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Building the Game-Changer

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Once upon a time, a creaky barn sat atop Mount St. James, where a group of young men — some veterans coming back from a world war — were fashioned into a basketball team by a coach known affectionately as “Doggie.”

They practiced in this rather ramshackle place, so confining that if you smacked into the walls, you were out-of-bounds. These vagabonds traveled to the Boston Garden to host “home” games. Alvin “Doggie” Julian platooned two undersized quintets who had free rein to throw creative passes and fire up shots on the run. Soon they were dubbed “The Fancy Pants A.C.” This motley crew was relatively unknown until, in fabled New York City’s Madison Square Garden, the “Cinderella” Crusaders captured the 1947 NCAA Championship in a hallmark upset over powerhouse Oklahoma.

The stuff of fairy tales, right?

The barn is gone, baby, gone, a distant memory. Thankfully Bob Cousy ’50 — a second-unit freshman on that legendary team — is close by to recall the season that put Holy Cross in national headlines. “Mr. Cousy invited the basketball players over to his house and told us about playing in that era,” said Katie Doherty, a junior tri-captain on the women’s basketball team. “It was like seeing a myth spring to life.” Suddenly the cast-iron sculpture of Cousy that the players walk past at the Hart Center was talking glibly with them about his glory days with Holy Cross and the Boston Celtics.

Today, in the barn’s place, looms a $95 million athletic complex in progress. Each day, it is transforming into its future splendor, as was so beautifully laid out in Sasaki Associates’ architectural renderings.

A stunningly futuristic lobby welcomes student-athletes, fans and others into the Luth Athletic Complex, which artfully embraces the remodeled Hart Center. The renovated basketball arena glistens with a newly installed floor and ceiling. Modern seating rings the arena and the upgraded hockey rink bustles with body checks and slap shots. And the best is yet to come.

In December of last year, the site prep and excavation began growling as bulldozers and backhoes got busy. By mid-March, the concrete foundations were poured. In mid-April, renovation of the Hart Center began. On April 30, a ceremonial beam-signing dedicated the Athletics Complex and recognized major benefactors, John E. Luth ’74, and his wife, Dr. Joanne Chouinard-Luth, whose $32.5 million gift is the largest in the College’s history. On Oct. 25, the topping-out ceremony drew a large crowd and the last steel beam graced by an American flag was raised into the sky and guided into place by union iron workers from Local 7. On Friday, Oct. 28, right on schedule, the renovated Hart Center was christened by the men’s ice hockey team, which shut out Brown, 3-0, before a thousand cheering fans.

“It is a very complicated project,” confessed Derek Sharp, the BOND project director. BOND has built a litany of super structures such as Harvard University’s Northwest Laboratories and Boston’s Hynes Convention Center.

Sharp concedes there are high hurdles being cleared in melding the inner workings of an enormous new building with a 40-year-old structure needing substantial upgrading.

“We had to get everything up to current code. Electrical, plumbing, sprinkler systems. We had to ensure that the building would meet ADA accessibility standards,” said Sharp. “As we took the inside apart, we found many surprises such as utilities which were not sup-posed to be there.”

Public safety is a prime concern. You don’t start swinging around in mid-air a couple of trusses weighing 75 tons and spanning 192 feet without taking every conceivable precaution. So keep out fencing is up. Warning signs are posted. Security is omnipresent. “We are work-ing in and around the Hart Center with heavy equipment. Crowds are coming to games at night. After a day’s work, we have to clean up with an abundance of caution so nobody will get hurt on egresses,’’ added Sharp.

Perhaps the most precious personage to be protected was the life-sized statue of Bob Cousy ’50 at the Hart Center.

“First thing we did is put the Bob Cousy statue in a box, and put him in storage,” noted Sharp. “The new lobby covers the spot where the statue was. It will be replaced on the left side of the reconfigured entrance when the project is done.” That invaluable work of art, sculpted by creative genius Brian Hanlon, was dedicated on June 7, 2008.

With agility, Sharp and others continue to juggle a monumental array of tasks coordinating construction contractors and working with representatives from campus security, public relations, event planning and so forth. Skanska Associates are directing program management. “It’s been a challenge, but the folks from Holy Cross have been terrific to work with and the project has been very rewarding,” Sharp said.

Barring unforeseen setbacks, Sharp is confident the exterior work and much more will be finished by Labor Day 2017 and the finishing touches will be complete by the summer of 2018.

Naturally, paying for the $95 million Hart Center make-over and the Luth Athletic Complex is an ongoing effort. The facility will feature a massive indoor practice field house with 100 yards of turf; an auxiliary gymnasium for hoops and volleyball; a 9,500 square-foot space for strength and conditioning; 3,000 square feet for sports medicine services; locker rooms, enlarged offices and expanded Holy Cross Hall of Fame displays.

“We have $65 million committed and hope to raise as much of the remaining $30 million as we can to minimize what the College has to borrow,” explains Phil Gibson ’95, director of leadership giving. The project is part of a $400 million fund-raising drive entitled “Become More: Campaign for the Future of Holy Cross.” About $264 million had been raised as of early November, according to Gibson. Gibson and other Advancement officers are being creative in their quest to pay off the Luth Athletic Complex. Naming rights — for everything from the front lobby to the massive practice facility — are being offered as donation incentives. Nearly 100 opportunities are on the naming-rights list. Already one group, spearheaded by former basketball players Bill Doran ’77 and Jim McCaffrey ’86, has pledged $1.4 million to name the basketball practice gym after their coach George Blaney ’61, a Holy Cross Hall of Famer. [See story in this issue of Crusader Nation.]

The Luth Athletic Complex, it is hoped, will underline the College’s commitment to excellence and make the 27 varsity sports competitive against league foes and beyond. The wild enthusiasm on campus and among alumni last March when the Crusader men advanced in the NCAA basketball tournament clearly demonstrated how athletics can inspire school spirit.

“Holy Cross has a long tradition of academic and athletic accomplishment,” said Bill Gibbons, in his 32nd year as Women’s Head Basketball Coach. Indeed, when Cousy and his mates won a national title, Holy Cross was an all-male conclave of under 900, mostly Irish-Americans. There were only eight teams invited to the NCAA tournament. Today the College, with 2,916 students and 750 varsity athletes, is a far more diverse campus in a brave new world with “bold vision,” as Rev. Philip L. Boroughs, S.J., president, has said.

“We can already feel the excitement in practices,” said Gibbons. “The renovated Hart Center is uplifting to our student-athletes and student body and invigorating for an old coach like me.” Gibbons noted that the expansion is already helping with recruiting efforts.

“When the Hart Center opened [in 1975], we had the best facilities in the league,” said Gibbons, who, as a high school senior, shook Rev. Francis J. Hart’s, S.J., hand on the day the Center was dedicated to the venerable Dean of Intramurals. “But we needed to rejuvenate our facilities in order to keep up with our competition. This goes above and beyond and lifts the Cross higher than ever.”


John W. Gearan ’65 was an award-winning reporter and columnist for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette for 36 years. He retired from the newspaper in 2001.