Building on Tradition: Crisler Center

February 15, 2013

By Courtney Ratkowiak | Courtesy 


Crisler Arena may be nicknamed the House that Cazzie Built — but in reality, it was built by the Lord.

That was legendary Michigan football coach Fritz Crisler’s nickname, and former linebacker Dan Dworsky (1945-48), a member of Crisler’s 1947 undefeated national championship team, remembers it well.

“He had absolute command of what was going on in the football practices and the games,” Dworsky said. “Fritz was like the king, and we called him the Lord. He was very strict as a football coach — I mean, he would go around with a little notebook he carried with him throughout practices that indicated two minutes for this (exercise), one minute for that, five minutes for that.”

Seventeen years later, with Dworsky an architect in Los Angeles and Crisler the U-M director of athletics seeking to build a multipurpose basketball arena, Dworsky’s firm was awarded the main design rights for the new University Events Center, later renamed Crisler Arena. During the two years of construction, Dworsky got to see a different side of his former football coach.

Crisler was still as organized and precise as ever, a strict disciplinarian with an opinion on nearly every detail of the arena’s construction. But as Dworsky and Crisler picked out the fabric for the arena’s seats and talked construction over dinner at Dworsky’s California home, Dworsky saw a warm and approachable side of Crisler that wasn’t often publicly shown during his years as the football coach (1938-47) and director of athletics (1941-68).

The construction of the arena, which opened in 1967, propelled Dworsky’s career, and he went on to design a number of high-profile projects, including the Los Angeles Airport international terminal and the Los Angeles Federal Reserve Bank. But he still ranks Crisler Arena among his proudest professional accomplishments — with much of that distinction due to the relationship he was able to build with his former football coach.

And even after multiple renovations, much of Dworsky’s original design has been preserved over the years. This weekend, Dworsky and his wife will be present at the Crisler Center dedication ceremony, a celebration of the recently completed two-year, $72 million project that has elevated Crisler Center to state-of-the-art.

When in college, Dan Dworsky did it all. The linebacker on both the 1947 and 1948 undefeated national championship teams also wrestled for two years and transferred from engineering to architecture after a professor noticed his artistic talent.

The 1947 Rose Bowl team, led by greats Bob Chappuis and Bump Elliott, gathered for reunions every five years. At the team’s second reunion, Crisler mentioned to Dworsky he was looking for an architect to build an all-purpose building that would primarily be used for basketball.

Crisler Center

Before his interview to be the project’s lead design architect, Dworsky researched two nearby, state-of-the-art arenas — UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion, which was finished in 1965, and the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena in downtown Los Angeles, which was finished in 1959. Though Dworsky had never before designed an arena, he used that research to earn the position.

Dworsky’s firm worked on the arena from initial designs to the selection of seating, fabrics and colors. One of his biggest challenges during the construction was designing around budget constraints. The planned capacity of the arena was large compared to college basketball arenas of the time, with 13,684 planned seats. But the limited budget meant that Dworsky and Crisler’s team had to forego elements that could make the arena more multipurpose, like acoustic materials in the arena and a more advanced scoreboard.

In the most recent renovations, the construction and design teams kept Dworsky’s design almost entirely intact.

“Because budget was such a prime issue and we couldn’t afford everything we wanted, the decision to limit certain aspects in certain ways could have been difficult, but Fritz and his associates were very cooperative,” Dworsky said. “We had to get by with relatively minimum facilities at the time within the budget, but the main thing was to get the arena space capable of handling the capacity that was desired.”

Knowing that his team would have to focus on the essentials, Dworsky concentrated on designing efficient concessions and restroom areas. During one of his research trips to Pauley Pavilion, Dworsky timed fans going in and out of the restrooms and realized that due to the lack of concourse space, the fans were overcrowding the restroom spaces. While designing the arena, he intentionally created more restroom fixtures and inner concourse space for people to mingle during breaks in game play.

When originally designing the arena’s inner bowl, Dworsky focused on making sure each seat had a good sightline to the court and that the bowl was freestanding without obstructed views from columns. In the most recent renovations, the construction and design teams kept Dworsky’s design almost entirely intact, with the exception of replacing the arena seating.

Even with some of the design elements lasting over time, the simplicity of the original Crisler Arena meant that renovations would be necessary as the decades passed. In 1998, the athletic department added a full-service production studio and video replay system to the arena. The 2001 renovation added bleacher and courtside seats and an overhaul of the men’s locker room, and the women’s locker room, weight room and athletic medicine training rooms also received facelifts in recent years.

Crisler Center

The most recent renovations were divided into a $20 million Phase I, which primarily covered infrastructure improvements and started in May 2010, and a $52 million Phase II, which started in March 2011 and was completed last month. In total, the renovations added 63,000 square feet to Crisler Arena, including an expanded concourse and additional entrances, restrooms, concessions, retail areas, ticketing areas and private club space. The project also included the construction of the 57,000-square-foot William Davidson Player Development Center adjacent to the arena, which includes practice courts, team locker rooms, coaching offices, equipment rooms and athletic medicine areas.

“It was efficient because we spent a lot of money but we didn’t tear it down and build new,” said Rob Rademacher, associate athletic director for facilities and operations. “At the end of the day, we have this outstanding facility, and you can see the results — our teams are performing better there and call it their home.”

While redesigning Crisler Center, the U-M Athletic Department took some of the same steps as Dworsky had years before. Rademacher and his team took similar trips to arenas — the Yum! Center in Louisville, Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kan., and the Petersen Events Center and Mellon Center in Pittsburgh — to research design elements for the new Crisler Center. The Yum! Center inspired Crisler Center’s new club areas, and fan interaction stations in both the Yum! Center and Mellon Arena inspired the digital touchscreens and fan activities in the Crisler Center concourse.

But one of the most noticeable new elements of Crisler Center is unique among college basketball arenas. Shortly after director of athletics Dave Brandon was hired in 2010, he looked over the renovated plans and offered a suggestion.

“He said, ‘When you come in that big, grand entrance, I want something that’s going to be a ‘wow,’ so people say, ‘Look at that.’ What about a waterfall?'” Rademacher said. “We looked at him, like, is he serious?”

Rademacher and his team went back on the road, this time to Chicago, to research how to build and operate a waterfall in the new arena. Near the escalators of the renovated main entrance now stands a two-story waterfall with a block M, intended to be a spot for a statement and photo opportunity — exactly what has happened during the first few months of the newly opened concourse.

Crisler Center

The other goal for the new concourse was to have a home to showcase Michigan Hall of Honor inductees, with the design partially inspired by the history displays at Allen Fieldhouse. The Hall of Honor area in the Crisler Center concourse currently features Michigan football artifacts including the Little Brown Jug, Desmond Howard’s Heisman Trophy and the 1997 Associated Press Football Championship trophy. Rademacher said these displays will change each season, in partnership with students from the University’s Department of Museum Studies.

Now that the center is completed, the ribbon-cutting and dedication ceremony for the new Crisler Center will take place before this Sunday’s (Feb. 17) men’s basketball game against Penn State. The dedication weekend will begin on Friday night with a “Return to Crisler” panel discussion, open to basketball season ticket holders, former Wolverine basketball players and other invited guests. The event will be hosted by Desmond Howard and feature former basketball stars Diane Dietz, Glen Rice and Cazzie Russell. The following day will feature the women’s basketball game against Michigan State as well as the Hall of Honor induction ceremony and reception, honoring new inductees Gustavo Borges (swimming), Rob Lytle (football) and Brendan Morrison (ice hockey).

During this weekend’s dedication festivities, it will be hard to miss the bronze bust of Fritz Crisler on display in the “tradition case” — which, fittingly, was designed by Dworsky as a gift to his former coach. Dworsky created the clay sculpture, cast it into bronze, and presented it to Crisler at a 1947 Rose Bowl reunion in the 1970s as a token of the relationship they had built while designing the arena together.

And as Dworsky and other figures from Michigan’s athletic past — including Russell himself — reunite at Crisler this weekend to celebrate the new House that Cazzie Built, Dworsky’s gift to his former coach serves as a reminder of the arena’s beginnings.


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