Daniel Chi / Asst. photo editor
For Ohio State women’s volleyball home games, the Ohio State Marching Band travels down one of four ramps in St. John Arena that lead from the main concourse down to the event level. It’s 20 paces, give or take, down the cement-gray walkway onto the arena’s hardwood playing surface, and it’s one of the program’s cherished traditions – the indoor version of the famed Ohio Stadium ramp entrance.
“When the band comes down the ramp into St. John and the music fills the arena, that’s a real special and unique part of our home-court advantage,” said OSU women’s volleyball coach Geoff Carlston. “That’s something that’s been really special for our players.”
The team’s indoor ramp tradition is one of many pieces of nostalgia contained under St. John Arena’s corrugated metal roof, but the days of such traditions will be numbered as the 56-year-old arena will be replaced in the foreseeable future.
A $10 million donation to OSU athletics from Covelli Enterprises owner and CEO Sam Covelli will aid in the eventual construction of a 4,000-seat, multi-sport arena named for the donor. Covelli did not respond to the Lantern’s request for comment. Covelli Arena will house OSU’s wrestling, fencing, gymnastics and men’s and women’s volleyball competitions, according to a Nov. 21 athletics release.
“It is truly an honor for (wife) Caryn and me to make this gift to the university,” Covelli said in the release. “With a son who recently graduated from Ohio State and businesses in Columbus, we realize how special Ohio State is both academically under the leadership of Dr. (E. Gordon) Gee and athletically under the direction of Gene Smith.”
For now, St. John Arena remains standing, its halls bedecked with black and white images of athletes from across OSU’s many sports. Scores of trophies sit in glass cases that line the concourse; championship ball caps and basketball nets adorn some of OSU’s aging pieces of athletics hardware.
In its heyday, St. John was the stuffy home to Buckeyes’ men’s and women’s basketball in addition to the other sports. Built for about $4 million and with 13,276 seats, St. John’s time as home to the basketball programs lasted from 1956 until the 1998-99 seasons when both teams began playing at the then-new Schottenstein Center.
St. John was home to arguably the greatest era of OSU men’s basketball – the 1960 national championship team, as well as the 1961 and 1962 national runner-up teams, called the arena home. From 1960-1964, coach Fred Taylor led the team to five consecutive Big Ten Conference titles, a streak that remains unmatched to this day.
The OSU men last played a game at St. John in 2010-11, while the women’s team won two NCAA Tournament games at the venue during the same year.
Like the women’s volleyball team, OSU men’s volleyball still calls St. John its home. On Jan. 14, the men’s team, guided by its coach of 28 years, Pete Hanson, added to St. John lore with a banner hung along the rails of the stadium’s upper deck to celebrate its 2011 NCAA National Championship. Hanson said St. John holds many other special memories for he and his current and former players.
“It’s kind of hard to describe, I guess,” Hanson said of the stadium he’s coached in for nearly three decades. “It’s one of those things – it’s kind of like putting on a good pair of shoes or a nice pair of gloves, it just fits right. It just feels good when you’re in that arena.”
St. John was palatial in its day but will soon clear out for the modern amenities of 21st century stadium. Covelli Arena will feature administrative offices, a ticket office, concession area, catering space and meeting facilities for most of the athletic department’s 13,000 annual campers, according to an OSU release.
There’s still something about the musk of St. John and the hardback, wooden seats that grabs people when they walk inside, Carlston said.
“There’s so much nostalgia built in with that building, and you feel it. You feel it when you’re in there,” Carlston said. “There’s an aura to it. It feels like a lot has happened in there, and the reality is it has.”
For Carlston and Hanson, the concept of Covelli Arena is worth a mention when they’re out on the recruiting trail, but little more considering the lack of a date for a groundbreaking ceremony and a construction timeline.
“We’re not afraid to tell our current recruits that, ‘Hey, this is a plan the athletic department has,’ … We can’t be very specific about it because … (OSU doesn’t) even know when they’re going to put the first shovel in the ground,” Hanson said. “We’re just telling those kids that, ‘Hey, there’s a chance that maybe by the fourth of fifth year of your career here, if you were to come either in 2013 or 2014, there’s a pretty good chance you might be playing in a brand new facility.'”
Carlston said he wants to see brick and mortar results on a construction site before he gets more excited about Covelli Arena.
In the meantime, St. John will suit him just fine.
“There’s hominess to it. The history oozes from everywhere in there,” he said. “Kids come in and they love (St. John Arena). St John is very impressive, so there’s an ‘oh’ and ‘ah’ factor.”