The Frank Erwin Center: Thirty years of serving Central Texas
NOTE: In addition to anniversary celebrations during the Texas men's basketball game against Texas Southern on Wednesday, Nov. 28, and the women's basketball game against UT-Arlington on Thursday, Nov. 29, the Erwin Center will also be unveiling a permanent photo exhibit that will chronicle some of the amazing events that have come through the Erwin Center.
As chair of the UT System Board of Regents, Frank C. Erwin had one simple goal in mind: he wanted to expand The University in all dimensions. Indeed, Erwin kept to that goal as construction of Bellmont Hall, Jester Center, the Perry Casteneda and LBJ libraries, and the Performing Arts Center began under his guidance.
While all those buildings are instrumental to the UT campus in different aspects, only one building located at the edge of campus has encompassed Erwin's efforts to bring in more educational, entertainment and cultural activities to the Forty Acres -- the Frank C. Erwin, Jr. Special Events Center. As the Erwin Center celebrates its 30th anniversary this month, not only has the place enriched The University of Texas, but also the Central Texas region as well.
"The Frank Erwin Center can be a cultural center, it can be an entertainment center, it can be a sports center, or it can be a commencement center. The building is here for Austin and the region," said Men's Athletics Director DeLoss Dodds. "This place has an academic purpose, an entertainment purpose, a cultural purpose and an economic impact."
Chances are that any person living in Austin, no matter how young or how old, has stepped foot in the Erwin Center at least once. For 30 years, the Erwin Center has counted more than 24 million people who attended more than 6,000 events.
As the only premier venue to exist in Austin, the Erwin Center is primarily the home court for Texas men's and women's basketball games. However, when not open for those events, the building is probably hosting a high school graduation, a concert, or a UIL state championship tournament.
Originally managed by UT's Business Affairs Division, in 2000 the Erwin Center became the responsibility of the Athletics Department. Nonetheless, it has always remained the Erwin Center's mission to be a place for all people.
"Even though the Erwin Center is owned by The University and the first event to take place was a UT basketball game, it has been a venue for the entire city from the very beginning," said Associate Athletics Director John Graham, who is in charge of the center's operations.
For Graham, the challenge he faces day in and day out is making sure that the Erwin Center continues to fulfill Frank Erwin's original vision.
"We host 250 events a year -- on top of basketball practices -- so the venue is occupied with some kind of activity more than 300 days of the year," Graham said. "We are constantly out there making sure that we have enough activity to fill the dates. Our primary focus is maintaining a certain program level while providing a safe environment for everyone who walks through here."
To show how intent they were on maintaining the high quality of the Erwin Center building and operations, UT Athletics spent over $55 million in renovating the facility almost immediately after they started managing it.
"The building was outdated and needed huge improvements," said Dodds. "We added suites which help pay the bills, and we solved a lot of issues with regards to disabled seating. We also took care of fire and life safety issues, the concourses were expanded, and we just wanted to give a new face to the building."
In addition, over $15 million of the athletics budget is spent annually to keep the standard high.
"The building costs a great deal of money and running the place is a break-even proposition," said Dodds. "The facility is here to be used by the campus and the community, and we want to keep the Erwin Center a friendly place and a well-kept state-of-the-art facility."
The first event to take place in the Erwin Center was a UT sports event. The women's basketball team defeated Temple College, 67-64, on opening day, Nov. 29, 1977. Eventual Texas guard Evwella Munn scored the very first basket ever in the Erwin Center while playing for Temple that year. Later that evening, the men's basketball team beat Oklahoma, 83-76.
On Jan. 14, 1978, the Erwin Center would have the first of many sellout basketball games as 16,388 fans packed the building to watch the Texas men take on Southwest Conference foe Arkansas.
Since then, the Erwin Center has played host to men's and women's NCAA Basketball first and second rounds, regionals and the women's Final Four (first sell-out in its history), UIL state championship tournaments, and more.
"All of these sporting events are really spectacular to put on. I remember the last NCAA Regional we hosted in 2005. Michigan State beat Kentucky in two overtimes and it was a game that everyone remembered. It really speaks a lot about the place when the Erwin Center is chosen to host these events," said Graham.
Yet, to only refer to the Erwin Center as a sports arena would not do the place justice. The lights that have shown on Texas basketball legends Jody Conradt, Abe Lemons, Clarissa Davis, Kamie Ethridge, T.J Ford and, most recently, Kevin Durant have also shown on U.S. presidents, the Dalai Lama, Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners, the Harlem Globetrotters, Ringling Brothers Circus, Sesame Street Live and music legends of all sorts.
"It's hard to choose a most memorable event because they all fall into different categories, but I will never forget when Luciano Pavaratti performed at the Erwin Center in 1999. It was a sold out, world-class event that covered a wild spectrum of people who came from all over the state to see him perform," Graham said.
"The Dalai Lama was another really special event to see and be a part of. It was a two-year planning event that we went through, and to see our efforts come to fruition was spectacular."
With a 32 line-set theatrical rigging system that can easily transform the facility from a basketball arena to an intimate theatre, the Erwin Center has also been known as a concert center, bringing in artists such as Bob Dylan, John Denver, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Prince, George Strait, Cher, Johnny Cash, John Mayer and Coldplay, just to name a few.
When Frank Erwin first proposed the idea for a special events center, he was met with many challenges that made the project difficult. Erwin was persistent is building a place that would take a "more than adequate campus and make it into one of the first class."