The Daily Gamecock

New plan for Coliseum’s future

Possibilities include satellite student union, fitness space

Here's a USC landmark riddle: I can seat over 12,000, yet I'm mostly empty. I once housed basketball and even a hockey team, yet I'm mostly empty. I'm home to two major USC colleges, yet I'm still mostly empty — except when John Mayer comes to town.

What am I?

If you guessed the Carolina Coliseum, congratulations. But a proposed master plan by Sasaki Associates, which will go before the board of trustees in February, could bring new life to the concrete shell.

The Boston-based Sasaki, a design firm hired by USC to create a "master plan" for the campus's future, envisions converting the former home of USC basketball and the Columbia Inferno into 450,000 square feet of academic space. As of now, Sasaki's plan is, as most USC officials emphasize, just a concept. Tom Quasney, director of Facility Services at USC, said there's a myriad of possibilities for the Coliseum's future, including a "satellite student union with a bookstore and food services" and "perhaps more indoor fitness space as our student population increases."

"First of all, let me emphasize that proposed changes to the Coliseum are only conceptual at this point, so there are no plans developed that address who or what will go into the space available," Quasney said. "The Coliseum has served its purpose admirably for the past 42 years or so, but the Koger Center and Colonial Life Arena are serving much of that purpose, and the Coliseum requires a fair amount of maintenance and energy to operate. Thus, we are looking at new ways to fully utilize it."

Exactly how much is a "fair amount of maintenance and energy?" A 2008 audit of the Coliseum showed that total expenditures were in excess of $2 million. Not accounting for transfers, during the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2007, the Coliseum operated at a loss of $1,366,577.89 — and that's when the Columbia Inferno still played there.

But as expensive as maintaining the nearly comatose Coliseum is, reviving it will be no cheap matter either. Quasney confirmed the $137 million price tag of Sasaki's proposal was accurate. In a time of state budget shortfalls, decreasing funding for education and rising tuition, South Carolina schools have been under pressure from Gov. Mark Sanford and others to halt building projects.

"We do not have the resources to take on this project in its entirety at one time, and we are not likely to have them for the long term — 20 years or so — without help from the state of South Carolina or a very gracious donor," Quasney said. "Of course, we don't have to renovate the entire facility at one time, but any major renovation will be expensive."

Another obstacle to the renovation is this question of the fate of the two colleges currently inhabiting the space below the Coliseum: the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies and the College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management. The former already plans to relocate to the Health Sciences Building and likely won't reverse that decision, Dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies Charles Bierbauer said. USC spokeswoman Margaret Lamb said the HRSM school has no current plans to move.

"I don't see that for a couple reasons. One, we're already reasonably along the path toward designing the renovation of the Health Sciences Building," Bierbauer said. "Two, in order to renovate the Coliseum in the fashion that Sasaki envisions, you'd have to move everybody out of it. So people have to leave."

Built in 1968 to replace the Carolina Field House as the home of USC basketball, the Carolina Coliseum hosted the glory days of men's coach Frank McGuire, the coach with the most wins in Gamecock history. During his tenure from 1964 to 1980, McGuire won the school's only ACC title and gained the record, shared with Bobby Knight, for the most victories in a season without a loss. The arena of the Coliseum is named after the 1977 Hall of Famer. The Coliseum also frequently drew popular acts to Columbia in the past, just as The Jackson 5, Metallica and The Grateful Dead.

"I have personal memories like seeing the band Kiss and Elton John," Quasney said. "My wife saw Elvis there."

But with the construction of the Koger Center in 1988, which took many of the Coliseum's events, and the Colonial Life Arena in 2002, which stole basketball from it, the Coliseum has been stripped of much of its purpose. Elton John has returned to the venue in the last two years, but only to practice for concerts in other cities. The infrequent booking of the Coliseum has made it an attractive practice space for many touring musicians, including John Mayer, who treated USC students with an exclusive impromptu concert last year.