PITTSBURGH— In a Tuesday morning press conference, Duquesne University President Ken Gormley and Director of Athletics Dave Harper announced the renovation of the A.J. Palumbo Center into the new UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse.
Right after the Atlantic 10 Women’s Basketball Championship ends, work will begin on an 18-month renovation project with the completion target for this first phase being in time for the 2020-21 athletics season.
During the semester break, many Duquesne administrators and official will start packing to move their offices around the campus while the renovations are being done. This includes offices, strength and conditioning and medical.
That is the now, but what does this mean for the future?
What it certainly means, is a clear improvement both in the Atlantic 10 and nationally in terms of facilities.
Many reporters have been critical of Duquesne’s facilities and a couple were not even aware Duquesne had a practice facility.
Overall, for a building that has existed since 1988, one thought prevailed, that it was time for change.
Now there is a planned area where all coaches can be housed in as opposed to some being at the Palumbo Center and others being a long five-minute walk away. There will be a practice gym which can be used with two basketball courts, an observation balcony and team dining area which could be used for recruits. The current McCloskey Field will be used as an all-weather practice area which eliminates shortening outdoor practices due to lightning strikes or other inclement weather. Also among other amenities are renovated locker rooms for several programs and a 10,000 square foot performance center with training equipment, performance labs and a nutrition center.
As far as the basketball court itself projects, Harper called the seating arrangement “angry” given it has tightened up and the creation of more boxes and suites since research showed more conversations and discussions in standing areas while taking in contests. This also gives more of an intimate feel for fans in an effort to provide the UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse with more of a homecourt advantage.
It should not be understated that Harper came from Dayton and has been part of renovation processes before including one that is still currently being conducted at UD Arena.
This renovation comes at a tricky time for the men’s basketball team.
Coach Keith Dambrot will be in his third season next season and the year projects to have higher expectations attached to it.
“We’re not going to complain, we’re not going to make excuses, it will be difficult,” he said. “We will play more road games but that is part of growth and development as well. It will be good for me, I’ve never had to experience that.”
When a coach is hired, the first year is generally an adjustment in terms of getting acclimated to the conference, players, staff and even the city. It also is an adjustment for the student-athletes who are trying to find a coach’s style and vision and adhere to that.
The second year is when a coach brings his or her players in. Dambrot has certainly has done that. Of the current roster of 17 (this number does not include transfer Leonard Randall II due to his reported departure from the program), 12 are new to the court this season. One of those players is James Ellis who has already been announced as a redshirt with at least a couple of others likely also sitting out due simply to numbers and quite possibly playing time.
Though more is certainly expected from Duquesne this season, this second year to an extent may be a lot like the first, even for the transfers, given that they have not played at an NCAA Division I speed for an extended period of time.
In the third year, all of the pieces are in place and the built-in excuses tend to stop. The team assembled based on coaching style and other factors have been established and it comes down to winning games.
Why the timing becomes tricky for Dambrot is because he understands that to raise his program’s profile, he will have to win at home, but it is a guarantee he will play more than one non-conference road game both due to the higher cost of playing at PPG Paints Arena and really, necessity.
This third year brings higher expectations for Duquesne which even when playing at PPG Paints Arena will not be playing at its true home court.
Forecasting a year down the line, Mike Lewis II and Kellon Taylor will both be seniors and both will have to assume leadership roles for what will be a short-term shift in creating a road-approach for this team.
Dambrot was made aware of the renovations prior to being named Duquesne coach, but told reporters after the Tuesday press conference that the venue did not make a difference as to whether he thought he could win or not.
His thought process mirrors that of Harper and it is a simple one. Win.
“This is going a ferocious place to play if it’s done the way I know it’s going to be done,” said Dambrot. “To turn programs around you have to win at home.”
The women’s basketball team brought back all but one of its players from last season’s team and return Nina Aho, Halle Bovell and Angela Staffileno, all of whom redshirted. These facts in addition to coaches projections had Duquesne take 12 of 14 first place votes, amassing enough points to be picked atop the Atlantic 10 Preseason Poll.
Duquesne projects to lose a lot next season with Kadri-Ann Lass, Chassidy Omogrosso, Conor Richardson and Julijana Vojinovic, all of whom received all-conference honors in some form or fashion, graduating.
Though Duquesne certainly has depth to avoiding having a down season, the team had inconsistencies when something similar happened after the team’s lone NCAA Tournament berth in 2016. When Emilie Gronas, April Robinson and Deva’Nyar Workman all graduated, the program had a “down year” by its standards amassing an 18-16 season.
There certainly is the opportunity to play select games at PPG Paints Arena, though there is a to be determined venue in which it will play its home games.
What is known is that Duquesne has home-and-home series with Toledo and Temple, each of which are four years in length. Next year, it would be Duquesne’s turn to host both, though it has yet to be confirmed if it will indeed do that or travel to those respective venues in consecutive years and play the home games in the 2020-21 season. Duquesne also had its City Game contract renewed against Pitt as the upcoming season was the last scheduled agreement of the current contract. Next year, that contest will be played at the Petersen Events Center.
The team may follow the men’s approach and play more road games, especially since that secondary venue has not been finalized.
Several sources told Pittsburgh Sports Now that CCAC Allegheny located on the North Shore was a possible option, but there was a change in athletic directors as AD John Ashaolu now holds the same position at Point Park University, leaving that option in question. The venue would be convenient Pittsburgh light rail ride and a few minutes walk away.
In speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Burt stated that he had advanced noticed about what all the planned renovations were, but still there were a couple of surprises. Equipped with the knowledge of the UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse, he was able to take that onto the recruiting trail with him to explain to recruits what was ahead.
“The kids who have committed have good understanding of what’s going to happen over next 18-24 months,” he said.
A Conference Perspective
At Atlantic 10 Men’s Basketball Media Day, Commissioner Bernadette McGlade expressed excitement when talking to Pittsburgh Sports Now about Duquesne’s renovation plans.
“I think the announcement is fabulous it makes a national statement that Duquesne is stepping up to the plate,” she said. “It’s not just a basketball facility renovation and enhancement, it’s going to be a Duquesne University enhancement that will impact recruiting both in basketball and generally with the student body. It will position the men’s and women’s basketball programs opportunities to win A-10 Championships and get into NCAA Tournament. Often people will say athletics are the front porch of the university’s face to the nation. It is without doubt, money well spent and I think the Palumbo Center sits on an unbelievable piece of real estate and to really take that to another level will make it a premier facility that will make families and recruits want to come.”
In terms of how it places Duquesne in the Atlantic 10, McGlade was quick to provide the fact that now over 50% of conference member institutions have done major capital improvements on facilities.
McGlade credited Harper and Duquesne University President Ken Gormley for blending tradition from the past and the new leadership of the future.
“When you think about Ken Gormley having been at the institution for a long time and now he’s the president so he has a traditional view and vision and then a new athletic director in Dave Harper,” said McGlade. “He was a very strong second leader-in-command at Dayton so he knew what it took to have a prominent men’s basketball program and top-rated facilities. To have him at Duquesne leading the way on the ground, is something that is probably quite frankly the reason why this whole capital campaign has occurred and now your alums and supporters of Duquesne are believing in the program and willing to put their hard-earned money towards this opportunity.”
Duquesne has hosted several Atlantic 10 Championship events recently including men’s basketball, lacrosse, volleyball and as previously mentioned the women’s basketball event will be coming in March.
Currently the men’s basketball championships will be hosted by New York’s Barclays Center for the next three years and women’s basketball will be hosted by Duquesne in the current state of the Palumbo Center, Dayton and then VCU over the next three seasons.
It is clear that the conference has a strong belief in Duquesne’s ability to host an event and that certainly will hold true with these renovations.
As to whether this will lead to more conference championships being hosted at the UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse, that remains to be seen.
“I am sure if you ask anybody at Duquesne I am sure they would say ‘we’ll host them all’ but there will be competition from the rest of our members,” McGlade said. “We are certainly open and we love coming to Pittsburgh. We had the men’s basketball championship there, the women’s is coming in March, lacrosse was there, so we do move our championships around the footprint. If you don’t have a premier facility, we won’t put an A-10 Championship there. Duquesne is in a rare-airspace in terms of checking that box.”
Duquesne’s volleyball team also plays at the Palumbo Center and will be affected by the renovation plans.
Sources have told Pittsburgh Sports Now that PPG Paints Arena and playing at Fitzgerald Field House are not the current plans for a venue next season. The likely route then would be a high school gymnasium with some proximity, though that has not been confirmed.
“Student-athletes in this day and age want something fresh, something new,” coach Steve Opperman said. “They’re looking for athletic departments that really care about the whole student-athlete. It will be a game-changer for our program.”