UTA awaits Texas Hall's curtain call

WAC-bound UT-Arlington will open College Park Center on Feb. 1 against UT-San Antonio. Courtesy UT-Arlington

ARLINGTON, Texas -- When UT-Arlington basketball coach Scott Cross walks off the Texas Hall court -- or more accurately, the Texas Hall stage -- after Saturday's final game in the building, he won't be reminiscing about the quirky arena that has been the Mavericks' home for more than 40 years.

"If the place was burning down, I'd call the fire department, but I wouldn't help put it out," Cross said.

He laughed, but only slightly. Cross can't wait to move his coaching staff and players into the $78 million College Park Center, a 218,000-square-foot arena that is anything but quirky.

"We're going from the outhouse to the penthouse," said Cross, whose Mavericks have won eight straight heading into the Texas Hall finale against Stephen F. Austin.

It seems like a strange goodbye for a unique arena.

Of course, Texas Hall really isn't an arena. Fans walk in the main doors to find a court sitting on a stage, complete with curtains. The cushy chairs and theater atmosphere give you the sense that you're observing a traveling show of sorts.

There's music in the form of the UTA band seated in one section of the theater, actors playing the roles of basketball coaches and players and about 500 fans that get to sit in what seems like a scale model of a high school gym (complete with a scoreboard sponsored by a newspaper that doesn't exist anymore).

It's as if fans are watching an off-Broadway production about basketball -- and hoping no one gets too aggressive and tries to save a ball going out of bounds and ends up in the third row of seats down below. Fans were almost trained to simply sit back and watch, just as they would a play by the theatre department.

It's not that the place doesn't have any history. It's seen its fair share of memorable acts.

Louis Armstrong opened the building in 1965. Frank Zappa and Neil Diamond performed there. Jerry Seinfeld and Jimmy Fallon told jokes in the place. The building has heard the voices of James Earl Jones and Maya Angelou and seen acrobats fly and numerous orchestras perform. It's hosted prime ministers, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders and the Miss Texas pageant.

For years, UTA couldn't play many December home games because "The Nutcracker" took over the building for a few weeks.

The Mavericks weren't even the only basketball act to star on the Texas Hall stage. The Harlem Globetrotters brought their squad one time.

It's a neat experience to watch a basketball game there. One game. But imagine trying to recruit basketball players to star in the production for four or five years.

"I'd drive recruits around on a golf cart and just point to the outside of it and tell them that's where they'd be playing," Cross said. "If they really wanted to go in, we would. But I'd just try to drive by."

Previous coaches would walk up to the door with a recruit and pretend that the swipe card needed to get into the building wouldn't work. Whatever they could do creatively to sell a prospective basketball player on anything but the arena, they'd do it.

"You could tell in talking to a kid if he'd care about it or not," Cross said.

Cross, who took UTA to the NCAA tournament in 2008 and will lead the Mavericks into the Western Athletic Conference next season, once had a recruit he was sure was coming to Arlington. The kid was almost like family to Cross and he brought him into Texas Hall. He told him he'd be the star of the show and the fans would eat popcorn and cheer. He added that when there's a full house of around 3,300, the echoes and noise made it one of the loudest buildings in the country.

"He put his head in his hands and seemed stunned," Cross said. "I knew he wasn't coming."

Now, things are different. Cross gets a recruit on the phone and the first thing he brings up is the new arena, which includes a little more than 7,000 seats, video ribbons and boards, two new practice courts (one for the men, one for the women), a weight room and top-notch locker rooms.

"What people don't fully appreciate is that Texas Hall was a terrible practice facility," Cross said. "You got used to playing games on the stage, but there were only two other baskets and they didn't have foul lines or 3-point lines. You basically had two nets for practice."

When UTA president James D. Spaniolo arrived eight years ago, he immediately realized that something needed to be done. For a school with an enrollment of 33,000 and a university that wanted to be serious about basketball, a new facility was a must.

So he went about raising the funds and convincing the right people that a state-of-the-art facility was needed. Breaking ground on it showed the university's commitment and helped its case for inclusion in the WAC, for which it is leaving the Southland Conference.

"I think this will help us attract larger numbers of people to games and make it easier to recruit," Spaniolo said. "Texas Hall is unique, it's quaint, it's a nice conversation piece, but it's time to move into the 21st century."

As the university moves on into a larger conference and a top-notch arena, it also welcomes a new athletic director. Jim Baker, after a few decades at the University of Texas, is in charge of helping the school make the transition to the WAC. Baker won't say, but at some point it's clear he's going to have to entertain the thought of re-starting football. Thankfully, they can't play that on the Texas Hall stage.

Baker doesn't start work officially until Feb. 1 -- the same day the Mavericks host UT-San Antonio to open the new arena -- but he had to come to Arlington to see one of the final games at the unique gym.

"I was coming in for meetings and was going to fly back, but I wanted to stay here just to see what it would be like to have a game here," Baker said. "It's unique. But to have the new building will be humongous for this university. They did a tremendous job with the design and to all of the features in it. We'll have the best facility in the WAC."

Fifth-year senior LaMarcus Reed, one of the team's top players, made up his mind that he was going to play at UTA no matter where the games were played. But after five years on the stage, Reed is ready to move on.

"I can't wait to get on the new court and play," Reed said. "It's going to be amazing. I've gotten used to playing here [at Texas Hall], but it's not a basketball arena. The new place is."

And you can bet that the first place Cross will take his recruits is College Park Center. Maybe he'll even show them Texas Hall just to make them appreciate it even more.

Richard Durrett covers colleges for ESPNDallas.com.