Vol. 9 No. 1 THE MAGAZINE OF THE UNIVERSITY OF UTAH Summer 1999
FLEXING AT THE FIELD HOUSE
Discovery of a dusty bust leads an erstwhile exerciser to ask: who was Einar Nielsen?
by J.D. Davis
For a workout, a tennis match, or a game of squash, the Einar Nielsen Field House has a charm that more posh spas could never furnish. There's nothing glamorous about pumping iron in the old, bi-level gym, but that doesn't stop graduates and emeritus faculty from paying it homage. Between weight sets, students can check out what's happening on campus or find second-hand sports gear on a bulletin board replete with the latest recreational tips. What these fitness buffs and duffers might not realize is that the building has served the school in many ways. Some were more captivating than others, but each adds to the landmark's unusual history.
Many buildings on campus are named after former University of Utah presidents and generous benefactors. The Field House was named in honor of Einar Nielsen, who served as the men's athletic trainer for more than
40 years. (Nielsen also served as the masseur at Deseret Gym). Direct from Norway, he was known as a practical joker. According to "Quig" Nielson's book, They Tell It Like It Was, Nielsen once made a group of freshman athletes on a bus ride to Idaho stick their feet in dyed red water "to not take germs across the state border." Legend has it that Nielsen also possessed a special method of wrapping ankles that prevented injuries.
In 1954, when Nielsen was retired and suffering ailing health, the State's Board of Regents entertained a motion that the athletic facility be named The Einar Nielsen Field House. The minutes of the meeting noted that "Einar Nielsen had become a tradition of good for the University of Utah."
A bust was even carved in his honor. Unfortunately, it was recently found in an old athletic storage area where it had been lost for the last 25 years.
Built with WPA funds in 1939, the primary function of the Field House was "to provide adequate facilities for the physical activity and physical education of its students" (Utah Alumnus, 1939). The structure's most notable feature was one of the country's largest copper roofs. But the big news on campus, and the main purpose of the building, was that it would also serve as the new home of the men's basketball team. Physical education classes would be held there, and football and track teams would use the facility for winter practice.
The Field House officially opened January 9, 1940, with a doubleheader basketball game pitting Utah State against St. Mary's and Utah against California (Utah 41-Cal 39). With a capacity of 6,500, administrators anticipated that all fans would be able to get a seat for Utah's games. As the basketball team enjoyed continued success, seats became a premium, and standing in line to get tickets became the norm.
While the nation was rationing gas and food during World War II, the Field House also did its share for the troops. In 1942 the bleachers were removed, and the entire building became the world's largest bedroom for 400 ROTC students. These trainees" academic programs were accelerated before they were sent to officers" training. Basketball took a hiatus, returning for the 1946-47 season.
It didn't take long for the basketball team to get used to playing in the Field House again. Over the next 23 years, Utah had only three losing seasons. Most longtime Utah basketball fans will tell you that the Utah versus Ohio State clash was the most memorable. "They had Jerry Lucas, John Havliceck, and Bobby Knight, and Utah countered with the great Jerry Chambers," remembers former Utah Sports Information Director Parry Sorensen BA'36. He also notes that although the Field House seated only 6,500, there were 15,000 people who claimed to have been at that game. Only one year later, the Field House had grown too small for the fans following the team. Basketball's success and popularity created problems for the community and students. The Field House was sold out for most games. Tickets were in such demand that some fans were leaving their claims to season tickets in their wills. In some cases, the tickets even became a major factor in divorce settlements, says Bud Jack BS'39, who at that time served as Utah's Athletic Director.
Soon the most popular chant at basketball games was, "We want a new Field House." Not only had the team outgrown its confines, getting a seat at commencement ceremonies was difficult. Guests had to arrive early to get into one of the many school dances.
In 1969 the team moved to its current home, the Jon M. Huntsman Center (at that time, the Special Events Center). In the early "70s, the Field House was used by the Army ROTC and for indoor practice by athletic teams.
The move to give all students, faculty, and staff access to the Field House came in 1978 when it was remodeled into an "on-campus country club," according to the Deseret News. The basketball floor gave way to five tennis courts, a 200-meter indoor track, eight handball courts, exercise equipment, two squash courts, and men's and women's locker rooms. The renovation cost $2 million.
The irony of that newspaper's observation is not lost on those who have recently compared the Field House's amenities to more stylish exercise facilities. The current building looks much like it did 30 years ago. The inside has not seen a major change in more than 20 years, although the track and tennis courts were resurfaced in 1990. There are also a fair number of exercise bikes and rowing machines that look their years. By virtue of their University affiliations, more than 230,000 students, faculty, staff, and alumni have access to the many new treadmills, stairclimbers, and cross trainers. Susan Black, Field House coordinator, is pleased with recent improvements. "We've added cross-training machines and treadmills. That's what the users of the facility were telling us they wanted," says Black.
Peak hours at the Field House are early morning, noon, and evening. Waits are around 30 minutes for the best machines, and the weight room and weight machines are crowded. The dressing rooms have limited space for changing.
Joan Parker, a history graduate student, uses the Field House for a run around the indoor one-seventh-mile track. "People don't realize what a luxury they have in this track. It's a great surface," she asserts. Parker admits that she would like to see the locker rooms improved but acknowledges that you get what you pay for. It's hard to beat the convenience or price of admission at the Field House, and Nielsen would have been proud of the the customer service. The students who staff the reception area smile readily and are always quick to make change or track down lost IDs.
Mornings bring the largest tennis crowd. People sign up for courts on a first-come basis. Retirees playing doubles dominate the courts. "I play two to four hours a day, five days a week," says Wilma Clayton. Clayton regularly dominates doubles matches with her male playing partner, against two male opponents. "They just treat me like one of the guys," she laughs.
There have been preliminary discussions on campus about expanding and refurbishing the building. Field House Coordinator Black understands the dilemma that p unity to go where Lycra is scarce and kick-boxing aerobics will never be in vogue.
J.D. Davis BA'86 frequented the Field House as a student and while working in the U's Athletics Department and Development Office. He is a consultant for Sweeney/Associates in Salt Lake City.
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