Jacksonville University embarked upon the latest and most extensive renovation to Historic Swisher Gymnasium this past May, and the first phase of the facelift is nearing completion. This move has cemented the school’s focus on keeping all sports on campus, but also shows that discussions of a new convocation center planned for the land that the old boys home sat on just south of campus have been shelved for now.
This is not to say that this is a sign of settling by JU. Anyone who has been to a game in Swisher in the last five years, knows that it is an intimate venue that is missing many of the aspects of a modern arena. A small, private school is rarely ever able to fill the likes of a 10,000 seat arena consistently, and the experiment playing down at the Veterans Memorial Arena was a flop. A small school without a strong local alumni base has to lean on student attendance and go from there. Moving all home games for mens and women’s basketball games back to Swisher last year was the first step.
The title “Historic” Swisher Gymnasium is a little misleading. When people think of JU basketball, the first thoughts are always of Artis Gilmore and the 1970 NCAA Runner Up squad. Ironically, that team rarely played in the so-called “historic” building on campus, and actually packed out the old Veterans Memorial Coliseum downtown during those glory years. The building itself is 63 years old, but certainly will not be confused with The Palestra or Cameron Indoor anytime soon.
That does not mean that dressing it up does not make it a good venue. The seats are close to the floor, and anyone who attended the game against crosstown rival North Florida last season knows how loud the building gets when full, which only takes 1,500 people or so to do. While there is a new floor, paint job and energy efficient windows improving the overall aesthetic, what fans will really notice is the 40-foot video scorer’s table and two 18-foot video boards at either end of the gym scheduled to be installed by October.
One of the underrated aspects of the improvements is that the banners showcasing the historical success of the volleyball, mens and women’s basketball programs will actually be hanging from the rafters again, the way they were meant to be. One of the underlying themes of the mens program is “hang banners” and moving them off the wall is the first step to that process.
You can create a new identity and tradition without ignoring, or in this case demolishing, the past. I vote for dropping the “historic” from the title of the gym, because that is no longer the focus of the athletic department or the teams that play there, and the building is finally reflecting the forward thinking mantra that the school adopted when new president (and former Dolphin athlete himself) Tim Cost took over back in 2013. The recent success of women’s basketball and volleyball is already elevating the reputation surrounding the tenants of the gym.
Men’s basketball has aspirations to change the thought process next. The goal is not for the 1970s team to be forgotten, but for it to go hand-in-hand with the current success that appears to be around the corner. In order to do that, you must look forward. I look forward to watching great basketball and volleyball inside the not-so-historic, new and improved Swisher Gymnasium this year.