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Joe Henderson Columns

USF fans won't recognize renovated Sun Dome

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 12:57 AM

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I can't recall how many times I went to the Sun Dome in the more than 30 years since it opened, but it was a lot. I never thought that much about the place, to be honest. Part of the job in my former life as a sports columnist here required covering University of South Florida basketball, and you had to go to the Dome for that.

It was extraordinarily unremarkable.

Oh, who am I kidding? The place was pretty much a dump when it opened in 1980, a year behind schedule, and it went downhill after that. USF athletic director Doug Woolard, much more diplomatically, said the Dome was "a little tired" when he took the job on Fowler Avenue.

That was eight years ago.

But there we were Wednesday morning, about to take a guided tour of the new and vastly, terrifically, wonderfully improved Sun Dome, with Woolard as our guide. You won't recognize the joint. I mean that in a good way.

"It's a new Sun Dome," Woolard said. "It's not a renovation. The transformation is amazing."

Technically, it is a renovation costing $35.64 million, the jewel of a top-to-bottom overhaul at the campus over the last five years. This wasn't just a glorified paint job. Workers tore the insides out of the old building and created something that will draw gasps from longtime USF faithful the first time they walk in.

"They'll say, 'Are you kidding me?'" Woolard said.

The first official event in the new place will be graduation on May 4, and it will be ready. That already puts it ahead of the old Sun Dome, which wasn't even close to being ready when it was formally dedicated after lengthy construction delays and much embarrassment to the university.

The Bulls had already spent the previous season as nomads, playing in six different venues around the area because the Dome was running so far behind. When it finally did open, the entire middle section of the arena was nothing but concrete – no seats, no risers, nothing but open air.

The capacity of the old place kept changing game after game as workers bolted in more seats. That thrown-together look never quite went away.

Until now, that is.

"We need to think of this building as a convocation center, an activity center, and an athletic center," Woolard said.

It has all the modern comforts people want today, from plush seating courtside to upscale clubs. There will be upgraded food available throughout the building, a major plus. Even bigger plus: more and better restrooms.

It won't have the same feel we had standing in line on the loading dock outside the press room to use the single restroom available in that part of the building, but I can get used to it.

The old Dome was the site of concerts from Frank Sinatra, Billy Joel and Elton John. The new Dome will make it possible to host big acts again, although there will be competition from the Forum and that worst-name-ever for a concert spot amphitheater off I-4.

"We're excited about basketball, but this building goes way beyond that," executive associate athletic director Bill McGillis said. "There are 30-35 games there a year between our men's and women's teams, but there will be more than 300 other days where it can be used."

If you haven't been to the campus in a few years, you really need to take a look at what's happening at USF. It has blown its old image of a commuter drive-through-U school to bits. They could change the school's mascot from Bulls to a construction crane and it would fit.

The basketball teams are the most obvious beneficiaries of this place, but everyone at USF and throughout the area benefits. The new place will seat about 10,000, only a few hundred less than the old Dome.

In the end, yeah, it's just a building. You go there to watch stuff, and if what you watch is good enough then you come back and watch some more. It's up to USF, athletically and aesthetically, to make that happen.

The new place is first-class all the way, though. It may be unsettling at first for people used to the old building, but my guess is they'll get over it pretty quick.

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