A tour through historic Hearnes Center, one of MU’s most unique fixtures

In light of flooding that forced MU to uproot the floor and reveal the original court, former director of Hearnes Center Tim Hickman provides a tour of the arena, through memorable moments in Mizzou athletics.
The original tartan court of MU's Hearnes Center, as resurfaced after flooding required the athletic department to strip and prepare the current floor for replacement.

Walking into MU’s Hearnes Center is comparable to taking a trip back in time. From the classic rickety seats seemingly right on top of the stripped court to the outdated jumbotron, there is a chilling sense of unavoidable, intangible timelessness.

This is, after all, the building where Norm Stewart propelled Missouri basketball onto the national stage in the late 1960s, before he was ever the namesake of the court at Mizzou Arena; the building where Missouri became one of the perennial elite in collegiate wrestling; the building where MU expanded to women’s sports and thrived in women’s basketball, volleyball and gymnastics.

“It’s had to grow and adapt and have those activities,” deputy athletic director Tim Hickman said. “It’s been an evolutionary process and always will be.”

Prior to his current position, Hickman was the assistant director then director of Hearnes Center from 1990 to 2001. Few know more about its rich history than he does.

And when a water main break caused flooding to the building in September and required the floor to be stripped for replacement, it brought out that history a little more than ever, revealing the original tartan court below.

A tour of Hearnes through Hickman’s eyes is a tour back through Missouri athletics history, the most eminent measuring stick of the passage of time in mid-Missouri.

Hearnes History

Opening in August 1972, just ahead of the 1972-73 school year, Hearnes Center was named after former Missouri governor and MU alum Warren Hearnes. Hearnes, whose term spanned from 1965-73, was known for helping to increase funding for public schools and universities. MU obtained funds to build the arena due in part to state appropriations assigned by Gov. Hearnes.

Prior to Hearnes Center, Stewart’s Missouri basketball team played at Brewer Fieldhouse, today the site of the MizzouRec. The new arena was a considerable upgrade from Brewer, seating close to 10,000 additional fans.

The original court, now resurfaced after the recent floor removal, was made of tartan. Tartan floors were a trend in basketball at the time, but it was rubbery and deemed not slick enough, causing players to twist ankles easier. By the end of the decade, a wood floor had been installed over the tartan floor.

Hearnes is only used now for volleyball, wrestling and gymnastics events, but it also housed men and women’s basketball until Mizzou Arena opened in 2004.

“Just a lot of fond memories of big games,” Hickman said.

He remembers the Missouri-Kansas Border War clashes of the early 1990s best, when Norm Stewart had the MU program at its height. To Hickman, the 1990 game stands out in particular. The No. 4 Tigers overthrew the undefeated No.1 Jayhawks, 95-87, on Stewart’s 55th birthday.

But perhaps the arena’s greatest historic contribution was providing a venue and means for women’s sports at MU. The volleyball and women’s basketball programs were founded in 1974, two years after Hearnes opened.

“[Women’s sports] have changed remarkably,” volleyball coach Wayne Kreklow said. “Sometimes I make comments to our current players: ‘You have no idea what things were like 25 to 30 years ago.’”

Kreklow recalls once when was an assistant under Craig Sherman in the 1990s, the team’s 15-person van got a flat tire and wasn’t equipped with a spare in the trunk.

“The lack of equipment [for women’s teams] was appalling,” Kreklow said. “It’s gotten so much better and our female athletes are so much better off now. There’s always things we can do better, but it’s gotten so much better over the years.”

Emphasis on multipurpose

Susan Kreklow, Wayne’s wife, is a longtime MU volleyball coach as well. Their three kids grew up using Hearnes as a playground.

“I remember our kids would come to our games and they were in the office on the computers and televisions,” Wayne said. “On more than one occasion, one of the ushers would come down and say, ‘Hey, your kids are up on the gymnastics equipment jumping around.’”

That in many ways is the true spirit of Hearnes Center. With five levels plus Hearnes Center Fieldhouse, the home of Missouri indoor track and field, it’s a smorgasbord of different facilities all thrown under one roof. It’s also used for an array of purposes beyond athletics, including move-in day check-in and the annual homecoming blood drive.

Hickman even recalls Bob Hope being the first of many shows at Hearnes.

“Van Halen, Kenny Chesney, Vince Gill,” Hickman rolled off.

The basement, first and second floors are all part of the arena, but that’s only the beginning. When the building was constructed, the third-floor offices were headquarters for “the entire athletic department,” Hickman said. The narrow hallway with offices on both sides wouldn’t come close to fitting the entire department today, showing just how much the department has grown in time.

The third floor even has spaces originally intended to be used as lecture halls. Making use of seating in the four corners of the arena, there are panels on rollers that could be used to close off the sections and function as classrooms. While it didn’t get put to much use over the years, the space is sometimes used for conferences and group meetings.

“They really wanted to make [the building] for multipurpose use,” Hickman said. “The thought was there. It just didn’t get executed in a way that it would work.”

On the fourth floor, isolated from most of the foot traffic around the building, Missouri wrestling has its haven. The entire floor is dedicated to training and practicing, with exercise machines and wrestling mats lining the large enclosure. Wrestling coach Brian Smith is pictured on the wall in a sort of “living room” between his office and the workout facilities.

The bowl

The arena was built like a bowl. Instead of being on a small grade like at Mizzou Arena, the sections are steep, easing from wider in the upper sections to narrower near the court. This is how a couple thousand spectators at volleyball games can still be deafening.

It’s also what made the crowd deafening enough to contribute to one of Hickman’s favorite Hearnes memories in 1994. Taking on Nebraska, Missouri was 13-0 in the Big 8 entering its final game, trying to become the third team to ever achieve perfection in the league.

“I remember the last layup that secured the title,” Hickman said.

That might be because Melvin Booker had to score it twice. Down 78-77, he drained a floater plus a foul with 16 seconds left, but officials reviewed the play then controversially called a double foul on Booker and the defender. The basket was disallowed, but the Tigers kept the ball. They ran the same play, and Booker made the same “and-one” shot with 12 seconds to go. His teammates mobbed him at center court moments later when Nebraska’s three-point attempt for the win rolled in and out at the buzzer. Hearnes howled.

“With the bowl, it’s unique,” Hickman said. “It’s a great atmosphere. It’s all right there and on top of the action. It gave it a great allure. Made it one of the toughest places to play.”

The old barn might not be able to take that level of bedlam if something similar happened today. Many characteristics of the arena are not up to code for what a modern one would have to follow, but due to when it was built, the 1972 safety codes were grandfathered in to keep Hearnes permissible today.

“You couldn’t build it this way today,” Hickman said.

The bowl came about because Hearnes Center – along with Memorial Stadium – wasn’t built on level ground, but rather in a ravine. Taking that into account, the west side of the building was built using piers that extended underground to even the surface. The piers on the east side of the building, which is on more level ground, aren’t as deep as those on the west side.

During construction, the original excavations were just for the bowl, using the piers as a way to hold up the sides of the building and keep the ground level. It quickly became clear that there needed to be restrooms and concessions on the first floor in addition to the second. More excavations were done around the original piers to give room for those facilities to be placed.

The damage from last month’s water main break was due to and occurred on the west side of the building. The water entered the excavated space on the first floor, and due to the arena’s bowl design, the water and mud moved down to the playing floor.

While the flood damage to the floor has made Hearnes Center unplayable indefinitely, the removal of the playing floor revealed that original tartan floor. With that came a renewed appreciation for the beaten up, story-filled arena.

“It’s got some mystique about it,” Hickman said. “It makes it feel like everybody is part of the event. It’s very intimate. There are a lot of great memories with the intimate setting.”

Edited by Bennett Durando | bdurando@themaneater.com

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