John Paul Jones Arena: 'Jefferson on Steroids'

College basketball
College basketball "has become an arms race, and right now we have the best tools," U-Va. men's coach Dave Leitao said of John Paul Jones Arena. The Cavaliers host Arizona on Sunday. (By Jim Daves -- University Of Virginia)
By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 10, 2006

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- By building the largest arena in the state, the University of Virginia is making a $191 million bet it can restore its men's basketball program to national prominence after years of disappointment.

John Paul Jones Arena, a 15,219-seat facility that would make even an NBA team proud, will be unveiled formally Sunday night when the Cavaliers play Arizona in the building's first regular season men's basketball game. The building, which features lavish amenities such as a lounge exclusively for high-end donors and state-of-the-art training facilities such as underwater treadmills, is symbolic of the ambitions of a program that was among the nation's elite in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

While some have questioned whether the school needs a building with a capacity twice as large as its average basketball attendance in recent years, administrators say the size increases its utility for the 250,000 people in greater Charlottesville while at the same time providing a recruiting tool for rebuilding the program.

The building began hosting shows this past summer, and so far they have included "Disney on Ice," Eric Clapton, Dave Matthews, Kenny Chesney and Cirque du Soleil, and building manager Larry Wilson said he is on target to cover the arena's $3 million annual operating cost. Revenue generated from the 34 men's and women's basketball games goes straight to the athletic department.

"What the size does is allow us to go after large-scale shows like the Dave Matthews Band," Wilson said. "It also allows the basketball team to grow into the building as the program grows."

The Cavaliers men's team, which has been invited to the NCAA tournament twice since 1995 and has hovered around .500 since 2000, has room for growth.

Frustrated with the direction of the program and determined to put it on an upward arc in time for the new arena, Athletic Director Craig Littlepage fired coach Pete Gillen two years ago and replaced him with Dave Leitao. The plan is to turn around the basketball program, boosting attendance and driving the team into the NCAA tournament, which the school hopes will increase alumni donations and applications from high school seniors who want to attend a "hot" school.

"We built a building that we think will fit our standards for years to come," said Jon Oliver, executive associate athletics director, who pushed the building's designers to include amenities that would help sell the basketball program.

Some faculty members are skeptical of that argument and point out that the Cavaliers drew 7,557 fans per game this decade at University Hall, the 41-year-old building the new arena is replacing. With a capacity of 8,394, U-Hall, as the previous facility was known, was the second-smallest arena in the ACC. Jones Arena is the fourth largest, behind North Carolina (21,800), North Carolina State (19,722) and Maryland (17,950).

"It's a monster of a building. . . . Jefferson on steroids," said Daniel Bluestone, an associate professor of architectural history. "It's safe to say that many faculty are concerned about this. What does it cost in current capital to endow a chaired professorship? Two or three million? Then ask yourself, 'What would the University of Virginia look like with an additional 50 fully chaired professorships?' "

The new arena is named for the father of Paul Tudor Jones II, a University of Virginia graduate and billionaire investor who has pledged almost $45 million toward its construction.

The building's total cost of $191 million includes about $130 million to build the center, nearly $14.5 million to outfit the dining, audio-visual and other areas, about $5 million for fundraising costs and $42 million to pay interest on bonds to finance the building over 20 years, according to Virginia executive vice president and chief operating officer Leonard W. Sandridge. Private donations, suite leases and sponsorships will cover all but $9.6 million, which comes from student fees to be paid over the life of the bonds, he said.

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