Brownell: Littlejohn project ‘a shot in the arm’ for Tigers

The happiest guy to hear Littlejohn Coliseum will be unserviceable for an entire year is the one who most often calls it home.

The Clemson board of trustees offered pre-approval for an estimated $60-80 million to strip apart and reconstruct the university’s 45-year-old basketball arena on Friday, delighting head men’s basketball coach Brad Brownell.

Just two days prior at ACC Media Day at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in downtown Charlotte, Brownell had voiced his program’s need for an upgrade.

“We all realize we need to make some changes to show people that basketball is important to Clemson. Littlejohn’s a good arena,” Brownell told reporters. “We do a lot of things first class. I just think our arena’s a little bit outdated.

“I’ve always said, on game night, it’s a great home court. We have a good crowd. I think it’s one of the more difficult places to play in the league. But the other 350 days we don’t have sellouts, and we’ve got people in there for football weekends, summer and camps, it shows its age. That can be a problem.”

The building cost $3.1 million to construct in 1968, and Clemson spent $31 million to renovate Littlejohn in 2003. This newly-announced project would begin with the end of the 2014-15 season with plans to reopen in the fall of 2016, thus moving the Tigers’ home games 40 minutes away to Greenville.

“Hey, this is a great time with the new ACC with all the schools coming in for basketball,” Brownell said. “We need to give our program a shot in the arm here a little bit. When you start looking at other teams in the league in the last 10 years, a lot of teams have done a lot of things. We’ve kind of stayed pat.”

Littlejohn also hosts women’s basketball games, college and high school graduations, concerts and other campus events.

Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich, present for the Friday board meeting, was the catalyst in convincing the board to keep up with other ACC powers. Radakovich oversaw seismic shifts in Georgia Tech’s basketball facilities at his previous job.

“You look at our facilities, Virginia Tech and Clemson are the two oldest facilities in the ACC, without Duke (Cameron Indoor Stadium) being in the mix,” Radakovich told The Post and Courier. “As we move into this new ACC, having a rebuilt, revitalized arena, we think it’s critical for that longterm success and rebuilding of the basketball program. We need to invest in the basketball program.”

When Brownell spoke Wednesday, he declined to suggest Clemson has specifically lost out on certain recruits due to the school’s facilities.

“But I’ve heard recruits interviewed after they’ve been a couple different places, and they don’t comment about the ‘wow’ factor at Clemson. They comment about the ‘wow’ factor at other facilities when they go visit,” Brownell said. “They don’t say anything derogatory about our situation. They like the people, they like the campus, they like the school, they love the league. But sometimes, there’s an underlying question whether we’re fully committed.”

“All things being equal, you’re not equal in that situation. My competitors certainly point that out.”

The Finance and Facilities Committee proposal states, as justification for a rebuilt arena: “The men’s and women’s basketball programs at Clemson need a differentiator amongst our peers. While Littlejohn Coliseum currently meets the functional needs to operate the programs, the facility lacks inspirational and stimulating features requisite for national-level attention and growth. A major renovation aimed at creating a high-energy, quality environment that is highly engaging for players and spectators is critical.”

That argument falls in line with Brownell’s plea.

“Now with recruiting the way it is, kids are looking for things like that,” Brownell said. “They want to see commitment, they want to see bells and whistles. I think our game experience could even be enhanced a little bit for the fans. So Dan Radakovich has done a really good job trying to present some things.”

As for on-court rebuilding, Radakovich has a simple prerogative for the Clemson basketball program in the fourth year under Brownell’s watch.

“I want them to get better. That’s Brad’s expectation as well,” Radakovich said. “We’ll have a number of players back who had previously been injured … just looking for continued improvement.”

Brownell’s Tigers made the NCAA tournament in his first season of 2010-11, but their record has dipped each of the following two years. Clemson is coming off a 13-18 campaign in which it tied for 10th in a conference that just added Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame.

“It’s a critical time for us to show we are committed to basketball at Clemson,” Brownell said. “That’s why these positive things are on the horizon.”

Follow Aaron Brenner’s Clemson coverage on Twitter at @Aaron_Brenner.