Some people might find the Ohio Expo Center Coliseum a bit rickety, musty and dated, but those who played, coached and watched high-school basketball at the venerable Ohio State Fairgrounds building through the years tend to regard The Barn — as it is affectionately known — like a favorite grandparent.
So when news leaked recently that the Coliseum no longer will play host to the Central District boys basketball tournament — a tradition dating back nearly a century — some reacted as if a close friend had passed on.
“It’s a sad, sad day for anybody who loves high-school basketball,” said Reynoldsburg coach Scott Davis, who played seven games in the Coliseum from 1989-91, leading then-Pickerington to the Division I regional title game as a senior.
“To play in The Barn was really special. You looked forward to that so-called second season down there. Later on, when they only played the district semifinals and finals there, it served more as a yardstick. You knew if you made it to the Coliseum, you had a pretty good year.”
The tournament is being strong-armed by none other than noted bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger. Columbus officials were granted use of the entire Ohio State Fairgrounds for the Arnold Sports Festival next March 6-10. The largest multisport event in the U.S., the Arnold Festival draws 18,000 athletes and more than 175,000 fans to the city.
Central District basketball tournament coordinator Max Ness said the four Division I district finals will be held at Ohio Dominican University. Ness is working with several area high schools to host the Division II, III and IV finals.
“High-school basketball goes back generations in that building, and this is a real shocker to a lot of people,” Ness said. “The kids loved playing there in that big arena with all the tradition, but we’ll survive. Let’s face it; the Arnold Classic is an international, world-renowned event and Columbus needs it.”
Other districts use college facilities at places such as Ohio University, Xavier, Bowling Green, Toledo, Wright State and Dayton for tournament games. Ness said he spoke with Ohio State officials about renting St. John Arena, but they are unable to guarantee advance dates because of the possibility that facility might be needed for any of several OSU tournament events.
Ness said the Coliseum will be available next March for the Division I regional, which will include four Central District champions. Beyond 2015, however, nothing is etched in stone.
The Coliseum has been the hub of high-school basketball since it was built in 1918. Ohio State played its men’s games there from 1920-56. The facility, which seats roughly 5,000, plays host to more than 125 events each year.
For many years, every boys basketball district tournament game was played in the Coliseum. Dwindling crowds and increasing rental fees prompted the district to move early round games to high schools. Last March, only district championship games were played there.
Newark coach Jeff Quackenbush said many of his best memories as a player and a coach occurred at the Coliseum.
“A great tradition we have is that when they open the doors up, our fans run around the whole arena to get the best seats,” he said. “The atmosphere there is special in its own way, but I suppose getting sellout crowds in a smaller college venue might make for a nice atmosphere, too."
Although he conceded that his opinion might not be popular among traditionalists, Westerville South coach Ed Calo thinks Central District officials can find a better home for high-school basketball.
“The Fairgrounds reeks with tradition and it’s impressive to think about all the great players and teams that have come through there over the years,” Calo said. “For a lot of people around here, it’s all we know.
“But let me tell you, we’ve gone around and scouted at Xavier, Cincinnati, BG and other places, and those facilities are far superior and the experience is so much better compared to the Fairgrounds. The seats are closer to the floor and you can really feel the excitement. The kids and fans in this area deserve a venue like that.”