Lights Out at The Carrier Dome

The Carrier Dome hosted its last Big East game on Wednesday night. It's not going anywhere, but things won't be the same for one of college basketball's best and weirdest venues.
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With roughly three minutes left in the first half and Marquette down 23 to Syracuse, my wife turns and asks, “You think this town has any strip clubs?”This question will make more sense in time. But first we should go back to Big Monday.

Not the Big Monday that happened a few days ago, and which considering the staggering amount of college hoop games available should probably go back to being known simply as "Monday." No, the Big East Big Monday that existed from 1987 until whatever year ESPN broke up the brilliant Mike Gorman/Bill Raftery duo. This is the Big Monday of “Send it in, Jerome!” and its under-appreciated follow-up, “Just inferior equipment and superior body strength!” This Big Monday ensured a high school kid in Billings, MT got his weekly fix for a conference he’d worshipped from afar since Hoya Destroya, led by Michael Graham’s ferocious high-fiving, took down the mighty Phi Slamma Jamma.

This Big Monday was one long, popping and grainy 1980s mixtape: Pearl, Patrick, three out of the Final Four, Harold Jensen’s 5-5, John Thompson’s scowl, John Thompson’s towel, Louie Carnesecca’s Cosby sweaters, the time the coaches did the vice-versa thing, Mullin’s soft left from the corner, Roly-Poly Rollie, Sherman Douglas-to-D.C. alley-oops, Walter Berry dropping 31 on Montana State in the NCAA’s with a bum ankle—for whatever reason, a game watched in a classroom during a high school game—Reggie & the Miracles, D-Train McCain cradling the ball, Rony’s chest hair, ‘Zo and the phantom Princeton foul, the elusive (in Billings anyway) satin Starter jackets, EPMD, Run-DMC, and always, always, always MSG. That one.

The Garden: the first place every Big East fan must see. But I moved to New York City in 1993 and so that rock was pounded long ago. And while the Garden is indeed the Mecca, I long wanted to make a pilgrimage to another more mysterious hoops holy site. A strange sacred place where Big Mondays always seemed bigger, where the roof—pillowy and quite literally raised—shined down on upon a sea of wild-eyed hardcore fanatics living inside a Stanley Spadowski fever dream...

I had to visit the Carrier Dome, in Syracuse, a town that may or may not have any strip clubs. I got there in January of 2012; the Orange played their final Big East home game there on Wednesday night.

* * *

“The best stadia share the quality that fans have an attachment to the site that outweighs any design flaw,” says Benjamin Flowers, an associate professor in the Georgia Tech school of architecture who has written extensively about stadiums. “People who don’t know anything about Syracuse know that it’s home to a really large, really loud, domed stadium that’s distinct from others out there and provides an ingrained cultural experience.” 

It didn’t start out that way; The Carrier Dome began as a compromise. It opened in 1980 as a replacement for Archbold Stadium, an aging football relic that reduced its capacity from 40,000 to 26,000 after a number of fire code violations. Archbold was so antiquated that former head coach Frank Maloney said, “When we brought recruits to campus, we never took them to the stadium.” The proud Jim Brown/Ernie Davis Syracuse football program had hit the skids. Lingering resentment over a 1970 boycott-turned-suspension of a group of black players over alleged discriminatory practices remained, fan interest waned, and there was talk of dropping the football program to the lower ranks. 

A plan was put in place to build a 35,000-seat open-air stadium, but traffic and space issues stalled the project, so the powers-that-be came up with the idea of an on-campus dome. Democratic Gov. Hugh Carey got behind the project and steered $15 million to the construction. Critics went after Carey for funneling public money to a private university, but he made it happen under what was then an unusual guise: he called it a “public-private partnership.”  

Taxpayer responsibilities aside, Carey was right about one thing. The building has paid off in spades. The Big East doesn’t require schools to share gate receipts, so the Carrier Dome brings in upwards of $12-million a year. Throw in gameday spending and let’s say, super-duper conservatively, half a billion over its lifetime generated? Not bad R.O.I., there. To government infrastructure!

Hueber, Hunt and Nichols, Inc. was the general contractor and Birdair Structure Inc. out of Buffalo was in charge of roof construction. Heating and cooling moguls Carrier Corporation kicked in $2.75 million for everlasting naming rights, and the joint was erected for $26.85 million. The one-of-a-kind on-campus facility hosted its first game on September 20, 1980, where a crowd of 50,564 watched the football men of Syracuse beat Miami of Ohio 36-24. The arena drew raves, with one major exception. As longtime program hawker Joe Godley said, “It was hot, H-O-T with a big H.” 

Since most games are played in the colder months, the Carrier Dome is kept at room temperature. The main parts of a building named for an air-conditioning concern have no air conditioning.

And yet this isn’t the biggest irony in the stadium’s rich sporting history. One original naysayer to the Carrier Dome was a certain bespectacled sad-sack basketball coach. Jim Boeheim said he had “90 percent misgivings” about moving games out of Manley Field House, where the then-Orangemen had recently won 57 consecutive games and had an overall record of 190-30. Since they started playing in the Dome, Syracuse has gone 491-94. 

* * *

In general, college basketball arenas don’t rate a spot in sports fans' bucket lists. Cameron, Allen, The Pit, Rupp... pick a venue, but it’s a small group. College hoops has a soul, but games are mostly played in soulless arenas. Exhibit A, the Bradley Center, home of your Marquette Warriors—old habit, sorry—a too-big-for-the-school NBA arena where the upper deck is often half-empty and the suburban sweater-vest alumni get the best seats. The Carrier Dome is a much bigger multi-purpose joint that should, on paper, be an even bigger waste of space; it damn sure isn't cozy, which is generally what makes a basketball arena thrive. The idea of a stadium being used for football nine weeks out of the year, then being sliced in half and turned into a basketball arena seemed nutty even while we were sitting there, but it works. 

“The Carrier Dome’s had thirty years to build a persona, and the fans of Syracuse see the success of the basketball team as an exception to the decline of postwar manufacturing towns,” says Flowers. “The sense of urban identity tied to the Syracuse basketball program is truly profound and the building long ago exceeded the two basic requirements of a comfortable seat and decent views of the action.” 

Hell, the Carrier Dome doesn’t even have seats. It has long aluminum benches—foam pads are laid out for the hoity-toity—all the better to shove fan-next-to-fan, to get you-yelling-as-loud-as-the-guy-half-a-foot-away, to bring out the-screechy-middle-age-Mom-standing-on-the-bench-howling-Lettttttttttttttttttt’s Goooooooooooooo-to-her-kids-embarrassment. The views from the back row look to be vertigo-inducing, but I wasn't walking those stairs to find out. Still, damned if it doesn’t magnify a regular season game and give it a sense of something epic. 

Sure, the Carrier Dome has a retro/kitschy '80's vibe that’s long lost in the era of single-usage-billion-dollar-boondoggles. What’s crazy is that by all historical measures, it shouldn’t be as awesome an experience as it is. Even the roof—the Teflon-coated 220-ton 6.5-acre strong-enough-for-golf-carts-to-drive-on translucent fabric roof—adds to the killer experience. "From the outside, or on television, you wouldn’t realize the quality of light as it filters through," says Flowers. "It’s surprising and nothing like you would expect from a generally generic structure."

The Carrier Dome is full of surprises. The largest being that somehow, a domed stadium—a domed stadium that is home to football half the time—is a living, breathing, screaming, boozing, balling, cursing, paean to what live sports should be.

***

It was unseasonably warm and dry on January 7, probably in the 50s to judge by the “token fat drunk guy in cargo shorts” demographic. (Not to shortchange the parking lot tailgaters, for hoops. You know what you're doing up there.) First stop, food in the graffiti-covered confines of Chuck’s, where a cheeseburger comes in under $5, bottles of Molson half that, and the men’s room has a sentiment upon which Big East fans can agree. Fuck Georgetown, indeed.

When we sat down, roughly three hours before tip-off, Chuck’s had a decent crowd, but seats were available at the bar. We chatted up a Syracuse alum who said St. John’s should never have changed its name to the Red Storm because, “They sound like a group of angry women on the same menstrual cycle.” There was no malice in his voice, and he pre-apologized to the wife, so all in all, not a bad line. It lost something when he added, “They cut me off of sports talk radio in Albany the second I said made that joke.” It got a little weirder when he handed us a photocopied flier from his stack of roughly 250 that read: “NCAA Officiating coordinator on Syracuse-Marquette NCAA tournament game: 'An error was made in applying the backcourt violation rule.” The shocking revelation was followed up with further explanation and a lot of BOLD pronouncements, the kind of a thing a 9/11 Truther would be passing around outside a Ron Paul rally. I never could get a read on whether the guy was serious, a serious dickhead, or just a good-hearted lover of messing with the tens of tens of Marquette backers otherwise minding their own business/burgers.

And what were to we do with the info anyway? Whatever, dude. Buzz & Co. knocked your ass out of the 2011 tourney 66-62. Ball and fucking game, doofy "OhMyGodOhMyGod!" chant—a dog whistle for veteran Big Monday types, but surprisingly hard to find on the internet—notwithstanding. (This post-game effort will have to do. It’s weak, but the Orange fellas were all worn out from beating Kansas to reach the ’96 Final Four. Takeaway here? Al McGuire fucking owns. Now and forever, world without end. Amen.)

We made one more quick pre-game pit stop at DJ’s on the Hill, home of ‘Cuse Juice. It comes in both orange and blue, and every pitcher contains a guaranteed 10-12 shots. Did we sample it? No, we are both 40 years old. But it's there.

Before leaving Brooklyn, we locked down a pair of seats courtesy of Old Uncle Stubhub. They were under $100, a steal when it was announced that this was the biggest crowd of the year at more than 25,000. What looks on television like a lot of people to watch regular season college basketball is staggering, gobsmacking and weird in person.

What's most brilliant about the Carrier Dome is that inside, it still feels like the Big East's Morning in America glory years. Things are changing up there—Syracuse will pick up a conference rivalry with North Carolina State next year in the ACC—but the Carrier Dome feels older than 1980, and beyond change. Older than short-shorts. Older than the actual trough pissers and circular sinks where one steps on foam rubber with one's feet to wash one's hands in the restrooms.

* * *

At some point during the first half, the ‘Quette goes nearly eleven minutes without a basket while the ‘Cuse scores 19. The Warriors are moving the ball back-and-forth around the three-point-line, because it's all they can do. 

WIFE: What are they doing? They aren’t doing anything.

ME: That’s what Syracuse does to teams. It’s their patented 2-3 zone.  

WIFE: Well, it sucks. It’s like watching Pete Sampras play tennis. 

***

Marquette actually inaugurated post-season hoops in the Carrier Dome in 1981, losing 88-81 before a crowd of 20,123 in the N.I.T.  In a bit of deja hoops, Marquette “pulled within one point late in the game.” The leading Warrior scorer was a pre-doctorate Glenn Rivers with 28. This game would be my only opportunity to catch the alma mater in the building barring some unfortunate future return to N.I.T. territory, which is not likely for Syracuse.

The excitement wore off midway through Marquette's anemic first half. The Carrier Dome had gone limp. Tits up. Freaking comatose. No juice in the land of Orange. 

WIFE: You know why it’s so dead in here? This Syracuse team is totally missing a trashy white guy.

* * *

The only other time Kim and I flew to watch Marquette was when D-Wade led the team to a date with Kansas in the Final Four; this was the year where some kid named Carmelo made a name for himself. Officially, the Superdome seated more than 25,000, although it did not at all feel like it from roughly 5,000-feet from the court. Marquette was down by 29 at half and the two of us ditched out for a French Quarter strip club where the ladies were nice enough to only shake their respective moneymakers during the commercials, and where my wife learned the valuable lesson of, "never chat up fellas in the titty bar." 

When Marquette went down 20 in Syracuse, I looked at my wife and said something to the effect that I was still glad we made the trip because I could cross the Carrier Dome off my list. Plus, crappy ballgame or not, there are plenty of entertaining aspects to the place worth contemplating in a blowout:

1.) The Orange itself looked like it got rolled down a muddy hill by some frat boys just in time for tip-off. And yet, so cuddly on TV...

2.) They sell beer inside the Carrier Dome, which is the same policy at the Bradley Center, home of your Marquette Warriors and more importantly, Miller Brewing. Most stadiums, however, can’t (or don’t).

3.) The half of the stadium that’s unused during basketball season is home to a huge beer garden and a bunch of kid’s games. I was told fans can buy a ticket to get inside and watch the game on the Jumbotron, which also means no beer lines. If the price is right, there are worse ways to kill an afternoon. 

4.) Said Jumbotrons are, however, not terribly awe-inspiring— the finest money could built during, let's say, the Howard Triche era? Here’s betting ‘Melo has one at least two-thirds the size in his living room. 

5.) We were surrounded by Canadians, none of whom attended Syracuse or lived in the States. Canucks love them some Orange hoops and they travel. One drunken Mapleback followed my request not to throw beer on my wife upon our being outed as Marquette fans by saying, “Brother, I despise your team and fuck Marquette, but I promise that nobody will do anything to you and me and my Semper Fi boy here got your back.” That guy was all right, eh. 

6.) It wasn’t even necessary. Nearly everyone we encountered at Syracuse was polite, friendly and got into trash-talking for the right reasons. Personal favorite, “Hey Marquette, nobody knows where the fuck you are.” For the last time, it's not in Michigan. 

***

Marquette whittled the Syracuse lead down to two with five minutes on the clock. After a couple of Orange free throws, the Warriors had the ball in the hands of the team’s best shooter, wiley southpaw Darius Johnson-Odom. On this shot and that day, though, Dion Waiters was better. He swatted it, grabbed it, and laid it in. What would have been the greatest comeback in Marquette history was not to be. 

Even more impressive than Marquette coming back against a legitimate top-ranked team was the way the arena roared to life in response. When the crowd chanted “Buzz Sucks!” “Get off the Court, Buzz” and “Go Home, Curly!” at Marquette's dapper, hopped-up, always-on-the-floor, not-afraid-to-hoof-a-little-bit, Three Stooges resembling leader, my heart swelled with  Warrior Pride and the trip seemed to have achieved its purpose at last. There we were. The wife and I, class of 1993, having our own personal Carrier Dome Seashells and Balloons moment in one of the last great, weird places to watch basketball in the U.S.

That weird building and its native atmosphere—and the basketball—were worth the trip. It may be worth it even in the post-Big East years. I don’t find it hard to believe, as I was informed multiple times, that when Duke comes in for their first A.C.C. visit, “They’ll open the place up and we’ll get 50,000.” That will be loud.

And more to the point, it will be the Carrier Dome being what it is. “It’s not the most visually distinct structure, but it doesn’t matter," Professor Flowers says. "Stadiums don’t need a million bells and whistles, leave it be, in the same place and it will succeed. The Carrier Dome is proof that fans are adept at making relatively anonymous non-specific architecture do pretty amazing things. It's greatest quality is that it works remarkably well as a congregation for impassioned people.”

So there it is. Fill a non-corporate building with people who give a shit and let ‘er rip. It works.

Photos by Kimmy Sauer.


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