By ANDRE’ MORGAN
It never fails. The memories always come flooding back when I exit I-74 onto Neil Street and point my SUV towards the University of Illinois – Champaign every third Thursday in February.
Every time I see the University of Illinois Dome AKA Assembly Hall AKA The State Farm Center I am impressed with the design of the structure. Sometimes it looks like a mushroom, sometimes it looks like an Atom bomb cloud and sometimes it looks like a space ship. It is definitely unique.
No matter what the first appearance is to me, I only associate the build with the IHSA State Finals. I have never seen a basketball game or concert in this structure, just wrestling and only wrestling.
The memories of the last twenty years are plentiful. Some are good and some are bad. My own son experienced joy and heart ache on the floor for four years. There was the time they wanted to put me out (and take my credentials) because I was cheering too loud for him from Press Row, a major no – no. Sorry security, but I could not help myself.
I still vividly remember key matches by such wrestling luminaries as Frank Keeler, Mikey Benefiel, Travis Hammons, Sean Reynolds, B.J. Futrell, Sterling Hecox, Bryan Harney, Albert White, Josh Alber, Ryan Prater, Bryce Brill, Casio Pero, Jordan Blanton and on and on. So many memories of so many great teams, coaches and wrestlers.
Glow sticks, beach balls, the finals march music and of course the Jumbotron video are permanent memories for not only me but anyone that has been to the state tournament .
Walking into the new and improved State Farm Center …. wait … this is Assembly Hall and no matter what the naming rights, it will always be Assembly Hall. Much like the Sears Tower will never be the Wilis Tower, Macy’s will always be Marshall Field and U. S. Cellular will always be Comiskey Park.
So where was I? Oh yeah, as I walked into the 2016 new and improved Assembly Hall, immediately I don’t recognize the media entrance or the concourse. All the vendors are moved and there is this expanded seating area for food where you can sit and eat while watching the floor action. I did not personally check out the food but was told the Pulled Pork is very good, but you can’t get it until the afternoon session. Oh well, most venues have high priced, spotty food selections, and I rarely go to events looking for a complete cost effective and tasty menu.
The walls are painted a prison grey and an old adversary, those really old people in the maroon jackets have no clue on where to tell you to go. They are still learning the place as well. There is limited signage so far, but I guess it’s been ordered.
As soon as you get inside the seating area, you will notice the renovation changes immediately. All new seating on the first and second levels to match the new blue seats installed at the top level. The 2016 new seating comes with your own cup holder. The Press Row has been moved to the second level with new high back swivel chairs, TV monitors with working internet and cable.
The first level seating is now elevated and you no longer see the backs of the wrestlers, coaches and various people milling about if you sit down low. That should end the “Down if front!” cat calls that those of us on the floor became accustomed to.
There are actual skyboxes now with individual kitchen areas. These however are not available during the wrestling weekend, but they look very nice.
On the actual floor, the open space is reduced yet the mat space is the same, which puts the first level fans much closer. While the famous tunnel remains in its same location, there are now a couple of additional smaller type tunnels in the corners. It will be interesting to see if the Grand March remains the same with the less actual floor space.
Overall the new facility is very nice, clean and fan friendly. There was a small debate among the media as to if two more mats could be added to speed up wrestle backs, but I don’t think so. If nothing else the seating is much closer and more comfortable. Assembly Hal continues to be the perfect home for the IHSA State Finals and will continue to add more memories for years to come.
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