When you talk with Athletics Director Jack Kvancz about the Smith Center, he likens it to a 1959 Cadillac. “I can change the carburetor, I can change the wheels. It looks good and it runs good, however, there’s not a whole lot more I can do with the car. It is what it is, a 1959 Cadillac,” Kvancz explained.
So with the GW men’s and women’s basketball teams entering the season ranked and a growing national attention to the hoops scene in Foggy Bottom, one might wonder whether the ’59 Cadillac needs a new muffler or if its time to trade it in for a new Escalade.
For the time being, it looks as like the Smith Center is in the University’s long-term plans. That is not stopping GW from making improvements. The facility has been drastically upgraded with the installation of a new video-capable scoreboard, new seats with cupholders on the ticket-holding side of the arena, as well as the new floor put in over the summer.
Tony Vecchione, assistant Athletics director for facilities, said the video control room for the scoreboard has been expanded. The Athletics Department is also in the process of replacing the ventilating system in the Smith Center, which should be done by early spring.
The new floor, which is actually a sanded down and repainted old floor, features a blue “GW” at center court, and the University corporate logo along the sides was picked to “keep it clean,” Kvancz said.
While the Athletics Department had many different options to choose from, including ones with more color, Kvancz and the department felt this option would show up better during televised games.
“What happens with colors, especially white, when you have a multi-purpose facility, white can turn to yellow and colors will distort,” Vecchione said.
Since the Smith Center is used as such a multi-purpose space for the University, the floor is used for more than athletics, which contributes to its wearing down. Branding was also key to athletics, because while the GW community may know what a Colonial and the Washington Monument means, a national TV audience can’t recognize those logos as well as a simple “GW.”
At this point, it is unclear what changes are left to be made with a repainted court and state-of-the-art display. There is not much more to be done with the facility, Kvancz said.
“We’re coming to a point where now I don’t know if there’s that much more we can do,” Kvancz said, who added, “It’s an arena. We have made it an arena. But at some point it is what it is.”
One idea that emerges is changing the bleachers in the upper part of the student section into seats. While this may be more aesthetically pleasing, there are concerns about decreasing capacity in the Smith Center. The pool in the basement also needs to be renovated for its piping and filtration system, which are more than 30 years old, Vecchione said.
When looking around the Atlantic 10 conference, many schools such as Temple, Xavier and Rhode Island, among others, are playing in brand-new arenas. Given the trend, some suggest it is time for GW to find a new home for its basketball games. It quickly becomes clear that the idea of building a new arena is restricting in multiple ways.
“Let’s assume you could build someplace else. Where the hell would you play? Where would you play, where would you practice, where would you do? You can have all those ideas, and some of them might be good ideas, but when you look at most of the ideas they don’t make any sense or they are just so prohibitive,” Kvancz said.
But what about all those other schools that we compete with for recruits? How does the Smith Center stack up among other schools GW recruits against? Men’s head basketball coach Karl Hobbs will tell you that the Smith Center plays a small role in his recruiting strategy.
“Kids don’t come here because of the Smith Center or the locker room. It hurts us when recruits visit other schools that have great facilities. We struggle from that standpoint,” Hobbs said. In terms of facilities issues that affect recruiting, the condition of training facilities downstairs is an issue that most students aren’t aware of by merely attending games.
As a coach well known for his recruiting skills here at GW and also while as an assistant to Jim Calhoun at University of Connecticut, Hobbs emphasizes the difference in recruiting at the two schools.
“When you walk into the (Gampel Pavillion) at UConn you see pictures of Ray Allen and Scott Burrell and you can really feel the winning tradition,” he said.
However, at GW, a key to recruiting is showing prospective student-athletes the energy that exists in the Smith Center during a game.
“We try to get recruits to come on game day. When you see an empty Smith Center versus an empty arena at Dayton, Dayton looks better. But when you come during a game, it levels the field against the other schools,” Hobbs said.
Ultimately, for lack of its newness and flashiness compared to other college sports venues, the Smith Center does make it up in one huge way: home-court advantage. A point that both Hobbs and Kvancz emphasis over and over again is the intensity and spirit that exists in the Smith Center. GW is beginning to experience that now when prominent non-league teams are reluctant to play here because of the home court advantage and size of the arena.
With growing interest in GW basketball from the student community as well as the Washington community, crowds have grown larger and students have gotten louder over the past years. Kvancz said, “What I don’t want to lose is, you don’t want to play me here, you don’t want to come in as the road team. That kind of atmosphere, I believe, gets lost with the bigger arenas.”