New Mexico faces a rebuilding year - at The Pit
It's a rebuilding year at New Mexico. Just look at all the hammers and ladders. The college basketball season will go forward during a $60 million renovation at The Pit, site of the 1983 Final Four and long considered one of the nation's loudest venues. Coach Steve Alford is focusing on the amenities, not the inconveniences, when the job is finished in time for the 2010-11 season: video boards, luxury suites, more restrooms and concessions, and wider concourses. It will modernize the 43-year-old venue while preserving the famous underground lair. "We know what's coming," Alford said. "We're going to have one of the best facilities in the country, if not the best. I've seen the plans. I've seen how it's coming together, and I couldn't be more appreciative of an administration that is putting forth the effort." Meanwhile, it's sure to be a season to remember because fans will face plenty of challenges, starting with a trip to the parking lot to buy a hot dog or use the restroom. The school has placed temporary concession stands and portable toilets outside, amid a network of chain-link fences that funnel fans into the building. The ticket office has moved into a trailer near cranes and heavy equipment. "Some of this might be a little bit of a work in progress," said Tim Cass, the New Mexico athletics administrator overseeing the project. School officials knew unexpected problems would crop up, such as cold temperatures that blew into The Pit on Sunday during a women's game. The Lobos beat Florida-Gulf Coast 80-64 amid a 58-degree chill that forced fans into sweatshirts and jackets. "It was freezing. I'm not going to lie," New Mexico's Sarah Halasz said. "But we've just got to get used to things like this and play through them. It's going to affect the other team just as much." The Florida players rubbed their hands and blew into their fists to stay warm. "It was very unusual for a basketball game to be played in these conditions, but once you're out there running you start to warm up," Gulf Coast coach Karl Smesko said. "I don't think it had much of an impact because both teams were under the same conditions." The next day, Cass apologized and said the problem started with a computer glitch in the air circulation units, complicated by a 20-mph wind blowing through gaping construction openings. The units will be manually checked before every game to ensure they're working and 5-foot draft walls were installed behind the top row of seats at street level. "We appreciate everyone's patience as we continue the renovation," Cass said. The largest components of the project were started before the season and will resume in April, but work will continue behind the scenes. New Mexico's teams won't face many disruptions, since both squads use a practice gym located just south of The Pit. "It's all good. We understand it takes time to build," Lobos guard Nate Garth said. "We're just happy to have an opportunity to be in an arena that not a lot of people can play in. When it's finished, it's going to be well worth the wait." While, construction won't affect the playing surface or seating bowl, work is evident everywhere else. Large plastic sheets have sealed off the mezzanine, where suites and club seats are going in. New this season are flashy video monitors under the scorer's table and a high-tech sound system. From the street, there's a high glass-walled extension rising above and outside the original building. It will offer gathering spaces where fans can mingle, theme-designed concession stands and a second concourse ringing the upper level. Next season, the men's and women's teams will share weight and training facilities at the arena, across the street from the football complex where New Mexico's athletes currently work out. New locker rooms, a commissary and other amenities are planned. Construction will reduce capacity at The Pit from 18,100 fans to 15,102 - still the third largest venue in the Mountain West Conference behind arenas at BYU and UNLV. After work is completed for next season, The Pit will seat 17,100. No matter what, one thing won't change. "It's The Pit," New Mexico guard Dairese Gary said. "It's still going to be really loud."