They Tore the Place Down: G. Rollie White Coliseum

They tore the Holler House on the Brazos down. G. Rollie White Coliseum now lies in ruins, flattened to make room for Kyle Field's expansion and renovation. Another unicorn cut down for the sake of luxury boxes and sight lines. No one else will miss it, but the Roundup will.

A little history

 Some views were more obstructed that others.  

Some views were more obstructed that others.
 

Back in the 70's and 80's no one cared about Southwest Conference basketball. Sure there were blips on the screen, Arkansas was occasionally prone to a deep NCAA tournament run, Phi Slamma Jamma came and went in Houston. Those were outliers. The Southwest Conference was dog-gone football country. This was before the idea permeated that a school could be good at both. It was before the idea that there was revenue beyond the grid-iron. If you wanted a basketball program, then look at Kansas, North Carolina, Indiana, Kentucky, or Duke, basketball schools that couldn't sniff football glory if you drew them a map and hired a sherpa. No thank you; we played for Cotton Bowls in this part of the world.

Need proof, look no further than Austin. The Longhorns hired Bob Weltlich in the 80's, and old Bob manned the helm for six seasons, ending with a 77-98 record with exactly zero NCAA tournament appearances. The Longhorns played in the Drum, that beautiful facility plopped on I-35, but if you wanted to see a full house at the Erwin Center back, then you'd be better off waiting until ZZ Top came to town. And UT was light years ahead facilities wise than the rest of the league. Baylor played at the Heart O'Texas Coliseum, a glorified rodeo arena, Tech toiled in the cavernous Lubbock Municipal Coliseum, Rice went at it in Autry Court which featured a gigantic blue curtain at one end and lacked air conditioning.

The Longhorns played in the Drum, that beautiful facility plopped on I-35 but if you wanted to see a full house at the Erwin Center back then you'd be better off waiting until ZZ Top came to town.

Such was the landscape in the old SWC until Texas went out and hired fast talking Tommy Penders and the Running Horns began to dominate the league in the late 80's. The league was thrust into the modern era of NCAA hoops with the advent of the Big 12. Suddenly Kansas and Missouri were traveling down to play, and the old SWC members began to see basketball as more than a delightful diversion until national signing day.  

There were of course good old days

 Shelby Metcalf and two of his young charges from the '79-80 team.  

Shelby Metcalf and two of his young charges from the '79-80 team.
 

The Holler House was by in large sparsely occupied during the 80's, but kids, there was a time when tickets were almost hard to come by. Yes, the venerable Shelby Metcalf had things working in fits and starts in the 70's with players like Rudy Woods, Rynn Wright, David Britton. The Ags even made a sweet 16 run in 1980.  In that tournament, A&M beat North Carolina in the second round before Louisville ended the dream. Louisville would go on to win the national title that year, but continued to suck at a man's game until recently - so there's that.

For the record, Sports Illustrated weighed in on the 1979-80 Aggies highlighting the home floor as much as the players who would occupy it:  "The Aggies will be strong on both boards and may make up for any deficiencies in outside shooting, depth and speed with tip-ins, rebounds and high-percentage shots. They will be formidable in College Station, where their 7,500-seat gym is not so much an athletic facility as an echo chamber. Officially known as G. Rollie White Coliseum, it is the ‘Holler House of the Brazos’ to A&M fans and opponents alike."

Back in 1987, the Ags made the tournament again, getting the golden ticket from the one-bid SWC. The 12th seeded Aggies got one shining moment, a first-round game against the Dukies that ended with a seven-point loss and not much fanfare. 

G. Rollie was loud, except for most of the time when it wasn't

 The Good Old Days, a full house.  

The Good Old Days, a full house.
 

My first recollection of a game at G. Rollie was during that magical year of 1980. I was seven; I presume A&M was playing a conference opponent. I have no idea. I remember it being crowded and loud and that there was popcorn. Mostly I remember popcorn. I'm sure I drank a Coke or Pepsi product because mysteriously those beverages were good for kids in the 70's and 80's. This was of course before the plague of gluten and fructose.

They played Texas at G. Rollie in 1990, and I was there. Kermit Davis was A&M's coach, hot off a run at Idaho. Kermit would go 8-21 in his only season in College Station, proving once again, this ain't Idaho. Tom Penders was just getting his ship afloat at UT. Penders would later coach at Houston in the mid-2000's when, during a radio show, I was amazed at how much NBA talent he claimed he had assembled for the Cougs. I was amazed at how many NBA coaches and scouts were attending practice to see all this talent; I was further surprised when none of his players were drafted by NBA teams that summer. Tommy is a golden-tongued sage with an eye for almost NBA talent. 

That 1990 game was rather one-sided, UT was better, and even though Kermit's charges recklessly employed the three-point shot, few fell, and Texas ran the Ags out of the gym.

The NCAA investigated Kermit for recruiting violations, another SWC staple. Death, taxes, and impermissible benefits were the rallying cry of the league back then. For a cheater, Kermit didn't seem to translate his indiscretions into players who could, you know, master the subtle points of the game like shooting and rebounding. I guess money only takes you so far.  

For a cheater, Kermit didn't seem to translate his indiscretions into players who could, you know, master the subtle points of the game like shooting and rebounding. I guess money only takes you so far.  

This was my frame of reference when I came to Texas A&M as a student and excitedly hurried over to the Holler House for a November match-up against someone. I don't remember who, I do remember that I needn't have hurried over, there was plenty of room, and the opening tip seemed to be delayed until I got there. At this point, Tony Barone was in the death throws of six losing seasons in seven attempts at Texas A&M. Oh, we'll give you some time to turn things around. The '93-'94 version of Texas A&M basketball would win all of 19 games. The lone diamond in a pile of crap during the 90's and good enough for an NIT one and done. 

The lone sell-out each year would be the annual bloodletting with UT. Those games typically got close to capacity and served up some level of actual home court intensity and good old by God-hatred. I remember reading after one of the games that a UT player said he was surprised A&M's record wasn't better given our home court advantage. Clearly, he wasn't in attendance with the other 85 of us at the next home date.  

They Spared No Expense

In those days A&M introduced a blimp that would fly over the student section dropping prizes and coupons to local drinkeries. You had to keep your head on a swivel during timeouts because given the small size of the student section you were as likely to get concussed from a blimp-bombed snicker bar as anything else.

Often the blimp would drop free coupons for Big Macs or milkshakes, t-shirts were, however, the coveted item. Back then during pre-game introductions, A&M starters would make their way through the gauntlet of teammates and then throw a t-shirt to the adoring fans who had at this time gathered in the tens. More often than not a spectator who was particularly zealous in his appreciation of the team could collect multiple shirts in a season. Crowds were so small at times that players recognized familiar faces in the student section and intentionally avoided adding another shirt to some fan's wardrobe. 

I recall some shooting game that happened at halftime, where a student could win books for the semester from Loupots, or get to play power forward in the second half, or something similar. I remember the promotions team scouring the stands asking for participants only to hear from more than one person, "Nah, I shot last week."

I clearly remember the promotions team scouring the stands asking for participants only to hear from more than one person, "Nah, I shot last week."

A&M is a traditionalist institution. We don't walk on the grass, we remove our hats in buildings, and we use touchdowns as an excuse to make out with co-eds. Tradition ran headlong into the type of athlete that A&M's hoops team hoped to attract. For much of my time in College Station the Aggie Pep band, a smaller contingent of the regular band, would provide musical entertainment for basketball games. Nothing said college hoops quite like the third round of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." 

In the last year or so G. Rollie was graced by a D.J. or at least some schlub who sat in this tiny wooden compartment on the student side and cranked out tunes. The traditionalists were not amused by this development. Years later as hip-hop blares from the upper recesses of Kyle Field before, during, and after football games I wonder where those traditionalists are now. Perhaps in their basements with model trains cranking out John Phillips Sousa. Life's eternal mysteries.

The Joe Wilbert Experience

One of the only players who appeared to have any hope of a post-G. Rollie basketball existence was Fighting Joe Wilbert who famously knocked out a Tech fan in Lubbock and then prepared to fight his way to the bus as a lynch mob waited for the A&M team outside the visitor's dressing room. That night a local radio station dedicated Elton John's "Saturday Night's Alright for a Fight" to Joe on the local airwaves. I wonder if Joe Wilbert knew who the hell Elton John was.

Wilbert was a rarity in A&M basketball at the time, a tall, skilled player who not only dunked with some frequency but also ventured out beyond the three-point arc. At first, we were confused by what he was doing and why he had chosen to ply his craft with 11 teammates who lacked anywhere near the skill level or athleticism Joe possessed. But we all came to love Joe even if we didn't understand what we were watching. Surely Joe would go on to a long, lucrative career in the Association. However, this was not meant to be. Being the greatest player of an A&M generation doesn't exactly pave the way to NBA stardom or even a ten-day contract. 

At first we were confused by what (Joe Wilbert) was doing and why he had chosen to ply his craft with 11 teammates who lacked anywhere near the skill level or athleticism Joe possessed. But we all came to love Joe even if we didn't really understand what we were watching.

Wilbert and the Aggies would welcome Tech to G. Rollie a few weeks after the incident in Lubbock, and we were all there anticipating something between a hockey line brawl and an active evening at Northgate. Tech dominated the game, and sadly no one was on the receiving end of any fisticuffs.

The Players Talked Back

There was as always good-natured ribbing that went on at these events. We were so close to the floor, and the games were so un-attended that players would often fire back at the student section without needing to raise their voice. You haven't lived until the small forward from McNeese State tells you to shut the f**k up as he's inbounding the ball.

The University of Houston had a short point guard whose name not so much escapes me; instead, it was never really in custody. He must have been 5-7 or 5-8 depending the thickness of his socks on a given day. The PA announcer introduced him to the tens and tens in attendance and we serenaded him with "Short People Got No Reason" by Randy Newman. You've got to hand it to us, I doubt the Cameron Crazies have ever gone to the Randy Newman well. The little guy was apparently not a huge Newman fan as he proceeded to torch A&M's regular sized players and walk out of G. Rollie with his little head held as high as I suppose possible and with a Cougar win.

Another fan favorite was TCU's Kurt Thomas, the power forward who would cash paychecks in the NBA for a decade. Thomas possessed some, shall we say, mental issues and histrionics that made him an easy target for young college students who were looking to attempt to influence the game. Thomas would lead the NCAA in scoring and rebounding in '94-'95 and go on to be a lottery selection in the '95 draft. Whatever ribbing was directed at Thomas only served to fuel whatever burned within him, and he returned that fire to dismantle the home team.

Tony Barone Drank Beer With Me

 Tortured soul Tony Barone.  

Tortured soul Tony Barone.
 

As the result of some bizarre promotions idea I suppose, or perhaps because Tony Barone really needed a drink, the then Aggie coach arrived at the Dixie Chicken one night to cavort with the locals and talk A&M basketball. Somehow he came to sit at our table and polish off a beer that came in a bottle shaped like a baseball bat. I haven't seen that design since, nor did I understand its existence then. 

Barone went on to give his assessment of the team he'd assembled for the inaugural Big 12 season. This evaluation involved phrases like "if that kid plays minutes for us this year, you'll know we're in trouble" and, when referring to his backup point guard, "that guy couldn't play dead in a cowboy movie." I give it to Tony; he had a keen eye for talent assessment. Both of those evaluations came to bear fruit.

This assesment involved phrases like "if that kid plays minutes for us this year, you'll know we're in trouble" and, when referring to his backup point guard, "that guy couldn't play dead in a cowboy movie."

Years later I would once again see Tony Barone in a more casual, less baseball bat beery setting, and would raise these two specific points with him. To Tony's credit, he acknowledged that yes, both of those recollections were true and yes his backup point guard "couldn't have played dead in a cowboy movie." I liked Tony and was glad when he caught on evaluating talent for the Memphis Grizzlies, far away from the basketball wasteland he'd inherited at Texas A&M.

The '96-'97 season would be the last dismal shot out of Tony Barone's roman candle and the first appearance of teams that cared about basketball like Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma State and yes even Iowa State. I marveled at watching actual basketball programs come into College Station to play our band of misfit toys. Attendance was such that we could sit as close as we wanted while the opponents layup line commenced and ran unabated until the final horn sounded. Kelvin Cato came into G. Rollie and looked like a man among A&M basketball players. Then again, we could make just about anyone look credible in those days.

In 1998 sparkling homogenized Reed Arena opened on the other side of Welborn Avenue, taking with it A&M basketball and any authenticity the program ever had. I went to a game there and was amazed at the wide concourses, video replay boards, air conditioning and cushioned seating.  There were no metal beams to infringe upon your view of the game. The student section was fuller than any I'd been a part of, but then again it was further away than any ticket I'd had at G. Rollie.

Kansas was in town and by purchasing football season tickets we received free tickets to see A&M play a top 10 Jayhawk squad. It went about as expected. Kansas took care of those plucky little Aggie hoopsters after allowing the home side to hang around for a bit. Now A&M has a legitimate NCAA contending program, but I will guarantee you this, it isn't nearly as fun as the days in G. Rollie when the team was awful, and candy bars dropped from heaven.

The Roundup...

Posted on November 13, 2013 and filed under Sports.