PITTSBURGH — Duquesne university president Ken Gormley and athletic director Dave Harper unveiled the UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse on Tuesday, which will be the new name of the renovated A.J. Palumbo Center and new home to Duquesne’s basketball and volleyball teams.
The renovations will include expanding the footprint of the building all the way to Forbes Avenue with a new glass atrium and entrance that will connect the building to the city.
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The Fieldhouse will feature large windows, open concourses, a more intimate seating atmosphere with the fans closer to the court, a dedicated student section, standing room bar areas with a view of the court and luxury suites.
Harper said that he expects the seating capacity of building to be largely unchanged by the renovation. Construction will begin following the end of the 2018-19 basketball seasons and will stretch through 2020, forcing the three teams housed in the building into other accommodations for their 2019-20 seasons.
Harper said that from the first day that he was hired at Duquesne back in 2015, plans for replacing or renovating the Palumbo Center were a top priority.
“When our team started here three years ago, we set out to make sure that were a highly valued member of the Atlantic 10 Conference and the Northeast Conference,” Harper said. “Starting from that premise, when you look at our facilities, where they are currently, we needed to upgrade.”
The scale of the upgrade was what Harper and his team spent a good portion of that time wrestling with. There was the facility they thought that Duquesne needed. But they weren’t necessarily sure that was the facility Duquesne could afford.
“It obviously requires a lot of funding to be in place,” Gormley said. “Dave Harper has just worked relentlessly with members of the Duquesne community, the community at large and it has just taken off. … Having the governor and legislature support us on the ARCAP grant, which was a key piece, because again, to build that momentum, you have to have each of the little components of funding in place to make sure it can happen on a big scale, because the other option would have been a scaled-back version.”
What’s being built is an impressive combined structure that will better integrate the city into the campus and support all of Duquesne’s athletic teams in addition to being one of the top basketball facilities in the Atlantic 10.
“I don’t think our facilities were that far behind,” women’s basketball coach Dan Burt said. “We were probably middle or the pack, lower-middle of the pack. Now, we’re going to have something that really, no one else has. It puts is in the same league as VCU, and when you’re talking about being in the same league as VCU, you’re talking about one of the best facilities in the country.”
The university did not release a budget for the project, but Gormley said that all of the building funded by either private contributions or public grants, and no student money was taken for the new building.
The building was named partially through a naming rights sponsorship with UPMC, whose UPMC Mercy hospital is Duquesne’s neighbor on The Bluff and also for former Duquesne basketball great Chuck Cooper.
Cooper, a Pittsburgh native, played at Duquesne from 1946 to 1950 and was the team captain in his senior season. He scored 990 points and his No. 15 has been retired by the university.
Perhaps as importantly, he was critical to de-segregating both college basketball and the NBA, where he was the first African-American to be drafted into then league.
“My dad played [at Duquesne] right after Chuck, so I had heard lots of stories about Chuck Cooper,” Duquesne men’s basketball coach Keith Dambrot said. “That’s the thing that’s very interesting about Duquesne University. It was probably one of the most progressive schools in the country at that time. Chuck Cooper was a trailblazer.”
After his playing career, Cooper died in 1984. His son, Charles Cooper III, spoke on his behalf.
“I’m excited to see the Dukes take it to the hoop in The Coop,” Cooper III said.
As part of the project, Duquesne will also construct a new indoor practice facility for the football, lacrosse, soccer and track teams. The facility, to be located above the Fieldhouse, will be named the Vinnie Vaccarello Center.
There will also be renovated practice facilities for the basketball teams, a new, 10,000 square foot training facility, a university hall of fame and a fan shop on Forbes Avenue developed by Barnes and Noble.
The Palumbo family, whose gift 30 years ago was integral to the construction of the facility, will continue to be honored by the A.J. Palumbo atrium, the new entrance to the building on Fifth Avenue.