Jolly Good Time
Jolly Good Time
As he strolled slowly across the hardwood floor of G. Rollie White Coliseum, the venerable old building that served as his secondary residence for some 32 years, Shelby Metcalf paused frequently for reflection.
It was the spring of 2000, 20 years after Metcalf had guided his best Texas A&M men’s basketball team to the 1980 Sweet 16 and seven years prior to losing the battle for his life to cancer. Metcalf, 69 at the time, moved slowly and purposely, but his mind was as quick as some of the great guards he coached at A&M from 1963-90.
Each step through the musty, narrow and polished-beige, cinderblock-lined hallways—concourses that screamed “1950s style” as much as poodle skirts, saddle shoes and James Dean movies—seemed to elicit yet another story in Metcalf’s witty and whimsical memory banks. Metcalf won 438 games at A&M, and he had at least that many stories on the tip of his tongue.
“Say what you want about G. Rollie, and a lot of people said negative stuff about it, but I love this place,” said Metcalf, the winningest basketball coach in Southwest Conference history. “I have great memories here. We won some big games right here in front of some big crowds and put together some pretty darn good teams.
“You know what they say about beauty being in the eye of the beholder, right? Well, this old place was never that beautiful to the eye—not even my own eye—but she was kind of like an ugly singer with a golden voice. At her best, she sounded so amazingly good. This place was so loud and so wonderful for us. I will always have a special place in my heart for G. Rollie.”
The late Metcalf certainly was not alone in those sentiments. The A&M players, coaches and administrators who performed and worked during those special nights when the “Holler House on the Brazos” was rocking at its finest and loudest still say it was one of the best home-court advantages in college basketball, especially during the mid-1970s into the early ’80s.
Tucked tightly against the northeast corner of Kyle Field and located in the heart of the sprawling Texas A&M campus at the corner of Houston Street and Joe Routt Boulevard, “Jolly Rollie” was often a hub of electricity, energy and earsplitting volume that had A&M hopping with excitement long before Billy Gillispie and Gary Blair brought basketball excitement back to Aggieland.
“I’m always promoting Texas A&M everywhere I go,” said New York native David Britton, who arrived as a junior college transfer at A&M prior to the 1978-79 season and was one of the heroes of the 1980 squad that beat North Carolina to reach the Sweet 16. “With the way the school and the basketball facilities are now, you know I am talking Texas A&M up, and I am bragging about what we have in place. But here’s the honest truth: I loved our basketball facilities many years ago.
“We had G. Rollie White Coliseum, where our fans made more noise than any place in the country. They said capacity was like 7,500, but you would have thought we were playing in front of 25,000 by how loud the place was, and we were playing big-time basketball. I’m not lying. Our fans were the loudest in college basketball, and our opponents hated playing in there. It was a great home court for us. Absolutely terrific.”
The arena that once gave A&M basketball and volleyball teams such a tremendous lift will soon be leveled. G. Rollie White, which was built in the early 1950s at a cost of approximately $1 million and first opened as the home of Aggies men’s basketball in 1954-55, has a date with a wrecking ball toward the end of this summer.
As part of the initial phases of the $450 million redevelopment of Kyle Field, G. Rollie White must first come down. Offices for the Texas A&M Lettermen’s Association, along with those within the Department of Health and Kinesiology, are currently being packed up and relocated.
There hasn’t been an NCAA sporting event inside the iconic campus landmark since Nov. 26, 2008, when the Texas A&M women’s volleyball team defeated Texas Tech in three sets. It was an outstanding venue for volleyball because of its intimate size and the proximity of the fans to the court. But the remodeling of the MSC forced the volleyball team to move to Reed Arena, as the floor of G. Rollie White temporarily served as a bookstore.
“It has a beautiful floor, it was the perfect size for our sport, and I really loved so many aspects of that being our home facility,” said Laurie Corbelli, the Aggies’ head volleyball coach since 1993. “It was loud, and it was intimidating in that the fans who were there were right on top of the action. Inside that building, 3,000 people felt like quite a bit, especially in our sport. I know it must come down in the
For basketball, on the other hand, it had become an outdated eyesore, a recruiting liability and a functional/maintenance nightmare long before the A&M men concluded the 1997-98 regular season with an 80-75 win on Feb. 28, 1998 over Baylor, the lone Big 12 win in Tony Barone’s final season as head coach of the Aggies.
G. Rollie White was a handicap to A&M basketball when Barone was first hired prior to the 1991-92 season. After Barone was fired, he vented publicly about the fact that he never had an opportunity to recruit to the new facility, which had been promised to him when he was hired.
“That’s nothing,” laughed former A&M basketball player and coach John Thornton, who also served as the Sr. Associate A.D./Student-Athlete Development and the interim Athletic Director for A&M. “Shelby recruited me to play in a new place (in the early 1970s), saying a new place was right around the corner. It was right around the corner for more than 20 years. It was so cavernous with no one in there, and the locker rooms were awful. You could not sell the arena when it was not game day. But to those who played there, it had an endearing quality to it. Our crowds were phenomenal.
“It was an incredible place to play, because it had an aura to it,” Thornton continued. “Those places with such personality have gone by the wayside with the new arenas that all kind of look the same. But back in the day, when G. Rollie White was mentioned, everybody knew it was the Holler House on the Brazos. As a player and a coach, G. Rollie was a place that you couldn’t recruit to when it was empty and you couldn’t beat us when it was full. That’s the truth. I know that it needs to go, but I will miss it when it’s gone.”
A TRIP BACK IN TIME
Ironically, the home of Aggie basketball for 44 years (1955-98) was named in honor of a man who was known throughout West Texas as “The Steer King.” According to the April 5, 1964 edition of the San Angelo Standard-Times, G. Rollie White was born on Aug. 22, 1875 near Lockhart; made his first trail drive to Oklahoma with 400 head of cattle in 1887; sold his first herd of steers when he was 16; and entered Texas A&M College in the early 1890s, graduating with an engineering degree in 1895.
White, a civic leader, horse breeder and philanthropist, was first appointed to the Texas A&M Board of Directors in 1926. He became president of the board in 1944 and served until January 1955.
It’s not clear whether White, who died on Feb. 2, 1965, made any financial contribution to the construction of the new multipurpose arena on the A&M campus. But for all the time and effort White had donated to Texas A&M, university officials named the then-largest building on campus in his honor. Apparently, much of the capital for the construction of the facility came from state funding.
As such, it was required to be more than merely an athletic arena. It featured
classrooms and office space around the window-lined, first and second floors of the building; it served as the graduation site for A&M students; it was a special events center that attracted concerts such as Elvis Presley on Oct. 3, 1955; and it was rumored to be suitable for holding rodeos.
“I was told many times that it could also be used as a rodeo arena,” Metcalf said in the spring of 2000. “I can see where the ramps (at the north end of the building) could make great chutes for bulls and horses to come out, but then they put those big damn support beams at the bottom of the ramp. I don’t think they really ever wanted it to be a rodeo arena. Either that, or the architects didn’t like bulls very much.”
The facility had some other structural oddities, such as the windows around the top of the arena. While the windows delivered some natural light, they also caused problems.
“The windows had blinds, but they were always screwed up,” said Thornton, the 1973-74 SWC Newcomer of the Year. “During afternoon practices, you would be blinded by the sun shining on the court. I am not sure who thought of the idea to put windows up top, but it was not the best idea.
“It was hard getting in and out of there for the fans. When the crowd was big, the time to get in there was ridiculous. People would be lined out the door just trying to get in because the entrance was so tiny. There were only two places to buy a drink. Parking was terrible. From a practicality standpoint, it was not good. But the location in the middle of campus made it the heartbeat of campus. Students registered there, they had classes there, they pulled football tickets there and they graduated there. It was part of campus life. Many students felt connected to it, because from 1954-98 people graduated there.”
By the late 1950s, the basketball team and fans were feeling the love, as well. A&M went 10-1 at home under Bob Rogers in 1959-60 and lost only one other home game over the next four years (38-1). During that stretch, the Aggies won 30 consecutive games at G. Rollie White.
The one home loss in 1962 came against Texas, but it was at that game when a school-record 8,500 fans filled the coliseum, which was an attendance record that stood for 13 years. The all-time attendance record was set on Feb. 15, 1975 when Arkansas came to town. After allowing as many fans as possible to enter the building, school officials sent others to Rudder Auditorium, where another 1,700 watched the game on closed-circuit television.
The total paid attendance that night was 10,308, and the Aggies, who went on to win the SWC title, rewarded the fans with a thrilling 62-60 win over the Razorbacks.
“We beat Arkansas that night on Mike Floyd’s last shot,” said Thornton, one of the captains of that first 20-win team in school history. “There were fans in the aisles, and that crowd was not going to let the Aggies lose. Coming down that ramp with the Aggie War Hymn going, I felt like I was 10 feet tall. I just remember being in the locker room getting dressed, and you could hear and feel the noise outside. It was like a yell practice.
“When you were in the locker room prior to a big game, you could literally hear and feel the excitement building in the coliseum. And living in Cain Hall, you could see the crowds forming in the afternoon, and we walked through those crowds. If you were not ready to play, you were dead. That old tin wall (on the south end) reverberated noise. You had the pitch-black of the introductions. There were no safety lights, so when they turned off the lights for the introductions and shined that one spotlight on you, it was unbelievable. I had goose bumps on goose bumps.
“You could not even hear the introductions because it was so loud. They would just push you on the court because you could not hear your name. It was crazy.”
It stayed crazy into the early 1980s, as “The Wall”—Rudy Woods, Vernon Smith and Rynn Wright—helped to earn the Aggies national acclaim by winning a combined 50 games over two seasons (1978-79 and 1979-80).
The Dec. 3, 1979 edition of Sports Illustrated picked the Aggies as the No. 8 team in the nation and stated:
“The Aggies will be strong on both boards and may make up for any deficiencies in outside shooting, depth and speed with tip-ins, rebounds and high-percentage shots. They will be formidable in College Station, where their 7,500-seat gym is not so much an athletic facility as an echo chamber. Officially known as G. Rollie White Coliseum, it is the ‘Holler House of the Brazos’ to A&M fans and opponents alike.”
Unfortunately, things began to go downhill for the A&M basketball program in the late 1980s and early ’90s. G. Rollie White, which was once a factor in so many wins for the Aggies, became an increasing part of the problem in recruiting. The University of Texas built the $34 million Frank Erwin Center in 1977 to replace Gregory Gymnasium, giving the Longhorns a huge recruiting advantage over the Aggies.
Baylor opened the Ferrell Center in ’88 to replace the archaic Heart o’ Texas Coliseum; Houston renovated Hofheinz Pavilion significantly in ’91 and ’92; and Arkansas opened the Bud Walton Arena in ’93, and recruited to it for years before that. Very quickly, G. Rollie White became one of the worst basketball venues in the SWC, and it was definitely the worst in the early days of the Big 12.
“When we’d bring a recruit in to tour the campus, G. Rollie White was the last thing the coaches would show him,” said Colin Killian, who first arrived as a basketball sports information director at A&M in 1987. “It was the ugly sister you tried to hide. It was pretty much falling apart when I got there. My office was an old janitor’s closet that had a rusted out old sink in the corner, which dripped constantly. We just put a bucket underneath it. And my office ceiling was slanted because the other side of my ceiling was the stairways of the coliseum.
“I nearly knocked myself out a couple of times just getting up too quickly and hitting my head against a five-foot slab of concrete. I have so many memories of that place, but the first game that comes to mind was when a pipe broke in the upper mezzanine, and water was gushing during the game. We had to create a damn of sorts and channel the water away from the court and down the rubber ramps. There was always something with G. Rollie White.”
Most high-profile recruits would not even consider A&M in the early and mid-1990s because of the deteriorating status of G. Rollie White. The exception to the rule was McDonald’s High School All-American, Jerald Brown, the Big 12 Freshman of the Year in 1996-97. Brown, who now lives in Houston, admits that part of the reason he chose A&M was that he would play his final two seasons in the new Reed Arena. But looking back at it now, Brown says that he was fonder of G. Rollie White than Reed.
“Reed Arena was brand new, there were many more seats, and the locker rooms were so much better,” Brown said. “But we weren’t drawing the big crowds at that time, so the bigger venue was a waste. We felt like we were visitors at our own gym at Reed Arena. G. Rollie was perfect for us at that time, because it had a way of making small crowds seem bigger. I loved the cages, the entrance, the intimacy of the place and the way the crowd was on top of the players. You could feel the pressure and excitement…even with a few thousand people in it. A few thousand at Reed felt like going to the library.
“I will be sad when G. Rollie is torn down. There is so much history there. It is such an icon for the people who played in it. At A&M, we are a school of tradition, and we are losing some of our tradition when G. Rollie goes away. I probably will cry a little when it goes down. I mean that. Although we didn’t win when I played there, I felt part of the legacy of winning. I felt a part of the building and the stories. I think I might grab a brick or something when it goes down.”
Indeed, practically everyone who played or worked in the building wants some sort of souvenir before it is nothing more than an empty space.
“I will feel a sense of nostalgia when it comes down,” Corbelli said. “I have some meaningful memories of the place. There is a large part of me that is relatively sad that we couldn’t play there anymore. If we ever get to reconstruct a volleyball-only facility, I would like to reconstruct the dimensions of G. Rollie.
“It will be so different when that space is part of the football stadium. That was part of our past, and it was a perfect setting for volleyball. I think the emptiness of that area will match the emptiness that I feel.”