Memories rekindled in Coliseum smoke

Times-Voice General Manager James David Fugate, top of stairs behind Lady Bird Johnson, is one of the First Lady's escorts on her visit to dedicate the Coliseum in May of 1964. 

Breathitt’s coliseum has been lit up many a time in its 56-year history, but none quite like the one it experienced Sunday morning, May 3. Unlike fiery competition of hundreds of athletes who’ve torched its nets, Sunday’s flames look to have originated with a single workman’s torch on the roof.

Thinking the famed basketball domicile might go up in smoke as the news broke, social media suddenly burst with remembrances of one of the state’s finest arenas. My thoughts, as well, turned to the domed edifice and the huge shadow it has cast on not only Jackson and Breathitt County, but eastern Kentucky.

Watching the workmen establishing its foundation from my Little Red grade school classroom window 57 years ago, I eagerly anticipated seeing its slow rise upward. I first stepped foot under its roof on the concrete floor of the unfinished basement level, with nothing between its beautiful wooden ceiling and me far below but hopes and dreams of revelry that would one day fill its vast expanse.

Breathitt basketball’s new home was being constructed at the same time as Houston’s Astrodome, which was drawing attention worldwide. As one who had a great interest in architecture, I admired the foresight of the late Superintendent Marie R. Turner for opting for a domed structure, which was on the cutting edge of construction technology at the time. The Breathitt Coliseum, as originally dubbed, actually was finished a year before the Astrodome with its dedication scheduled for May of 1964.

The celebration of the opening of Breathitt’s grand facility drew folks from all over the state, as America’s First Lady delivered the keynote address. I was fortunate to be one of a few seventh-graders (holding a small American flag while dressed in a red, white and blue satin basketball uniform) to greet Lady Byrd Johnson as she stepped from her bus at the rear door of the coliseum surrounded by secret service agents and a bevy of reporters. We ushered her to her seat on the stage to the right of the dais from which she’d later address the overflow crowd.

Later that spring, as the school year was coming to a close, basketball teams from Little Red and Marie Roberts held an organized game on the Coliseum’s new Maple hardwood. I don’t recall which team won; but, as a player on the court, I do remember thinking what an honor it was to be playing in the Coliseum’s very first game, as the ball was tipped at center court.

Need for a spacious arena was evident in the years leading up to the construction of the Coliseum, what with Breathitt’s five-year run to the state tournament (a state record at the time) led by its hall of fame coach, Fairce O. Woods. Overflow crowds had seen Breathitt move its games from its old basketball gymnasium to the newly constructed Van Meter Gymnasium at Lees College; but even there, fans had to be turned away every Saturday night from early November until the end of the basketball season.

The newly built Coliseum was projected to be the launching pad from which Breathitt’s basketball teams would soar skyward, as the 1964-1965 season opened. Three seasons came and went, but Woods’ reloading came a little slower than anticipated. The 14th Regional Tournament alternated between Hazard’s Memorial Gym and the Breathitt Coliseum at that time, and by 1967 Coach Woods had another winner. As luck would have it though, Breathitt would garner its sixth trip to the state, launched not from the Coliseum, but from Memorial Gym in Hazard. It would be the last year for Woods at Breathitt; having only coached three seasons in the building which would one day bear his name.

Superintendent Turner was adamant regarding the success of Breathitt’s basketball program and its state-of-the-art basketball facility. Two coaches were hired and fired in the wake of Woods’ departure, opening the door for Coach Jack Stanford in the 1969-1970 Season.

Once again, I was fortunate to be on that team. As a senior, I’d had four different coaches in the five years I’d worn the uniform. With 26-year-old Coach Stanford leading the way, Breathitt finally broke the ice at the Coliseum six years after its completion, cutting the regional nets down for the first time under the dome in 1970, the program’s seventh overall. Stanford would do it again at the Coliseum in 1972, winning the program’s eighth regional title.

Breathitt’s boys have gone on to win the region three more times, 1983 (Memorial Gym), 1985 (The Nixon Center), and 1996 (Morton Combs Athletic Complex)… all coming on the road. As for Breathitt’s Lady Cats, two of their eight regional championships have been won at the Coliseum, 1977 and 1987.

Thanks to quick action from the local fire department and workmen at the site, Breathitt’s coliseum was saved with fire damage contained to the rear upper rim of its roof. Other parts of the building suffered water damage. But as workmen have built and rebuilt Breathitt’s shining beacon over the years, it’s been the plethora of athletes and fans which have been building countless memories which were only rekindled from Sunday’s fire. They burn ever brighter in the hearts of those who have come to appreciate opportunities afforded them by such a grand old home place.

If you’d like to recount your special memories of the Coliseum, the Times-Voice would love to share them with the community. Simply email or drop them off at our office.

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