Jeff Capel went on the radio with Al Eschbach two weeks ago and got some people’s attention. He said he’s sometimes scared walking down the ramp at Lloyd Noble because of what he might find in the crowd – or what he might not find, if you know what I mean. He said the team was at a fast-food joint on the way to Tulsa and nobody recognized Blake Griffin. He said without saying, OU’s basketball fans kind of sort of stink.
Was there some kind of seminar for OU coaches on “How to get the attention of your fan base” last summer? Bob Stoops and now Jeff? If Mark Williams goes on record saying that Steven Legendre didn’t get recognized at Pita Pit, then we’ll know.
It’s understandable that Capel worries about attendance and fan passion. This team deserves support. They’ve definitely earned it. But let’s not forget the LNC can rock with the best of them. ESPN’s Doug Gottlieb (I’m not going to say anything, I’m not going to say anything, I’m not going to say anything) said the Noble is the loudest arena he’s ever played in. The Little School That Can’t self-proclaimed itself to be in the realm of Duke, Carolina and Kansas, but Gallegher-Iba is seeing more empty seats than a church the morning after Daylight Savings.
Winning builds an atmosphere and right now, OU’s winning. So what gives? Why the call-out, Capel?
Look, we know it. This isn’t some kind of revelation here. OU basketball fans don’t fill the house the way we should. I’m the guy that screams at my TV for two hours throwing stuff and calling for a travel or a foul every single play, and I haven’t been to a home game yet. Why? 1) Because it’s on TV and 2) Because what fun is it to go to Lloyd Noble? A September Saturday in Norman is an absolute production. It’s Gameday baby. Gaylord Family Oklahoma Owen Memorial Field Stadium is an awesome place and part of the reason for it is because the atmosphere is insane. Everyone is excited. The feel of the stadium is crisp and clean and that adds to the awesome product. Lloyd Noble, not so much.
The LNC is ancient. It’s one of the oldest arenas in the Big 12 (built in 1975) and it’s not one of those old, yet charming places. It’s dark, dreary and unfriendly. If you look around long enough you feel like you can find water leaking from pipes and concrete cracking before your eyes. Some older arenas have classic cache – Cameron Indoor, Allen Fieldhouse, Assembly Hall – but the LNC is the college basketball equivalent to Three Rivers Stadium. It was built for multi-use and therefore is horribly dated and doesn’t work for the sport that uses it 95 percent of the time. It’s not like Wrigley Field or Fenway Park that can get by just because it has “tradition.” Fans aren't going to the LNC just for the LNC experience. It's not the draw for the basketball team. The basketball team is the ONLY draw. Basketball is a fun game to watch, especially when you’ve got a team as fun as this one. Make the LNC a place where it’s fun to watch a game because it’s fun to watch a basketball game.
So what’s wrong with it? For starters, the seats are the wrong color – a mash of purple/maroon/crimson. Oh, and they’re way too far from the court too. There shouldn't be 25 feet of concrete separating me and the back of Bob Barry's head. The whole arena is lined with some strange concrete wall, I guess built to keep Renzi Stone out of the stands. The student section is in the wrong place, the upper deck is darker than Eddie Sutton’s soul and the whole thing is built like a bomb shelter. It’s sunk into the ground with the actual hardwood being about 400 feet below sea level. If this were an NBA arena that would have been blown up 15 years ago. Yet somehow one of the premier athletic programs in the country is supposed to deal with it. Why? I have no idea. Especially when the practice facilities and locker rooms are maybe the nicest in the country.
But the thing is, the LNC isn’t beyond repair. It can be fixed. And it better be. With the NBA now in town and their already fancy home getting an even fancier overhaul, Sooner basketball needs to keep pace or it will far way behind in the hearts of Oklahoma basketball fans. The new Staples Center-esque Jumbotron is a start, but right now it looks as out of place as Faith Hill in that Presidential Inauguration music lineup. So what can be done? Forget building new digs, because the university spent $17 million on the new practice facilities already and they’re latched to The Bomb Shelter. I don’t even think we need a major gutting and renovation. A few things here and there could go a long way to making the place much more inviting to watch a college basketball game.
1. Start with the student section.
The students make the atmosphere. I wrote a similar column to this my junior year at OU. I called for axing the stupid “CrimZone” and putting the students back together, like they belong. And they did. Good start. But now the next step: The student section HAS to be moved. Right now, it’s in the northwest corner of the arena. It needs to be taken to the east side so that the students will be the ones you see on TV, not 800 half-empty maroon/purple seats that have bored donors sitting in them.
On top of that, wherever the student section lands, rip out the fold-downs and put aluminum bleachers in. So what about how that affects seating for an OAR concert. Lloyd Noble’s lights are on all the time because an orange ball is being bounced inside, not because Marc Roberge is singing (horribly) that night. This is what every other school in the country has for their students. Three things bleachers do: 1) Packs more students in 2) Looks much better if there’s a few no-shows and 3) Encourages a more general sense of rowdiness and excitement. Against teams like Tennessee-Chattanooga and Utah State, the student section at football games is invariably short about 2,000 people – but does it ever look like it?
2. Light it up like Tim Taylor's house at Christmas.
Why does the LNC look so dark on TV? Well, one, because the upper deck has its lights set on low beam and two, because the seats are all dark colored. It makes for a dim and ugly presentation. If you are hoping to maybe see some friends on TV when the camera pans to the crowd, forget about it because they are sitting in the dark. I don’t know why this is so difficult, because people have been complaining about this for years. Maybe the university is trying to go green and conserve energy. Screw that. Toss some high-volt LEDs up there and blind me. I want to have to wear those sunglasses you only get at the eye doctor when I look up there.
3. Pull down the concrete dam surrounding the north side of the court.
You want people to feel close to the action. You want to get splashed with Blake Griffin’s sweat when he falls to the floor. You want A.J. Abrams to actually hear your clever line about his mother. As it is now, you’ve got some weird barrier between you and the court on the north end. Rip it down and put me so close that I could run out on the floor and launch a three at any moment.
4. Give it just a general glitzing up.
You know what I mean. Make the place feel new. Paint some stuff, replace old seats with new ones, add some flags, update the concessions, throw up some flashing banners or something and just clean it up. It’s not hard. Right now it feels dirtier than a freshman’s dorm room. Instead of feeling like being in a damp, half-lit dungeon, it should be a bright, fresh and exciting building.
The LNC can be saved. Really, it has to be saved because a new building isn’t happening. Its location is good (away from campus a bit) and has great parking. It just needs a little freshening. The football stadium gets something new every day it seems. A 50-yard mega-screen? No sweat. New bleachers, new seats and a total revamp of the locker rooms and offices? You got it. But ask for something at The Shelter, and all they do is put up new nets. I’m actually kind of surprised they didn’t put up chain nets in the 90’s to save a little dough. The football stadium got its makeover, now it's basketball's turn.
Jeff Capel is about to jump into elite-coach-that-everybody-wants territory. And he may consider some offers this offseason, especially because he’ll likely be without Blake Griffin and Willie Warren next year. Don't give him more incentive. He played four years at Duke, a place where basketball got all and ruled all. He’s not used to playing second-fiddle to another sport. But he’s smart enough to know that football will always be king. Nothing will ever change that. And it’s not so bad being a basketball coach at a football school. Ask Rick Barnes. You don’t have to worry about supporting your program financially because football takes care of it. The money will be there, but maybe not the attention. That’s the point – the football team makes the money. And because they’re the money-maker, they get the best upgrades the most often. But holy crap, throw the basketball program a bone every once in a while.
Maybe it will take a national title to overhaul the LNC. That’s what it took to take Memorial Stadium from a 71,000-seat ho-hum relic to the current 85,000-seat breathtaking Cathedral of College Football. And if the Lloyd Noble Center is the house Alvan Adams built and Wayman filled, a title run could make the LNC the place Blake Griffin resurrected and Jeff Capel continues to build.
If that's what it takes, so be it. Nothing would glitz the place up quite like a 2009 National Championship banner.
By Royce Young