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Kevin Schnepf, Published March 02 2014

Goodbye to the Bison Sports Arena, a multipurpose ‘circus’

FARGO - The circus was in town. And a bear was resting in one of the showers at North Dakota State’s Bison Sports Arena.

“For whatever reason, they had to put this bear in there,” recalled Amy Ruley, the longtime NDSU women’s basketball coach. “They had this ‘Do Not Enter’ sign on the door to the shower, and they had one of their workers guarding the door.”

In more ways than one, there has always been a circus atmosphere in the BSA. That circus is coming to an end.

This spring, NDSU plans to renovate the 44-year-old facility that is showing its age. The last Bison basketball game in the BSA as we know it was Saturday. The last event in the BSA will be the East Region high school boys and girls basketball tournaments this weekend.

“I never experienced the bears and the elephants,” said NDSU athletic director Gene Taylor, who since arriving in Fargo in 2001 never had to deal with the Shrine Circus. “But it was still quite the circus.”

That’s because just about every event imaginable found its way to the BSA.

When it was built in 1970, the NDSU Fieldhouse – the named changed to the Bison Sports Arena in 1987 – was intended to be a multipurpose facility. It certainly was.

The 320-by-320-foot structure that cost $3.1 million has hosted six national women’s basketball tournaments, three national indoor track meets, one national volleyball tournament, five national wrestling tournaments, 10 North Dakota Class A high school boys basketball state tournaments, two Class B boys basketball state tournaments and one state wrestling tournament. It held swimming and gymnastics meets. It held one NBA exhibition game.

In addition to the numerous Shrine Circuses, the BSA hosted trade shows and sportsmen’s shows. It was home to concerts by the likes of Poison, Metallica, Chicago, John Denver and REO Speedwagon. And twice, President George W. Bush held rallies in the BSA.

On top of that, NDSU students infiltrated the BSA for intramural sports.

There was even a time when the Fargo North boys basketball team practiced there on Wednesday nights.

“The Bison basketball team was practicing on one court, the baseball team was fielding grounders and the track team was running laps around us,” recalled former North coach Ray Callaghan. “It was a four-ring circus over there.”

Not built for women

Like the BSA today, NDSU’s physical education building became outdated. The 1931 structure – now known as the Bentson Bunker Fieldhouse – was built for an enrollment of 1,100.

So with the enrollment surpassing 6,000 in the late 1960s, the North Dakota Board of Higher Education allocated $1.75 million for the NDSU Fieldhouse – at the time the largest single amount ever authorized for an educational structure in the state. Nearly $900,000 came from federal funds, $315,000 from private funds and nearly $150,000 from university and student funds.

“The price tag is a little different,” Taylor said, referring to the BSA renovation that is estimated to cost $41 million.

When the multipurpose NDSU Fieldhouse opened in fall 1970, it was called “the fieldhouse to end all fieldhouses.”

But planners forgot about one thing: women’s athletics.

“It was built two years before Title IX went into effect,” Ruley said, referring to federal legislation that protected people from discrimination based on gender.

When the NDSU Fieldhouse opened, women’s sports remained in the physical education building – located about three blocks south of the new facility. It wasn’t until the 1981-82 season when the women’s basketball team played all of its games in the Fieldhouse.

Ruley’s women’s basketball team used the swimming pool locker room – the only female locker in the Fieldhouse. Eventually, NDSU officials improvised and converted two custodial closets and storage areas underneath the permanent seats into a women’s locker room.

“Interest was growing in women’s sports, so we needed more space,” said Ruley, who coached the Bison women from 1979 until 2008. “They just didn’t anticipate the growth of women’s sports.”

Ruley’s program grew into one of the most successful NCAA Division II programs ever. The BSA ended up hosting six national tournaments, with the Bison winning three Division II championships at home.

During that golden era of women’s basketball, the BSA had crowds of 7,000 or more six times – three against rival North Dakota and three during national tournaments. A dozen other times, the BSA had crowds of 6,000 or more. And six more times, it had crowds of 5,000 or more.

There was an obvious home-court advantage. Bison women’s basketball teams won 83 percent of their games in the BSA with a 410-84 win-loss record.

“It was a fun time to be involved with the sport,” Ruley said. “We raised the bar for Division II basketball. We were outdrawing most of the Division I programs back then.”

It was the place to be

Dave Thorson was a senior at Fargo South High School who was among the 5,000 BSA fans who witnessed history on Feb. 11, 1984.

That’s the night NDSU center Lance Berwald scored 53 points against Mankato State. It still stands as the most points scored in BSA history.

“It was one of the most unbelievable offensive performances that I had ever seen … and I have seen a lot of basketball in my time,” said Thorson, who has been the boys basketball coach at DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis for the past 20 years.

For Thorson, and apparently thousands of others, the BSA was the place to be in the early 1980s. That’s when the Bison men’s basketball team averaged from 4,385 to 6,057 fans from 1980 to 1987. According to NDSU records, the attendance reached 8,000 four times – all in games against rival North Dakota.

This year’s Bison team, which has a good chance of advancing to the NCAA Tournament, averaged just over 4,000 fans for its Summit League home games.

“At that time, I thought that was the palace of college basketball,” Thorson said. “You didn’t think about not being at the Bison Sports Arena on a Saturday night. You were going to watch the Bison play. It was a rallying point. The first guys I ever saw dunk it was at the BSA.”

Besides Berwald’s 53-point game, there were other impressive Bison performances during the BSA’s 44-year history.

On Jan. 15, 1971, during the BSA’s first season, John Wojtak pulled down 21 rebounds in one game. On Dec. 12, 1981, point guard Jeff Askew dished out 15 assists.

And on Jan. 3, 1992, Ross Manson poured in seven 3-pointers in one game. The sharpshooter from Minot played at NDSU from 1989 to 1994 – the first years a wood floor purchased from the St. Paul Civic Center was placed over the tartan surface teams played on for 17 years.

“We practiced on the tartan floor … that was really bad,” Manson recalled. “You looked like a clumsy oaf at times because the surface wasn’t that good.”

Neither were the small locker rooms, which had lockers on each side with one bench down the middle. During pregame speeches, 12 to 13 players and as many as four coaches were crammed into the space.

“When it was time to leave for the game, we were all stumbling over each other … it took us a good two minutes just to file out of there,” Manson said. “Even back then, we didn’t take recruits to the locker rooms.”

Nonetheless, the Bison men’s basketball program had a home-court advantage the past 44 years. They won 77 percent of their home games, with a 462-141 won-loss record.

Readers can reach Forum Sports Editor Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549