Today@Sam Article

Coliseum Celebrates 40th Anniversary

Jan. 11, 2016
SHSU Media Contact: Tammy Parrett

Johnson Coliseum at sunset
Bernard G. Johnson Coliseum is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a series of special events and a display in the coliseum lobby showcasing the performers and events that have taken place inside its walls. —Photos by Brian Blalock

Since its completion in 1976, the Bernard G. Johnson Coliseum–then known as University Coliseum–has been home to Sam Houston State University volleyball and the men and women’s basketball teams. It also has hosted various events, from graduation ceremonies and campus events, as well as more current events such as Sammypalooza and the Kat Comedy Showcase.

At the time, the coliseum was built as part of the largest construction project that the university had ever seen. The $15.2 million project included the construction of the Teacher Education Building, the Center For Continuing Education in Criminal Justice, Health and Physical Education Building, East Campus Central Plant, a Performing Arts Building, and the Utility Distribution System.

Plans for the $4.2 million facility started as early as 1972, but construction actually began in September 1974. It was originally scheduled to open in time for the SHSU-Sul Ross basketball game on Jan. 12, 1976, but was postponed because of a delay in getting the scoreboards installed.

When construction was complete, the approximate 78,000-square-foot facility had a capacity of 5,500 people and housed four dressing rooms, three office suites, four ticket offices, four restrooms, a management office and a press box. The original plans included the bleachers, but university President Elliott T. Bowers decided to delay their installation until they were deemed necessary. They were later installed in 1983.

The University Coliseum officially opened on Feb. 9 for the SHSU-Southwest Texas University basketball game.

With a new state-of-the-art facility at their disposal, students, faculty and staff were eager to put it to use, bringing multiple musical acts to perform in the space–and, more importantly, their friends and family, who were able to attend the first commencement ceremony held in the University Coliseum in May 1976. 

In 1986, basketball players and coaches found that the coliseum’s tartan floor was too hard on players’ knees, so it was replaced with a maple hardwood floor.

Spring 1976 Graduation Ceremony
The spring class of 1976 was the first to graduate at Johnson Coliseum. It also marked the first time that all commencement exercises were held in one ceremony.

The next year, the coliseum underwent a welcome change–one that did not require any construction. The University Coliseum was renamed, becoming the Bernard G. Johnson Coliseum.

Johnson was a long-time member of the Texas State University System Board of Regents and a close adviser to President Bowers.

Over the next two decades, the original coliseum roof would become quite the problem child, requiring extensive maintenance and resurfacing almost every four years, associate vice president of facilities management Doug Greening told the Huntsville Item in an interview.

It was replaced with a copper roof that would require less maintenance in 2002.

The coliseum has become not only a hub for Bearkat basketball and volleyball throughout the years, but also an important component of academic and student life.

It’s housed a variety of musical artists, from Kenny Rogers, to Willie Nelson, to George Strait, to Wiz Khalifa; family shows such as the Harlem Globetrotters; comedy shows; and campus organization fairs and career fairs.

Some of SHSU’s most valued traditions take place inside the coliseum, including the Ring Ceremony, commencement exercises, Sammypalooza, and the Kat Comedy Showcase. 

copper roof
The copper roof was added in 2002, due to the rising costs of maintenance on the original roof, which had to be resurfaced every four years. —Photo by the Huntsville Item

After Hurricane Katrina hit the region, it became a crisis center for those seeking shelter. “Back in the ’80s, your first steps on campus as a student were in the coliseum when you registered for classes, and your last steps were in the coliseum as you walked across the stage on graduation day,” said Bearkat basketball alumna and current women’s basketball coach Brenda Welch-Nichols.

The university signed a memorandum of understanding with the American Red Cross and currently serves as a shelter for students seeking refuge in times of natural disasters. 

“As a partner, the university has two publicly funded facilities that are available for short-term housing of Texas residents in the case that natural or manmade incidents dictate a need for evacuation assistance,” said Keith Jenkins, associate vice president for student services.

Ed Chatal, associate director of facilities, began his career at SHSU in 1992 as a summer intern for recreational sports. He held numerous positions during his graduate career and accepted a full-time position as coliseum manager in 1995.

“One of the most memorable moments happened when a squirrel got into a transformer during the 1996 graduation ceremony and the entire campus lost power for three or four hours,” he said. “We finished the ceremony with a camping generator, one light bulb and a megaphone. Amazingly, the packed house remained calm and the ceremony ended in a normal fashion.”

The coliseum is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a series of special events and merchandise, and an exhibit in the lobby, sharing the coliseum’s history with visitors through February.

“The exhibit will have posters of events that have taken place throughout the years, as well as some old memorabilia from some of the first years that the coliseum was open set up inside the main entrance,” said Justice Crisp, administrative supervisor of special projects for the coliseum. “People can check out old photos, newspaper articles and event posters to reminisce about their time at Sam Houston, or see what’s changed over the years.”

The Bearkat basketball team takes on Texas Tech
The coliseum was originally scheduled to open in time for the SHSU-Sul Ross basketball game on Jan. 12, 1976, but was postponed because of a delay in getting the scoreboards installed. It officially opened on Feb. 9 for the SHSU-Southwest Texas University basketball game. —Photo by Brian Blalock

Current and former students, faculty and staff are encouraged to submit photos of their favorite memories from events held in the coliseum, which will be featured on social media and in the exhibit.

“We want people to be able to relate to the things they see in the exhibit,” Crisp said. “So many people have their own unique memories from some of these events, and we want to help them share those memories with others.”

“We used to sneak into the coliseum at night and shoot hoops from midnight until 2 in the morning, when UPD would eventually find us and kick us out,” said Nichols.

Special gifts will be available at select games in February, while supplies last.

The celebration will conclude with SHSU’s basketball game against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on Feb. 27 at 7 p.m.

For more information on the coliseum’s 40th Anniversary Celebration, visit the coliseum website, Facebook or Twitter accounts.

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