fans all thought the
thing was going to come down." It didn't come down that night
and never has, even though, attached as it is to a limber wooden
roof, it still shakes and shimmies from time to time.
Many opposing teams have been driven nuts at Idaho's Kibbie
Dome by the Vandal pep band, which stations itself near the
visitors' bench. If that doesn't send opponents over the edge,
the fans' penchant for stomping on the bleachers might. "When
you're in a team huddle in that place," says Weber State coach
Ron Abegglen, "you find yourself writing on a clipboard a lot."
Architecture and Design Arenas with physical oddities are
especially effective at throwing visiting teams off stride. With
the basketball floor set off to one side of the cavernous Kibbie
Dome, visitors find themselves longing for the warmth of a
friendly face. "It's almost like playing outside because it's so
open," says former Idaho coach Larry Eustachy. Others say it's
almost like playing outside because the arena is so cold. Says
Liz Abel, a former Idaho basketball player, "It's cold in there.
Remember, it's in Moscow, Idaho, where a winter heat wave is
At Western Kentucky's Diddle Arena, which is named for former
Hilltopper coach E.A. Diddle, visiting teams used to be
discombobulated by a confusing set of lines on the court. (The
floor was refinished a few years ago.) "We once ran a play and
got a guy wide open in the corner," remembers former Eastern
Kentucky coach Max Good, now the coach at Maine Central
Institute. "And the reason he was open was because he was
standing two feet out-of-bounds. He couldn't tell one line from
another on that court." How discombobulated have visitors been?
The Hilltoppers are 342-94 at their 32-year-old arena.
For pure eccentricity, though, it's hard to top Vandy's
43-year-old Memorial Gym, which boasts a unique set of balconies
that give the place the aspect of an opera house. The court sits
about three feet above the floor of the building, and the
supports for the baskets are so tall and so far behind the
baseline that the baskets appear to be floating in midair. Most
peculiar is the positioning of the team benches, which are
situated at the baselines rather than along the sideline.
Legendary Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp once said, "When my
Wildcats are at the far end of the court, it's like I'm shouting
to a steer who's lost on the back 40 of my farm." The whole
setup just looks, well, weird, and many teams are beaten before
they even get inside the gym. LSU's Dale Brown offered this
critique a few years ago: "This gymnasium must have been
designed by somebody from the school of forestry."
Home Cookin' Predictably, most coaches feel that referees are
not always able to adjudicate fairly in pressure-cooker home
court situations--except, of course, in their own home arenas.
But there are other forms of what might loosely be called home
cookin'--like scheduling. Going into the 1995-96 season, Coppin
State in Baltimore had the nation's longest home winning streak
(30), largely because no good team with any sense will play the
Eagles in the Coppin Center. The chances of losing there are too
high, and the payoff guarantee (Coppin draws only about 2,000
per game in a 3,000-capacity gym and has no TV contract) is too
small. Coppin actually makes most of its revenue by playing good
teams on the road; indeed, the schedule on the back of last
year's media guide didn't even list the home games, almost all
of which were against patsies. This all makes the Eagles an
invincible home team that would rather be on the road.
But most everybody else would rather be home, where hijinks are
expected, accepted and applauded. Oregon's teams used to beef up
their already formidable advantage at Mac Court with a pregame
intimidation ritual that, unless Mike Tyson is on your team,
would work only at home. While half the team went through
warmups, the other half stood at half-court with arms folded,
staring down their opponents at the other end. "The crowd just
went berserk when we did it," remembers Stu Jackson. But one
night veteran coach Marv Harshman turned it around. On
Harshman's cue, his Washington players ran to the bench, reached
into a bag and pulled out Groucho Marx masks--glasses, big noses,
mustaches--which they wore as they marched single file to the
center of the court. The crowd went nuts. Washington won 67-62.
(There's a lesson there: You can turn around the home court
advantage, but it takes forethought, ingenuity and plastic body
When Good was coaching at Eastern Kentucky, he despaired because
a seven-foot wall separated the fans from the floor at what was
then called Alumni Coliseum (now McBrayer Arena). "If I had my
way," said the coach, "I'd have put chairs on the floor and
filled them with inmates from Eddyville [site of the Kentucky
State Penitentiary] picking their teeth with switchblades." That
never happened. But during the 1979-80 season, in a key game
against archrival Western Kentucky, Good did instruct his team
managers to lean on the door of the referees' dressing room
while his team put on a pregame dunking exhibition. (At that
time warmup dunking was banned.) "I knew we really had to do
something to get the crowd jacked up," says Good. "We dunked 13
straight balls in warmups. The place went wild. When the
officials finally made it out, Gene Keady [then the Western
coach] walked over to them and said, 'I hope you know they just
dunked the ball 13 times.' But there was nothing the ref could
do." Eastern, the underdog, won the game 84-82. There's no place
THE DAUNTING DOZEN
Any number of factors can conspire to turn a home court into a
house of horrors for a visiting team. After polling many current
and former coaches and players about the places they felt least
comfortable, we submit this list of the nation's 12 toughest
places to play.
1 Vanderbilt Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton says that playing
in Memorial Gym is "like being in an old opera house." Well,
it's a grand ole opry house to the Commodores, who have won
78.1% of their games there.
2 Oklahoma State Small confines, deafening noise and a
gun-toting mascot have helped make the Cowboys winners in 64 of
their last 68 games at Gallagher-Iba Arena.
3 Tennessee-Chattanooga Since the Roundhouse opened in 1982, the
Moccasins are 149-28 there. They always win the close ones: They
had six overtime wins at home in '88-89.
4 Gonzaga Before losing to Santa Clara last season, the Bulldogs
had won 34 in a row at the Martin Centre, a.k.a. the Kennel, in
front of a pack of barking students known, of course, as the
5 College of Charleston Playing in an arena named for John
Kresse, the coach who still prowls the sideline after 16 years
at the helm, the Cougars are 52-3 since moving up to Division I
from the NAIA in 1991.
6 Oregon Since Mac Court opened in 1927, preachers, politicians
and elephants have come through its old wooden doors, but it's
the hoops fans who have kept the scoreboard, which is suspended
over center court, shaking. Over the last five years the Ducks
are 41-27 at home, 17-55 away.
7 Duke Whether you find them clever or offensive, the Cameron
Crazies still make Blue Devil opponents loco: Duke has won its
last 94 nonconference games at home. Since Cameron opened its
doors in 1940, the Blue Devils are a remarkable 539-129 on its
8 Murray State The Racer Rowdies have helped the team put
together a 184-33 record over the last 15 years at Cutchin
Fieldhouse, and the Racers have gone undefeated at home four
times since 1964. Will the success end when they move to a new
arena in 1998?
9 Idaho It's 498 feet long by 410 feet wide, and 150 feet from
floor to ceiling; its roof covers 4 1/2 acres; it holds 10,000
people; and visiting teams have to walk 50 yards from the locker
room to the bench. It's the Kibbie Dome, and from 1987 to '93,
the Vandals were 71-8 in their dome sweet dome.
10 Western Kentucky Diddle Arena's tin roof reflects noise back
into a sea of waving red towels--a tradition started by
legendary Hilltopper coach and arena namesake E.A. Diddle. Over
the last five years Western has won 85.5% of its home games.
11 Minnesota The recessed benches at the Barn, 67-year-old
Williams Arena, have frustrated Big Ten coaches for decades. In
the last five years the Gophers have lost 77.8% of their
conference games on the road and won 71.1% of them at home.
12 West Virginia While it may not be the slaughterhouse it once
was, West Virginia Coliseum is still an inhospitable place. The
Mountaineers are 221-44 at home since 1978. Said former Maryland
player Kevin McLinton, "It's like going to another world."