Money well spent? Clemson considers new arena after $31 million renovation to Littlejohn 10 years ago
CLEMSON — On Jan. 5, 2003, Clemson returned to Littlejohn Coliseum following its $31 million renovation, reopening its basketball home against Duke.
High Cost of New Home
Littlejohn ColiseumOpened: Nov. 30, 1968Capacity: 10,000Original cost: $8 million Cost of 2003 renovation: $31 millionEstimated cost of new arena: $80 millionNEWEST ARENAS IN SOUTH CAROLINA:HTC ArenaTenant: Coastal CarolinaOpened: 2012Capacity: 3,600Cost: $35 million TD ArenaTenant: Coll. of CharlestonOpened: 2008Capacity: 5,100Cost: $47 million Colonial CenterTenant: South CarolinaOpened: 2002Capacity: 18,000Cost: $65 million
In many ways, Littlejohn was a new arena. There was the new 700-ton steel roof. The concourse was expanded nearly four times its original size, eliminating the bizarre four-lane indoor track inside the facility. The number of concession stands was doubled. Food was prepared on site for the first time in the arena’s 35-year history.
The four corners of the arena’s façade were comprised of ceiling-to-floor glass, a request made by Clemson president James Barker, who studied architecture. The old end zone seats, which had an obstructed view of the baselines, were remodeled, and 8,500 seats were replaced.
Perhaps as important as the renovated arena was the $7.6 million practice facility, which was also part of the project. The annex included a 3,900-square foot weight room that was described as “state of the art” by The Associated Press. There were big-screen televisions in the new locker rooms, along with a purple-felted pool table. The players’ wooden lockers were hand-crafted.
Larry Shyatt, Clemson’s basketball coach at the time, waited five years for such a facility.
“It’s got to help our future, in terms of enticing young, impressionable people, that we have the facilities and we have the whereabouts to put together a class program,” Shyatt said. “It’s something that not only Clemson, but Clemson basketball needs.”
Said Clemson forward Chris Hobbs of the renovated arena: “I think we have facilities now that can compare with anybody.”
The project’s manager, Paul Borick, said while schools like N.C. State and South Carolina “went for volume” with their new pro-style, multi-purpose arenas, Clemson, which kept the 10,500-seat capacity unchanged, went for “quality.”
But 10 years after the renovation, Clemson officials are wondering if it is time for a new arena or another extreme makeover.
Clemson has commissioned two studies: one examining the feasibility of a new arena; the other looking at the costs and benefits of a second renovation. All of which makes one wonder if the $31 million — a combination of private donations, bonds and university funds — was money well spent.
Said Clemson board chair David Wilkins: “I think the renovation (study) will shed light on whether we got our money’s worth on the prior renovation.”
Clemson coaches are certain they require a new practice facility, citing the lack of space and “wow” factor of the annex.
“I think a practice facility has to be part of the solution,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said.
Before the newly renovated Littlejohn Coliseum was opened, the Sports Business Journal noted that it would not significantly increase revenues.
“No suites or premium seats will have been added and there will be no change to the building’s capacity,” the Journal reported in 2002. And it is premium seating that new athletic director Dan Radakovich is focused on.
Still, while not a perfect project, Clemson chief financial officer Katie Hill said the renovation was money well spent.
“I think it was a wise investment at the time, there’s no doubt,” said Hill, who has been at Clemson since 2003. “The last thing you do in anything is look back over your shoulder. For the amount of money and improvement that was achieved for that facility, I thought it was a wise use of money. I think it’s served its purpose well and may continue to.”
Borick, who is now a projects manager at Wake Forest, believes it was a necessary project. Littlejohn was then a sorely lacking facility.
“I don’t want to call (the renovation) a stopgap, but at the time compared to what Littlejohn was, it was a major improvement,” Borick said. “We knew it wasn’t going to be a permanent fix. … Ten years is such a long time in the athletic business.”
Borick said at the time there were earnest discussions about whether to build a new arena or renovate Littlejohn. While Clemson balked at the price tag (estimated at $80 million) for a new arena, it also did not want to follow N.C. State and South Carolina and build a facility with 15,000-plus seats that would be difficult to fill.
“We pondered it a bunch,” Borick said. “We thought pretty long and hard about doing a new arena or renovating the existing one. I think we made the right call at the time. N.C. State had done a new arena, a big facility, it had 17,000 seats, but poor N.C. State could never fill the thing. (Then N.C. State coach) Herb Sendek complained it was too big.”
Clemson is not considering a large, multi-purpose arena. It’s looking at a facility with a smaller capacity than Littlejohn.
“I think (Clemson) was worried if they went bigger you have to turn it into a workhorse. Then you have to bring in the Disney on Ice, you have to bring in the tractor-pulls,” Borick said. “Then you get these bigger arenas, like the one in Columbia, and it just loses what it is about — being a true basketball arena, like Cameron Indoor.”