PITTSBURGH — As Duquesne men’s basketball coach Keith Dambrot discussed having to survive nearly two full seasons away from its home gym where he jokingly said his athletic director, Dave Harper nearly killed him keeping him out of the gym and camp.
Harper quickly walked up to Dambrot, his smile evident through the mask and immediately replied, “he’ll be alright”.
Indeed the pair have reasons to be all smiles now with the UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse open following 22 months of work that had some challenges related to COVID-19.
“In addition to a big sense of relief after 22 months of unique circumstances, navigation with a pandemic and challenging work environments with protocols,” Harper said. “We’re just really excited even though our opening is a bit muted. We’re going to have our big day, that will be ahead but we’ve got to plug through this year. It is critical that we get into this facility. We’re guests in a facility that is just transformative for us.”
Being the competitor he is, Dambrot went into the UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse early last week and seemed impressed with the facility though he had enough of the visuals whether that be the suites, new seating and many upgrades. There was one thing on his mind.
Where is the practice gym?
When Dambrot saw the practice gym, which at the time still was receiving some painting touches, he was officially sold.
“There’s a lot of good qualities in that arena but the best is the back gym with two full courts but I’m a sicko,” the fourth-year Duquesne coach said. “You don’t know what that does for me with developing guys. For the donors it is the suites and the unique sitting areas. I am critical but they did a really good job with it. The design is good, unique and well done.”
As of Sunday, the men’s basketball team has been in the building to practice and start wearing in the gym. The team was quick to take both pictures and videos of its first shots and there certainly is a feeling of excitement in the air.
“I’ve been sitting around waiting for that Coop to be finally put together since the day they kicked us out of it,” Duquesne senior center Michael Hughes said. “It’s really exciting. It’s been a process, a little bit of a lull because of COVID but it is exciting to step foot in there and enjoy it for a little bit.”
Though he has not yet seen the final product yet due to his team being in quarantine due to a positive COVID-19 test, Duquesne women’s basketball coach Dan Burt also expressed excitement for what is to be his on-campus home.
“We’re happy to be home, to have a home again,” said Burt. The new video boards are a great addition, we look forward to putting highlights up on those boards.”
From an Atlantic 10 standpoint, its commissioner, Bernadette McGlade expressed overwhelming approval and support.
“The grand opening of Cooper Fieldhouse elevates Duquesne athletic facilities to ‘best in class.’ It is a clear statement of the importance of their Division I basketball programs and support for all student-athletes athletically and academically,” stated McGlade in a conference-issued statement. “This stunning facility will anchor the athletic development, academic support services, training, and leadership development services well into the future. I congratulate President (Ken) Gormley, Athletic Director Dave Harper and the many benefactors of the Dukes’ program who collectively made the Cooper Fieldhouse a reality!”
UPMC COOPER FIELDHOUSE AIMS FOR ENHANCED STUDENT-ATHLETE, FAN EXPERIENCE
Already Duquesne Associate Athletic Director of Sport and Facilities Operations Mike Scerbo has hosted over 40 tours with university personnel, donors, media and others. Though the company has already been different, one thing has been the same, an amazement for what is now the UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse.
“I’ve heard the same word and it makes me smile ‘wow’,” he said. “You turn the corner and see a new space, ‘wow’. That’s where I get my joy. Taking our volleyball coach through the building and seeing his reaction and listening to the wows from him. Bringing a donor through, letting student-athletes see what our athletic department is capable of putting together. Every person I’ve taken on a tour has said ‘wow’ at least a dozen times.”
Duquesne prioritized everything by either gold, silver or bronze with the first of those three of course most important.
Those featured deemed gold by Duquesne athletic administrators were player development, fan experience, creating a good atmosphere for D-I basketball and making the UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse a one-stop shop where the facility becomes an epicenter.
Of course the building has new signage both on and off the court with Duquesne’s new logos which is a clear brand repositioning. The hope is that these improvements will enhance recruiting.
From an athletic standpoint, Duquesne Associate Athletic Director of Sports Medicine and Performance John Henderson with the help of his staff were tasked with building a new strength-and-conditioning area where every athlete could challenge themselves and find success.
As previously mentioned, Duquesne’s basketball teams now have an improved practice court which also will avoid the logistical nightmare of teams having to stagger practices to avoid clashing with each other.
From a fan perspective many changes were made.
For starters, the UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse is now ADA compliant. There are accessible elevators and seating at center court. Additionally, there is corner seating at the main concourse level which is season-ticket holder only but overlooks the court. This seating would sit across Duquesne and the visiting team’s benches in addition to the other corner providing a more interactive experience for fans to interact with players or share disdain for a foul call.
There also is new upgrade seating for fans in the 200 levels, clubs and suites, a much-improved concession experience which will rotate food options. A large scoreboard also is a notable improvement as game action will be visible to all fans and stat availability, which was hard to come by at the Palumbo Center is a thing of the past. Now there will be stats aplenty both from an individual and team standpoint.
“In the old arena it was a glorified gym,” said Scerbo. “You go to Indiana and you probably find some high school gyms similar to the Palumbo Center. Here we are a high mid-major D-I program with aspirations for NCAA Tournaments. With that comes expectations from an in-game experience. Everything we’ve done is with the idea of giving our fans a first-rate experience.”
Duquesne has also expanded the North, East and West sides to the UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse meaning some entrances and walkways at the new facility would be garages and sidewalks at the Palumbo Center.
One of those who have seen the new facility is Duquesne donor and fan Larry Prezioso. Prezioso visited the UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse Sunday evening as Duquesne hosted its donors both to thank them and physically show them what their investment looked like.
“The four most important pieces for basketball success have been in place for a while now at Duquesne in Gormley, Harper, Dambrot, and Burt,” Prezioso said. “Now that foundation has a home, a beautiful new state of the art home with great amenities for the fans such as suites, a club area, and lounges… This crossed my mind last with Dayton on Tuesday. (Coach) Anthony Grant and the remaining coaches due in February and early March may look around and think ‘uh oh these guys were serious, they’re on to something.’ I am very impressed with the vision on display to make the UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse something special and be proud of.”
Duquesne has kept in touch with Chuck Cooper III whose father is part of the namesake of this facility. All Cooper has done is show his appreciation and gratitude.
“Every time I’ve interacted with him he says it is amazing and thanks us for doing this for his father,” said Scerbo. “He’s locked into this facility and the vision of our athletic department. He’s very touched that his father’s name will be on this building forever and it is something we are excited for this to offer.”
According to Scerbo everyone who has visited the UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse has had a feature or part they most prefer, and for Harper that is no different, though he had a different school of thought.
“I’m going to look forward to looking at a scoreboard consistently where Duquesne has more points than its opponent,” he said with a smile.
PANDEMIC WREAKS HAVOC
Of course no project is perfect and Duquesne had the unenviable task of trying to complete this facility right in the middle of a pandemic.
“Had the pandemic not shut us down for two months and some days, we would have been ready to go for this year,” Harper said. “They (PJ Dick) caught up in a hurry. We had everything aligned going into Oct and Nov. but unfortunately it got delayed to January.”
As a result of these delays, back-of-the house amenities such as some locker rooms, training rooms and film rooms are not expected to be completed until April though any gameday touches are fully ready as would concessions had a significantly larger number of fans been able to attend.
Another difficulty of such a large undertaking in a pandemic is not being able to physically see progress in person.
During the process there were weekly construction meetings, first in an office space and then in a construction trailer but once the pandemic hit that changed to phone and zoom calls which resulted in a lack of personal touch.
For someone like Scerbo who deems himself a visual person, it was challenging trying to address issues when it was not in person where it was a short walk from a conference table to the construction site. With individuals across the country and one in Australia, it became a challenge that required adjusting to schedule and address any issues.
Still Duquesne remains focused and stubborn towards it approach and design never once wavering in thought nor budget.
“If anything there were moments where we were nervous about how long the delay would occur but when did think of that the one thing was to get this right,” said Scerbo. “We only have one chance to put this facility together, so rather then try to speed up and make up for lost time or meet a fabled deadline, we always said we needed to do this right.”
Though the UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse will seat around 4,300 fans including standing areas, there of course are statewide regulations and thus Duquesne has had to be creative as far as who will be able to attend Tuesday night’s official opening against Dayton and the remainder of the season as a whole.
According to Harper approximately 50 students were to be selected via a lottery. There were no official numbers as far as how many students entered the free lottery, but within the first hour over 230 student threw their name into consideration.
In addition, each participating student-athlete will get two tickets to invite parents or other family members to attend. Those members who are assigned tickets will be known in advance that way if someone were to test positive, contact tracing could be determined.
Of course COVID protocols will be followed including proper temperature and at least six-feet of separation between individual parties.
As opening night has arrived, Scerbo remembers one of Harper’s consistent mantras, which is to “win the day”. With tipoff just over 24 days away, all of the emotions are setting in and a satisfied grin formed.
“Our job as administrators is to do what we can to win,” Scerbo said. “I can’t go out and make a basket. I’d love to be able to shoot a three-pointer and back in my coaching days I would have loved to take a shot. I had to win how a coach wins. As an administrator doing this, this is how I win. When that ball is thrown up right there at 9 pm Tuesday night, that’s when I will feel we were successful with this project.”