Originally posted on Fox Sports North  |  Last updated 2/20/12
MINNEAPOLIS For the lucky or perhaps unlucky fan who sits in Section 103, row 29, seat 1 at Williams Arena, the view is a bit obstructed. From the vantage point of that bleacher seat, only half of the Golden Gophers' basketball court is visible. A staircase blocks the right side of the floor, meaning only the hoop on the far end of the court can be seen. This isn't the only seat with an obstructed view at the 84-year-old home of the University of Minnesota's basketball teams. It's one of the many quirks of what Gophers fans affectionately call "The Barn." The court is raised several feet off the ground, with a dangerous tumble always a possibility for players. And there are apparently animals besides Gophers living there. Minnesota senior Ralph Sampson III said players have seen bats and bird flying and mice scurrying through Williams Arena. "I guess that's why they call it the Barn," Sampson said. Williams Arena is the oldest facility in the Big Ten by a pretty wide margin. The next oldest is Northwestern's Welsh-Ryan Arena, the site of the Gophers' 64-53 loss to the Wildcats on Saturday. Welsh-Ryan Arena was opened in 1952 24 years after Williams Arena and is currently the smallest venue in the conference, seating just 8,117. The Barn has history, sure, and its uniqueness gives it character. When the Gophers have success on the court, the fans come to life and make Williams Arena very noisy for visiting teams. But it's antiquated in many ways that impact both players and fans alike. Recently, there's been talk about what to do with Williams Arena. Would millions of dollars in renovations do enough to spruce up The Barn and extend its life span? Or do the Gophers need an entirely new arena to keep up with the rest of the Big Ten? It depends who you ask, but those that currently play at Williams Arena seem to enjoy it. "I definitely love playing here. I don't have a problem with it," said Gophers junior Rodney Williams. "I think it's cool that it's the oldest gym in the Big Ten. We've got the elevated floor. It's just a different spot to play at. It's not as big as some of the other gyms in the Big Ten, but I think the energy of the gym come game time is always good." Sampson said his favorite road venue is Indiana's Assembly Hall, which was built in 1971 and is one of the Big Ten's older arenas. Like Williams, though, Sampson has enjoyed calling Williams Arena home. "I think Williams Arena is a unique venue to play in," Sampson said. "You have the raised floor here. You have a lot of tradition here." That raised floor can be a bit daunting to visitors, especially those who have never played a few feet off the ground. Media members line one side of the court, while players sit below the elevated court and must look up to see the action. When the Wisconsin Badgers came to Minneapolis earlier this month, they practiced sliding off the raised floor the day before their game to be fully prepared. "I think it's one of the cooler Big Ten arenas just because it's so old and has a lot of history in that place," said Badgers forward Mike Bruesewitz, a Minnesota native who grew up watching the Gophers. "It's just a little different feel, an old-school feel. It's definitely fun to play there." To put into perspective the age of Williams Arena, Calvin Coolidge was president of the United States when it first opened in 1928. The beloved cartoon we now know as Mickey Mouse first appeared as Steamboat Willie that year. Also in 1928, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly an airplane solo across the Atlantic Ocean. And legendary baseball slugger Babe Ruth was in the prime of his career with the New York Yankees, having just hit a then-record 60 home runs the year construction began on Williams Arena. Those events were generations ago. So was the opening of The Barn. Over the past 84 years, many great players have stepped foot on the raised floor the original floor was only recently replaced in 2009. Five of the other Big Ten arenas have opened since 1980. The newest? It's a tie between Ohio State's Schottenstein Center and the Kohl Center in Madison, Wis. Both facilities opened in 1998, and the Buckeyes boast the largest-capacity arena, as the Schottenstein Center holds 19,500 fans for basketball games. With a capacity of 14,625, Williams Arena ranks in the lower half of Big Ten arena sizes. "Some guys may not like it because it's not as big," Willisam said. "But I like it because I feel it gets pretty loud in here." Then there's the issue of the Gophers' practice facility or lack thereof, rather. Most of the other Big Ten schools have separate facilities for the basketball teams to practice. The Gophers men's and women's teams both got to tour the brand new Hendricks Training Complex in Lincoln, Neb., the Cornhuskers' 84,000-square foot practice facility that just opened this past October. Both Minnesota's men's and women's teams usually practice on the court at Williams Arena. If The Barn is occupied, they head next door to the Sports Pavilion. Men's head coach Tubby Smith has been vocal in lobbying for a new practice facility. So has women's head coach Pam Borton. "We can sit here and talk about it for hours but it's definitely needed. It's needed for recruiting. You're only going to be as good as the players you have in your program," Borton said earlier this month, referring to the lack of a practice facility. "This is not about coaching. If you've got good players in your program, you're going to win a lot of games. It's about recruiting. It's tough for us to get into our facility right now, practice when we want to. We're in the Big Ten and we need to act like we're in the Big Ten." A new practice facility may be needed in Dinkytown, but what about a new arena? With every year that passes, Williams Arena becomes that much more dated. The lack of a practice facility could impact recruiting. So, too, could an 84-year-old arena. Sampson said the creaky old floors, which were replaced after his freshman year, would talk back to today's generation of players as they ran up and down the court. They'd told the history of The Barn and everything it's seen. It makes you wonder what those floors would say if and when the Gophers finally say goodbye to Williams Arena. Jesse Temple contributed to this story. Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter.
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