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Monday, June 17, 2024

Hoops House

Marty Simmons was a stud basketball player. The 6-foot-5-inch forward came to the University of Evansville in 1985 after transferring from Indiana University. Simmons, a former Illinois high school star, was talented enough for a big-time program. IU certainly fit that bill. By the mid-1980s, the Hoosiers already had two national championships under Bobby Knight, but the controversial coach had a series of run-ins with Simmons.

UE was a storied program in its own right. The ball club had produced a number of professional players, and coach Arad McCutchan had led teams to five college division (the precursor to Division II) championships. That success made UE basketball games must-see events for decades, but eight years before Simmons’ arrival, a tragic plane crash killed every member of the UE basketball team.

The program was rebounding when Simmons made his debut as a Purple Ace. Before his first home game, he stood in the Roberts Stadium tunnel. Older athletes had told him what to expect from a crowd blindly passionate about their home team. “It was unbelievable,” Simmons says. “The fans were always a huge part of it. The beauty of being a part of Evansville basketball is just how important the program is to the community.”

By the time Simmons had finished his collegiate career, the player known as “The Mule” returned the UE program to relevance. As a junior, he averaged 22.4 points, and UE tied for first place in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference. As a senior, he averaged 25.9 points, the sixth best in the nation, and his efforts placed him ninth in balloting for the Associated Press College Basketball Player of the Year. He led the Aces to a first-round win over Utah in the National Invitational Tournament, UE’s first post-season win at the Division I level. He played only two seasons at UE, yet he scored 1,265 points, ranking 22nd in most points scored at a university that counts NBA Hall of Famer Jerry Sloan among the alumni.

When Simmons returned to UE in 2007, this time as head coach, the atmosphere at Roberts Stadium was much different. The sold-out crowds were gone, and fans filled only half of the 12,000-plus-seat stadium. Much news coverage has been given to reasons behind this attendance decline. Seven losing seasons certainly didn’t help, and the rise in cable sports and Internet news competed against UE basketball games as a prime attraction.

Roberts Stadium wasn’t helping either. City officials were debating what to do about the facility that SMG, the company managing the stadium, said needed millions in renovations. One of the main concerns was (and still is) an underground spring sprouted beneath the floor. It requires continuous sub-pumps to flush out the water.

Roberts Stadium was in quadruple overtime, and the old veteran was losing steam. That was a problem for UE recruits hungry for opportunities. The dilapidating Roberts was not an attractive venue.

In early October 2011, Simmons stood on the new floor in the Ford Center surrounded by more than 10,000 seats. He was one of the first people to stand on the basketball floor, aptly named Arad McCutchan Court. It had been finished only hours earlier. Simmons took it all in. “The first time I was in here, it was under construction, and I had never really seen a building like that,” he says. “I was really anxious to see what it would turn into. I don’t think I envisioned this.”

What he saw was a sea of blue chairs, a nearly $3 million scoreboard, and an HD screen perfect for showing instant replays of monster dunks and game-winning three-pointers hitting nothing but net. Eight camera positions were ready to capture the heroic moments of Simmons’ young team.

The Ford Center is a few miles from Roberts Stadium, but for the Aces’ program, the move represents a leap into the 21st century. The Ford Center is a $127 million showplace. It has the look and feel of a small-scale NBA arena. “This will be a fun place to play,” says Kenny Harris, an Aces senior 6-foot-6-inch forward/guard. “It looks great in here. We are so excited.”

As much enthusiasm as Harris feels, he transferred to UE when Roberts Stadium was in its 53rd season as UE’s home. The building was once among the best places to play college basketball in the country. “Its history and tradition, you could still feel that,” Simmons says, and that was a selling point for recruits.

The Ford Center goes beyond that. “It really is an attention-getter,” Simmons says. “I think young men’s basketball players want to play in new, state-of-the-art facilities. You can tell with the newness of this that you will be playing in one of the nicest arenas in the country.”

Before the Ford Center was finished, UE landed a couple of upper-level verbal commitments for the 2012-13 season. The chance to play in a new building was a significant draw for them. Simmons could not comment specifically on the committed players because of NCAA restrictions. He does admit that UE could expand its recruiting base because of the amenities that the Ford Center provides both players and fans. “When we’ve been able to bring recruits into the facility,” Simmons says, “it’s been eye-catching.”

It isn’t just recruits drawn to the Ford Center. Other power teams want to play in the new digs. One of UE’s early match-ups (Nov. 12) is against Butler University, the NCAA national runner-up for the last two seasons. The Aces also face Indiana University (Nov. 16) and Texas Christian University (Dec. 3) in the Ford Center this season. “With Indiana, it was definitely part of them coming down to be a part of this new venue,” Simmons says.

In an interview with our sister publication City View earlier this year (“Athletic Ambassador”), UE’s athletic director John Stanley had similar feelings that the Ford Center would bring fans, recruits, and powerhouses. “So many of our competitors are playing in new venues,” he said, “so now with our new arena, we will be able to stay up with the curve when it comes to facilities where we can play.”

As optimistic as Simmons and Stanley are, they’ve faced some private opposition from UE fans who didn’t want to see the program move from a building that had been a cozy home floor for so long. “With change, you’re going to have some resistance,” Simmons says. “Evansville is a super traditional town, and I think that’s part of what makes that so special. But as people come into the venue and see it, they’re going to walk away like ‘Wow.’ In the end, we will retain the fans that we have, and I think we will even add some new fans to our season ticket holders.” (At press time, final figures for season ticket holders were unavailable, but UE’s sports information director Bob Pristash could confirm the school experienced an increase.)

That’s especially true if Simmons’ team finds success on their new home floor. Last season, the team posted a .500 record, an improvement over the previous losing season, but with the Ford Center, Simmons feels he has a major piece to eventually return the Aces to the top of the Missouri Valley Conference — and to the NCAA tournament in March. “The league we play in, the community support we get, and the university — when you wrap all that into one thing,” Simmons says, “it’s a pretty enticing opportunity.”

Harris is ready to start the season. “This is a big plus,” Harris says. “You love to play in something new.” He knows great players before him have succeeded in this storied program at Roberts Stadium. There’s no reason they can’t exist in the Ford Center. Just ask Simmons.

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