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New Pit Adds Amenities While Retaining Heart and Soul

By Mark Smith
Journal Staff Writer
       A mile high and louder than …
       That, University of New Mexico officials say, won't change.
       They insist the Pit building and the atmosphere, which has intimidated visiting teams for more than four decades, will continue to do so now that its $60 million renovation comes to a finish.
       It's that intimidation that helped New Mexico win 81 percent of its men's basketball home games since the Pit opened in 1966 and the women's team 72 percent of its home games since the program was reinstated in 1991.
       "The noise created by fans, which has been measured at 125 decibels - the pain threshold for the human ear is 130 - is a palpable force," wrote Sports Illustrated when it named the Pit the 13th greatest sports venue of the 20th century some time ago.
       UNM senior associate athletic director Tim Cass, the front man for the Pit project, says, "We have no doubt that it will be as loud as ever. That won't change."
       From the outside looking in, however, everything is certainly different. So is looking from the inside out, as glass replaces the formerly warehouse-looking structure on the north and east sides.
       "It's state of the art again," Lobo women's basketball coach Don Flanagan said. "It's going to help us with recruiting, it'll help us with scheduling, and it will be an outstanding venue for our fans."
       But while the rebuilding project has given University Arena a complete face-lift, the Pit's heart and soul remain the same.
       "We've tried to maintain everything about it that was the Pit, that everybody loved, that was dear to their hearts," says John Pate, vice president of architecture of Molzen Corbin. "The shape of the bowl - there are no bad seats ... every seat has a great view."
       Fans will get a chance to see the finished product for the first time Monday during a ribbon cutting and open house.
       New and improved
       While the new Pit has about 75,000 square feet of added space, it has about 1,000 fewer seats - a change that has raised eyebrows among some fans. Pit capacity is now 17,126; it was 18,018. (Capacity counts everyone in the Pit - media, concession workers, ticket takers, etc.)
       The accommodations and comfort of the new structure, UNM officials say, more than make up for the seating decrease.
       The concourse is wider. There are more restrooms, plenty of TVs. And expect more than a dozen concessions - a sweet shop, carvery, pizzeria and New Mexican grill are soon to make their Pit debut.
       Speaking of New Mexican food, "red or green" isn't just a question to be asked when taking a concessions order. It is also a statement. The renovation has been flavored with a little Christmas.
       • Green: The project's powers-that-be have the arena on track to achieve LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) silver status at a minimum. The renovation includes energy and water efficiencies, and 95 percent of all waste materials were recycled.
       • Red: It's everywhere.
       "One of the things I love the most is there is a whole lot of red in there," UNM men's basketball coach Steve Alford says. "Anywhere you look, you see red."
       Which leads us back to the "a mile high and louder than …" slogan that's painted on the ramp for visiting teams to read as they head down to Bob King Court.
       The slogan was previously painted in red lettering on a white background. Now it's been flip-flopped, as the entire tunnel is red.
       It's the fans
       While many in New Mexico have been buzzing about the new Pit, more than a few folks outside the state have mixed emotions.
       • "Hell no," San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said, when asked if he was eager to visit the remade building. "I see everybody sitting in the same seats every year, from Gov. (Bill) Richardson, to Snake to all these other crazies. They yell and scream so loud that you can't hear. ... The one thing, though, that I appreciate about New Mexico fans is they know the game. After the game, win or lose, they are respectful. ...
       "I have great respect for them - but I don't want to play there. Whether it's the newly renovated arena or playing outside."
       • "I'm excited to see it," said TCU coach Jim Christian. "But they've already got a tremendous home-court advantage. I don't know if they could have any more of an advantage."
       • Added TCU womens coach Jeff Mittie, "I can't wait to play in the new Pit. I hated the old one - only won there one time."
       • "It's always just a blast to go in there," Wyoming coach Heath Schroyer said with a laugh. "The one thing about that is the governor, the (UNM) president, the (athletic director), they deserve a lot of credit. They made a commitment that they are going to be good in basketball ... It's an unmatched commitment, and they've obviously set the benchmark towards commitment to men's basketball."
       • "The building, I'm sure, is awesome," says Utah coach Jim Boylen. "... It's terrific that New Mexico has a new building, but it's the fans that make it there."
       Alford couldn't agree more.
       This, after all, is a place that has seemingly willed the Lobos to victory time and time again over the years.
       Pit moments
       Former coach Dave Bliss used to call them "Pit games," when magic happened regularly. When referees swallowed their whistles - sometimes failing to admit they had blown one - during ear-shattering noise levels.
       When time - figuratively and even literally, thanks to official time keepers - seemed to stop.
       There was the Petie Gibson buzzer-beater - that grew in Lobo lore from 25 feet to 50 over the years - as UNM beat New Mexico State 68-66 in 1969.
       There was the Lobos' 61-59 upset of No. 1 Arizona in 1988, in which UNM grabbed a 25-9 lead in front of frenzied fans.
       There was the 104-99 triple-overtime win over Fresno State in the 1996 Western Athletic Conference tournament.
       And there was the 77-74 come-from-behind victory against third-ranked and previously unbeaten Utah - which led by nine points with 2:27 remaining. Lobo guard Royce Olney had the key tackle, er, play of the comeback when he blasted Ute guard Andre Miller with a body shot that would likely lead to a suspension in today's NFL. No call was made during the madness, Olney came up with a steal and hit a 3-pointer with just more than one minute left to cut Utah's lead to one point. Moments later, Olney hit another 3 with just 4.7 seconds left for the game-winner.
       It's doubtful the Lobos would have won any of those affairs without the Pit and its fans.
       Alford is well aware of it - and says that's why the Pit has been one of the nation's best venues since opening in 1966.
       "What has made this arena so special for so many decades is the fans," Alford says. "It's a magical place, and they are the reason. They are why we were able to do this renovation. And they are the reason this building will continue to be so special."
       On Monday
       • The Pit reopens: Men's practice (students admitted at 2:30 p.m., all other fans at 3:30); ribbon-cutting ceremonies (including Gov. Bill Richardson, Mayor Richard Berry, UNM dignitaries and coaches, 5 p.m.); open house (6-7 p.m.)
       • Dinner with Bobby Knight at Embassy Suites Hotel: Doors open at 6:30 p.m., dinner at 7. Call 925-5750 for tables, 925-5626 for individual tickets.
       Pit facts
       • First opened: 1966
       • Feet below ground level: 37
       • Cost to open: $1.4 million
       • Expansion cost: $2.2 million (1975)
       • Renovation cost: $60 million (2010)
       • New attendance capacity: 17,126
       • Square feet: 232,585
       • Flat Screens: 158
       • Restrooms: 27
       Pit highlights
       • Record Pit winning streak: 41 (1996-98)
       • NCAA Final Four: 1 (1983: North Carolina State 54, Houston 52 in the title game)
       • Official single-game record attendance: 19,452 (Jan. 17, 1976: UNLV 80, UNM 73)
       • Estimated single-game record attendance: Nearly 24,000 (See above. Fire marshals looked the other way.)
       • All-time men's attendance: 12,010,173 (15,477 average per game)
       • Lobo men's all-time Pit record: 631-145 (81.3 percent)
       • Lobo men's greatest victory: UNM 61, No. 1 Arizona 59 on Jan. 2, 1988
       • Did you know? The Pit now has its own website, www.thelobopit.com, which is run by UNM.

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