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Pearls From the Clamshell: Remembering U-Hall

University of Virginia; Steve Hedberg

University Hall fell in just seconds on May 25, leaving dust, rubble and plenty of memories. U-Hall, after all, was Ralph’s House—home court to UVA men’s and women’s basketball for decades. But it wasn’t just about the hoops. Graduations, concerts and other events took place under its clamshell roof. U-Hall shaped the UVA experiences of many. Enjoy a few of their reflections.

‘Let us walk:’ When Finals were moved inside

In her Lawn room, Allison Schildwachter (Educ ’75) woke up to a commotion on the drizzly morning of her graduation. Outside her shutter doors, then-President Frank L. Hereford Jr. (Col ’43, Grad ’47) looked up at the sky as students pleaded, “Let us walk.”

“He shook his head and just kept shaking it and walked back to his office,” she said.

The 1975 graduation was one of three times graduates missed out on their Lawn procession because bad weather forced Final Exercises inside U-Hall. Jack Bruggeman (Col ’75) remembers the address that year from novelist Nancy Hale. “She was trying to lay out the imagery of the Lawn, the pavilions and everything,” he said. “Of course, we’re sitting in University Hall, so that is falling flat.”

The arena also hosted Finals in 1968 and 1976. “We had to receive our diplomas in the room where the wrestling mats were, and we had to hop over those to shake hands with the dean and get our diplomas,” said Suzanne Bowers (Nurs ’68). Bowers and 50 others finally walked the Lawn during their 50th reunion in 2018.

Final Exercises in 1976 in U-Hall
Final Exercises in 1976 took place in University Hall due to inclement weather. Ed Roseberry

For international student Liem Nguyen (Engr ’75, ’76), other matters were weighing on his mind when he graduated. After the Communists took over Vietnam in April 1975, he wouldn’t hear from his family for a year. “I was emotional that I was able to graduate,” he said of the 1975 ceremony. “Where I graduated was not as important.”

Not until his daughters Jennifer Koo (Col ’11) and Lauren Nguyen (Com ’15) graduated did he fully grasp what he had missed. “I didn’t really know … how important it was until years later,” said Nguyen, who hopes to recreate the procession with classmates at his 45th reunion in 2020.

Three men and some spray paint: The story behind Ralph’s House

The 8-foot-long black letters that spelled “Ralph’s House” appeared overnight atop U-Hall, timed to Ralph Sampson’s spring 1979 recruiting visit, which included a helicopter ride.

The roof of University Hall with “Ralph’s House” painted in 8-foot-long letters
Daily Progress

The planning happened just as quickly. The scheme started on a lark, a day or so before, during a meal at the home of UVA parents Landon and Bessie Birckhead.

There, with the Birckheads, Rusty Cleveland (Col ’76), Bobby Edwards (Com ’77, Grad ’81, Law ’83) and Tom Hicks (Col ’79) hatched the idea. Landon Birckhead bought the spray paint. And Hicks, a basketball player, did a bit of reconnaissance and got a key, though U-Hall was unlocked when they arrived.

The rest—the creep across the catwalk, the opening of the roof hatch and the painting—was improvised. “It was a moonlit night,” said Edwards, now a private investor in Charlottesville. “We actually had very good light.”

There were surprises and missteps. A can of paint rolled down the roof. Security drove by. Hicks lost his meal card. But they got it done. In the aftermath, they reveled in the mostly anonymous acclaim. News of Ralph’s House made it into Sports Illustrated. And, of course, Sampson (Col ’83) signed with UVA, and U-Hall kept the “Ralph’s House” moniker.

Said Hicks, who works in finance in Salt Lake City: “We’ve all done things a little mischievous ... but this one is pretty unique.”

Rallying the crowd: Student musicians fired up fans

Straw hats, blazers and ties were the uniform for the 15 members of the newly formed Pep Band when it played at U-Hall’s first basketball game in 1965. Rick Greene (Col ’66, Med ’70), who led the band, called it a “gentrified” look.

Fast forward to 2006, at U-Hall’s final game, and the musical entertainment looked a bit different. The Cavalier Marching Band’s HOOps Band dressed in orange T-shirts and packed its section of the stands with about 50 musicians.

Members of the Cavalier Marching Band’s HOOps Band playing at U-Hall
Steve Wingfield

The style changed, but the goal was always the same: to fire up UVA’s fans and players. Though U-Hall’s acoustics weren’t great, its small size made that task possible.

Michelle DeBortoli Djuric (Col ’92, Law ’98) was a member of the Pep Band during its larger and rowdier days, best known for irreverent antics on the football field. At football games, it was hard to get the crowd’s attention, she said. “But in U-Hall, it was easier. ... You could get everybody going.”

Rock ’n’ roll: Untold stories of bands we loved

For some, concerts at U-Hall were just as memorable as the big basketball wins.

Hal Whiteman (Col ’75)

In 1975, Whiteman, who worked U-Hall concerts through his Kappa Alpha affiliation, jumped at the chance to drive heartthrob Linda Ronstadt in his Mustang from the Boar’s Head Inn to U-Hall for her sound check. Ronstadt decided not to go, but Whiteman drove her band members to the arena, including Eagles founding member Don Henley. As Whiteman pulled out of the Boar’s Head, his car was T-boned; nobody was hurt.

“Later that night, I’m on the front row of the concert, looking at the stage,” Whiteman said. “I guess somebody told her who was driving. She looked straight at me and, on the mic, she said, ‘We always worry about plane crashes, but I nearly lost my band in a car wreck.’ ”

Dave Williams (Engr ’78)

Williams, a U-Hall usher during his first year and concert booker by his third, remembers behind-the-scenes moments like strumming Stephen Stills’ guitar and watching Jackson Browne’s son ride his trike around U-Hall. But not every U-Hall memory involves a famous musician.

“For the road crews, we got into this habit of grilling hamburgers,” Williams said. “It was actually really appreciated because they weren’t going to McDonald’s. ... We had a big thing in the back loading ramp where we would cook food for the roadies.”

Brad Daniel (Col ’92)

Georgia rock band R.E.M. playing at U-Hall in 1984
Georgia rock band R.E.M. playing at U-Hall in 1984 Hilary Coolidge, via Corks & Curls

Run-DMC, Bob Dylan and UB40 were some of the shows Daniel and buddies from Lefevre helped set up at U-Hall during the 1987-88 academic year. In return for their labor, they got free tickets and T-shirts.

“During the R.E.M. show, people sang every word of ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It’ at the top of their lungs,” Daniel said, “especially the alleged UVA lyric: ‘Watch O’Neil crush rush, uh-oh, this means no beer, Cavalier.’ ”

Home court: Behind the scenes where UVA basketball grew

In the two decades before University Hall opened in 1965, the UVA men’s basketball team netted only a handful of winning seasons. And a women’s team likely wasn’t on anybody’s mind: Women wouldn’t be admitted as College undergrads until 1970.

Once opened, however, the then-state-of-the-art arena hardly translated to on-court success. Not until the 1970-71 season did the team post a winning record. But, soon after, UVA basketball built a national reputation inside. There, stars emerged, records were shattered and a women’s team grew from nothing.

“It was home court,” said Barry Parkhill (Educ ’73), a 1972 and 1973 All-American whose jersey number was retired. “Every place that you play in the ACC—and it’s a great league—all the places are always full, and it’s one of the best parts of playing in the ACC. University Hall was one of them.”

Behind the scenes, for the coaches who led the programs, U-Hall was a home away from home.

Coach Terry Holland’s favorite spot was on the sidelines, guiding teams toward game-changing plays as the fans roared from above. But there were many more moments inside U-Hall that fans never saw: Holland leading practices, working in his office and, sometimes, sending players around the arena concourse for 10 or 15 laps.

“It was definitely a family,” said Holland, the coach from 1974 to 1990 and later UVA’s athletic director. “We literally almost lived in University Hall except when we went home at night to sleep and check in on our kids and families. It was something that we enjoyed so much. We never thought much about it other than the fact this is what we’re paid to do.”

For Coach Debbie Ryan, who led the women’s team from 1978 to 2011, U-Hall represented the hard work it took to grow a program in a building designed for men.

In the early years, starting with the first season in 1973-74, the team shared a locker room with other women’s teams. There they jockeyed for a place to change and met in a dank space that still had urinals. Ryan pushed for better accommodations, which came slowly.

“It was built for men, and it stayed that way until we finally got nice offices up on the main concourse, but that wasn’t until the late ’90s,” said Ryan, who led Final Four teams in 1990, 1991 and 1992.

Coach Debbie Ryan celebrates her 600th career victory at U-Hall in December 2004
Coach Debbie Ryan celebrates her 600th career victory at U-Hall in December 2004. UVA Athletics

The lessons she learned inside U-Hall informed her recommendations as John Paul Jones Arena was built, she said, to ensure that future women’s players and coaches would have everything they required.

And now, with U-Hall gone, the focus also is on the needs of the next generation of UVA athletes. In its place, plans call for more space for football and Olympic sports programs.

For Parkhill, now UVA’s associate athletic director for development, nostalgia from his playing days triggered some emotion when he watched U-Hall come down. “At the end of the day,” he said, “the best part of University Hall was: It was home.”