For millions of college men’s and women’s basketball fans around the country, Gampel Pavilion is a familiar site. Thanks to the television eyes of CBS, ESPN and other outlets, the facility is known for being one of the most raucous home courts in the game.
It has also become a symbol of Connecticut – much like Gillette Castle and Mystic Seaport – and it has served as a “front porch” for first-time visitors to the Storrs campus.
Gampel Pavilion first opened its doors on Jan. 27, 1990 as the men’s team defeated St. John’s, while the women’s team played its first game on Jan. 31 with a win over Georgetown.
In a blink of an eye, Husky fans sit in the pavilion 25 years later with 13 national championship banners hanging from the rafters and reminders of countless NCAA tournament achievements and conference championships.
Two Hall of Fame coaches have called the building home in Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma; and Kevin Ollie has had the unique distinction of being both a student-athlete and head coach in Gampel Pavilion.
The UConn men have an all-time record of 157-27 in the building and the women have a 299-19 record. Think about that. In a total of 502 UConn games at Gampel Pavilion, the Husky faithful have left with a smile on their face 456 times.
The timing of the opening of Gampel Pavilion and the sky-rocketing success of the two programs is not a coincidence. Certainly, the promise of a new building was one of the reasons that lured Calhoun and Auriemma to take their respective jobs at UConn.
At the time Gampel Pavilion opened in January 1990, the best NCAA performance for a UConn men’s team was an NCAA Elite Eight advance in 1964. The UConn women’s program had not advanced beyond the first round in its one and only appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
Since the opening of Gampel Pavilion, UConn basketball has won a combined 13 NCAA national championships (9 women, 4 men), far more than any other major university in the nation.
On Jan. 27 1990, when the UConn men’s basketball program played its first game in Gampel Pavilion, the highest Associated Press national ranking ever attained by the Huskies was No. 18 in the country, and there had been just five appearances in the National Top 25 in program history. Since the opening of Gampel Pavilion, the UConn men’s program has been ranked in the AP National poll 338 times, including being ranked No. 1 in the nation in 29 separate weekly polls.
On Jan. 31, 1990, when the UConn women’s basketball program played its first game in Gampel Pavilion, the Connecticut women’s program had never been ranked in the AP National Top 25 Poll. Two weeks after playing its first game in Gampel Pavilion, the UConn women’s program was ranked in the AP National poll for the first time at No. 25. Since the opening of Gampel, the UConn women have been nationally ranked in 437 weekly AP polls, including being ranked No. 1 in the nation 180 times between 1990 and 2015.
The story of Gampel Pavilion dates back to 1975 when a project request for a new Sports Center was presented to the Board of Trustees. The Husky program had outgrown the UConn Field House, which had opened in 1954, and it was time to think ahead. However, a Sports Center was put on hold because of other pressing building needs on the Storrs campus, notably a new university library.
Now known as the Homer D. Babbidge Library, that facility opened its doors in 1978. So, in the summer of 1978, the Board of Higher Education approved planning funds for a new UConn Sports Center, and, in 1979, the University’s Board of Trustees approved the project for full funding. That same year, UConn became a charter member of the Big East Conference.
Various concepts – including a flat roof arena complex with an artificial turf outdoor field on the roof – were designed and discussed from the late-1970s through the mid-1980s. Cost overruns would delay the Sports Center Complex construction until the summer of 1987. Construction of the complex continued for two and one-half years from the summer of 1987 through January 1990.
The State of Connecticut provided $22 million for funding of the Sports Center Complex, which originally consisted of a 171,000 square foot domed basketball arena, a 39,000 square foot natatorium, and offices and research labs on an academic side for Sports and Leisure Studies. UConn was asked to raise $4.5 million in private dollars.
Chief athletic fundraiser and former men’s basketball coach Dee Rowe spearheaded the raising of $7 million to augment the state’s fiscal commitment.
The lead private donor for the Sports Center Complex was Harry A. Gampel, a 1943 UConn Business School graduate, whose $1 million gift was the largest private contribution to UConn at that time, and the school gave him naming rights in perpetuity to the basketball arena.
The original capacity of the Harry A. Gampel Pavilion was 8,241. That was increased to 10,027 prior to the 1996-97 season, when seating was added over the four entrance quadrants. An additional 140 seats were added to the lower end zones prior to the 2002-03 season, bringing the current capacity to 10,167 – the largest on-campus basketball arena in New England.