OU’s Field House game shows what Sooner basketball can be again

OU’s Field House game shows what Sooner basketball can be again

This game — a 107-86 Sooner victory over UAPB — was not about the past. This game was about the future. This game was not designed to show what OU basketball once was; this game was designed to show what OU basketball could be again.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Dec 5, 2023, 11:16am CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Dec 5, 2023, 11:16am CST

NORMAN — The 25 old-timers marched onto the McCasland Field House court at halftime last Thursday night. Twenty-five Sooners who had played basketball for the Big Red when its home gym was the OU Field House.

Each was introduced, and the crowd was respectful in its applause. But there were no roars.

No thunderous response for the great Garfield Heard, who played at OU from 1967-70 and went on to play in 787 NBA games, more than any Sooner this side of Alvan Adams, Mookie Blaylock and Wayman Tisdale.

No raising of the roof for Oklahoma treasure Ted Owens, 94 years young, still sporting a wide smile and a steel-trap mind, complete with the story of how his parents never could understand why he was cheered as a Bruce Drake player three-quarters of a century ago but booed as the Kansas basketball coach when he’d bring powerhouse Jayhawk teams into the Field House.

Not even much sign of recognition for Dean Blevins, who we all now connect as an iconic Oklahoma sportscaster or even a wishbone quarterback in the Barry Switzer days, but who also was a crackerjack freshman point guard on the last Sooner hoops team to call the Field House home.

We’ll cut the crowd some slack. Most of it was made up of fans who were born in the 21st century. They wouldn’t remember Hollis Price; how are they supposed to know about Garfield Heard?

And besides, as much as fossils like me enjoyed a step back in time, an OU/Arkansas-Pine Bluff game contested in the gym of our youth, this game was not about us. This game was about Generation Z. 

This game — a 107-86 Sooner victory over UAPB — was not about the past. This game was about the future. This game was not designed to show what OU basketball once was; this game was designed to show what OU basketball could be again.

The sellout crowd numbered 3,594; 3,124 were students, a grand plan designed by Sooner coach Porter Moser. Those students were rowdy. They booed the Golden Lions. They yelled “Sooners” instead of “brave” at the end of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” They bought $10 beers, a price that would stun the patrons from the Field House’s glory days.

And with a fast-paced team that makes Moser’s first two Sooner squads look like they played in slow-motion, the students went crazy over all the dunks and steals and 3-point shots.

“I didn’t know our student atmosphere would be able to put out like that,” said OU point guard Milos Uzan. “It was crazy … it’s hard to not have high energy when there’s so many into it like that. It was great.”

The lower east-side seats in the Field House were reserved for the former Sooners and their families, dignitaries including regents and OU president Joe Harroz, media and a few superfans. The rest of the old coliseum was limited to students.

A jazzed Moser took the microphone at the game’s end and had a message for the students, many of whom stuck around for all of the rout.

“You’re part of what we’re doing,” Moser said. “We need this at the Lloyd Noble Center. We need all of you. Let’s do this for Providence.”

Ah, yes. Providence. The Friars of the Big East play OU in Lloyd Noble Center at 6 p.m. Tuesday. A game typical of the malaise of college basketball.

Good matchup. The 19th-ranked Sooners, 7-0, against Providence, 7-1, loser only to Kansas State. But the game starts at a horrific time for people trying to get to south Norman, even from north Norman. An early December game still in the shadow of King Football. 

College basketball is like the smoker and the drinker who never exercises. It does all it can to kill itself, then wonders why it’s always sick.

But Moser is trying to salvage the sport, at least on his campus. And he used a 95-year-old building that at one time almost left for dead itself.

Wake up the echoes

Moser was hired at OU in April 2021. That autumn, he attended a Sooner volleyball game in McCasland Field House. The venerable gym was refurbished 20 years ago; it’s now the home of volleyball and wrestling and men’s gymnastics. 

The Field House is not plush. Serviceable, might be the best way to describe it. Serviceable and Old School, despite no modern conveniences, other than the east and west side seats that now sport chairbacks instead of bleachers, plus a video board that would sorcery to fans from the 1950s.

As the crowds at Lloyd Noble Center, for both the men’s and women’s basketball teams, have dwindled over the years, some have suggested moving back to the Field House.

That’s silly, of course. Antiquated stairwells, with no elevators. Concourses that literally are nine feet wide, no wider than the Roman Colosseum concourses that were built 1,856 years before the OU Field House opened its doors. Modern fans, even older fans, even fans who love nostalgia more than tax cuts, wouldn’t last three games at the Field House.

But, oh, the sight lines. What a vantage point, from almost any seat in the Field House, which was built with a capacity of 5,000 but was in reality about 4,100 in the 1970s and is slightly less today.

There are no bad seats. Every view is transcendent from Lloyd Noble Center, where the gradual rise in grade takes fans farther from the court. If you’ve ever sat in the lower section of OSU’s Gallagher-Iba Arena — or in any seat of Gallagher-Iba, before its 1987 and 2000 renovations — you know what I’m talking about.

Fans are right on top of the action. It’s not much different from the transition from analog television to high-def. Everyone at the Field House for OU-UAPB had to be channeling, or just flat-out singing, Johnny Nash. I can see clearly now, the rain is gone…

And the noise. The old Sooners from Field House days talked mostly about the noise when reminiscing about their playing days.

“The fans are right on top of the players,” said Heard, who flew in from Arizona to take part. “Brings back the memories.”

Mike McCurdy, a senior guard on the final basketball team to call the Field House home, remembered the December 1974 night when fifth-ranked South Carolina came to town. The line for tickets stretched out the door and down the sidewalk west on Brooks Street, back when it was a roadway between the Field House and the football stadium. I was in that line, then in the crowd as the Sooners beat the Gamecocks 90-84. McCurdy scored 17 points in that upset; South Carolina stars Alex English and Mike Dunleavy scored 14 each. McCurdy most remembers “how loud it could be” from that night.

And Moser sat at that volleyball game, seeing clearly.

“I looked at Gar Heard’s and Alvan Adams’ (banners), and I’m like, ‘Man, this would be really cool,’” Moser said.

The Sooner volleyball games can get loud. Moser was inspired to immediately ask OU administrators for a game at the Field House. 

That takes awhile, starting with finding an opponent crazy enough to sign up for such an atmosphere. UAPB eventually did.

And Moser had his guinea pig. He wasn’t looking for a nostalgia night, though that was a fringe benefit. Wasn’t looking for an easy victory. Moser was looking for a way to show the students how they could impact the game.

Moser that night of volleyball said he thought, “This would be really cool for a basketball game with the students, just to see how loud it could get.”

Students impressed

Give the students credit. More than 10 percent of OU’s enrollment showed up for the game.

The student attendance at Sooner games hasn’t been terrible in Moser’s two seasons — or the 10 seasons of Lon Kruger, or the decades before that. Don’t misunderstand. The student support hasn’t been great; nothing like Kansas or Iowa State or one of the Big 12’s basketball hotbeds.

But college basketball is a sport that chooses to play most of its marquee non-conference games off campus and starts the conference schedule during the semester break, when students aren’t even around. 

College basketball decision-makers rarely show a sliver of interest in students — or, to be honest, fans in general — but don’t count Moser in that group. He consistently has courted the students with campus visits and treats at games.

In the waning moments of the UAPB game, students chanted Moser’s name.

“I just love college students in terms of the excitement, the energy they bring to a college team,” Moser said. “They were great.

“It was funny behind the bench. I felt like I had another assistant coach, telling me to sub. Put in Yaya (Keita). Different things. But it was fun. I think they had a blast. Afterwards, just looked up everywhere. The students made an impact. I’m pleading with them, ‘Man, let’s go.’ Providence, Tuesday. I hope they can come out.”

The students certainly were into the game.

“I like it. Unique building,” said OU senior Jett Daimler of Houston. “High energy.”

Said student Jacob Rorer of Dallas, “It’s really loud in here.”

Of course, it’s easy to get into a game at the Field House. The novelty. The seats, right on top the of the action. Can that enthusiasm be transferred to Lloyd Noble Center, which is becoming a relic itself, 48 years old, but without much charm?

“I think this will build the hype for Lloyd Noble,” said student Brennan Houston of Edmond.

That’s Moser’s wish.

Moser is more optimistic than most about Lloyd Noble. OU is angling for a new arena, probably city-built on the north side of town, five miles from campus (and the vast majority of students). But until then, Lloyd Noble is what Moser must work with.

And we all know that Lloyd Noble has rocked in the past. Consistent attendance long has been a problem, even in glorious times, but Lloyd Noble often rocked when Billy Tubbs’ and Kelvin Sampson’s and Kruger’s great teams were riding high. In those days, no one spent much time complaining about Lloyd Noble’s unfortunate configuration.

The OU Field House, built in 1928, was home to Sooner basketball until 1975. It now is home to Sooner wrestling, volleyball and men’s gymnastics, and OU basketball coach Porter Moser used a hoops game last week at the now-McCasland Field House to ignite student interest in the Sooners. (Oklahoma Publishing Company archives)

Field House memories

The Field House opened in 1928, before the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression and Pearl Harbor. Eighteen years before the arrival of Bud Wilkinson to OU.

Elvis Presley played the OU Field House. So did Frank Sinatra and Jimi Hendrix.

OU’s great basketball teams of 1939 and 1947, both of which made the national semifinals, were Field House tenants. So were the great wrestling teams of Paul Keen and Port Robertson and Tommy Evans and Stan Abel. No sport made the Field House rock like wrestling in the glory days.

After basketball and wrestling moved to Lloyd Noble in 1975, the Field House sat mostly neglected for a couple of decades, but a $6 million renovation project was completed in 2005, adding air-conditioning, new seats, new wiring, new lighting and new video/sound systems.

The building’s windows, which always gave it a grandeur look, were replaced. Locker rooms and offices were enhanced. The horseshoe shape of the arena was not changed, but a new wrestling facility beyond the north-end wall replaced the abandoned swimming pool.

And Thursday night, back to the Field House came old Sooner basketball player, joining the students, many of whom had never darkened the arena’s door.

The wave of nostalgia Thursday night was thick. From former players. Media. Boosters or administrators. Anyone old enough to remember Saturday afternoon or Monday night games in the Field House against Kansas State or Missouri, Nebraska or OSU.

But no one in 1975 was lamenting the move to Lloyd Noble, which affectionately was known as the House that Alvan Built, in deference to the great Adams, whose three years resurrected interest in OU basketball, even though the Sooners still didn’t break an NCAA Tournament void that would last 30 years.

Paul Cloar, who played at OU in the Heard days, looked  at the packed stands Thursday night and said, “There wasn’t this many people unless we played OSU or Kansas.”

Jack Herron, who grew up in Norman but played at OSU under Henry Iba, came back in the 1970s and was part of the OU basketball staff. He recalls Bedlam games so packed that fans sat around the out-of-bounds line.

Lloyd Noble Center offered more amenities, easy parking, more seats, more comfortable surroundings and a modern-for-the-times scoreboard. The Field House couldn’t compete with Lloyd Noble and nobody wanted it to.

But the men who played for Drake and Doyle Parrack and Bob “Go-Go Stevens” and John MacLeod and Joe Ramsey remain partial to their basketball home.

“For a farm boy from southwestern Oklahoma (Hollis), it was a dream come true,” said Owens. “I loved this place. This is a special place.”

Owens should know special. He spent 20 years as head coach at Kansas, which then, as now, plays in Allen Fieldhouse.

No OU coach in half a century has known a homecourt advantage enjoyed by the Jayhawks. But there was a time, let the old Sooners tell you.

Roger Shaw, 80, lives on Berry Road, just west of campus, and rarely goes out anymore. But he said he remembered the noise of the old Field House days and couldn’t miss this game.

“I love it,” Shaw said. “Just love it. That’s why I came. You’re much closer to the people, felt like you were close-knitted.”

Mike McCurdy remembered the Field House’s final basketball game before the Sooners moved to Lloyd Noble. On March 5, 1975, OU beat Iowa State 84-79 — no shot clock, no 3-point line, tell me again why we’re watching 64-59 games half a century late  — and after the game, McCurdy’s nephew climbed on the shoulders of Adams and cut down each net. Adams went home with one, McCurdy went home with the other.

That kind of excitement was back Thursday night, and Moser went home with the hope that those students can transfer that energy to Lloyd Noble Center.

“College basketball’s one of the sports the students can impact the most,” Moser said. “Because they’re right on top of you. Just been working a couple of years, how to get the students to envision having a ton of fun. I thought they had a ton of fun.

“It was electric in there. It was really loud. I can’t remember a home game when I was having to do hand signals at home. So just really appreciate the students coming out like that. It was everything I envisioned.

And we gotta stack it now. That was my message to them. Let’s do this over at the LNC now.”

McCasland Field House has been serving OU for 95 years. The refurbishments of 20 years ago restored the grand exterior, and the interior is functional and historic, quaint and anything but quiet.

“I’m glad they kept it,” said Garfield Heard, a motion that most definitely is seconded by Porter Moser, about a building still serving the campus, anyway it can, including showing students how loud they can be.

Share with your crowd
Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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