‘The Epicenter of College Basketball’ tells the story of UD Arena

David Jablonski’s book goes on sale online Sunday

In the summer of 2021, I had the idea of writing a book about the history of UD Arena. I started work on it that September and slowly and steadily turned it into a reality over the next two years.

“The Epicenter of College Basketball: A History of UD Arena” goes on sale at UDArenaBook.com on Sunday. Don’t click the link until then because that is when I will launch the website. The book is available now for purchase at the UD Arena gift shop, the UD bookstore on campus and Flyer Spirit on Brown Street.

As I wrote in the book, similar iconic college basketball venues have books telling their stories. I thought UD Arena, where I have stayed up late many nights writing about the Dayton Flyers, deserved its own telling. Whether fans flip toward their favorite time period to read about the games they remember well or don’t read the book at all and just pose it on their bookshelves, as we all do with so many books, that’s fine with me. I just thought a UD Arena book needed to exist in the world. Now it does.

The 268-page book features dozens of photos from 1969 to the present day and is ordered, chronologically, with chapters on the great UD moments at the arena and the great NCAA tournament moments. There are chapters on the concert history of the arena, the great high school basketball games, the women’s basketball history, the birth of the First Four, the many updates and renovations, etc.

I worked with Peter Bronson, of Chilidog Publishing, to turn my google document into a PDF and then a book. He hired Craig Ramsdell, of Ramsdell Design, to design the book, including the cover, which features a photo of the front of the arena I shot late one night last summer. They both did a great job helping me with my project. I also have to thank several UD fans who volunteered to be fact checkers for me and made more more comfortable about the finished product: Tim Cary; Meredith Saylor; Damon Durbin; Daniel Massa; Tom Hirt; and Gary Taiariol.

I interviewed more than 50 people from the book, but it also leans heavily on the reporting of many Dayton Daily News sports writers, especially Tom Archdeacon and Bucky Albers, the two people who have likely written more about the Flyers than anyone. I financed the book myself, so the Dayton Daily News’ decision to let me use our archived photos allowed me to include many more photos than I would have used otherwise. The paper has employed many talented photographers over the years, and I wish I could fit even more of their work into the pages.

The book is about a building, but it’s more about the people who built it and the people who fill it, as this excerpt from opening pages shows.


Fans first see the traffic — or curse the traffic — as they take Exit 51 off Interstate 75, or round the curve on Edwin C. Moses Boulevard along the Great Miami River. They soon spot the Dayton Flyers logo, a “D” with a wing, adorning the sides of University of Dayton Arena. As they park and get out of their cars, Larry Hansgen, the longtime voice of the Flyers on WHIO Radio, greets them as they walk toward the building. His voice pours out of loudspeakers: “The division of athletics hopes that you enjoy the Dayton Flyers basketball game.”

Fans may recall the smell of cinnamon-roasted nuts, which greeted them for many years. As they enter UD Arena, many grab a cold beer — perhaps an It’s Always Sunny in Dayton pale ale from Lock 27 Brewing. As they find their seats, they will take in the sight of a sea of red sweater vests, common attire in the lower bowl, and listen to Dr. Willie Morris leading the Flyer Pep Band, which plays all the hits — “Go Dayton Flyers” being the biggest. The warmth created by 13,407 fans envelops everyone in UD Arena from November through March, though the temperature level has been more comfortable since air conditioning was installed. No area in the stands generates more heat than the Red Scare student section, which fills early with students who wait in line outside the arena to get the best seats. The “pilot” and the “flight attendants,” students who dress in costume for each game, earn the best spots, as do the students who show their true colors by painting their bodies blue.

This all creates a vivid and cherished picture of University of Dayton Arena. The Flyers men’s and women’s basketball teams call the place home, and so do generations of fans, many of whom have owned season tickets for as long as they’ve been alive. They’ve all heard the voice of legendary boxing announcer Michael Buffer — ”Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the main event. Let’s get ready to rumble!” — so many times, the recording has become a fixture in their memories. They know all the routines. The mascot, Rudy Flyer, and the cheerleaders sprint out of the tunnel ahead of the Flyers as everyone stands and cheers. And then the lights fade as player introductions begin.

For more than 50 years, since the first game on Dec. 6, 1969, fans have enjoyed those scenes at UD Arena, which has become an historic venue. For all the accolades the arena has collected, for as great a place as it is to watch basketball, everyone who knows the arena best says it’s the people who make it special — and not just the ones on the court. The people in the stands who have filled the building in seven different decades have turned UD Arena into a megaphone for the city and the region. The sound may not reach I-75, which passes the arena on the west, but it travels through television screens, car radios and mobile devices, spreading the University of Dayton brand across the world and giving a city that is best known for its connection to flight and the Wright Brothers a second identity as the home of the Flyers, who thrive because of the electric atmosphere that elevates the arena beyond a mere sports venue.

No one knows how much Dayton loves basketball better than Obi Toppin, one of the greatest Flyers, the consensus national player of the year in 2020. He moved on to basketball’s most famous arena, Madison Square Garden in New York City, to start his NBA career with the New York Knicks after his college days but still treasures his days at UD Arena. He visited his old basketball home on January 5, 2022, to watch his former team from a spot behind the bench, sitting with his family.

“What do you miss about this place?” Toppin was asked.

“The fans,” Toppin said. “Everyone here shows so much love, and I love these guys right back. This is like my second family.”

Generations of former Flyers would say the same. The family theme permeates this book. Family connections are a big reason I decided to start work on the book in the summer of 2021 just before my ninth season as the Dayton Flyers beat writer for the Dayton Daily News. My grandpa, Dr. James Leary, owned season tickets from the start of the arena’s history in 1969 until his death in 2003. He took me to my first game at the arena in 1990 when I was 12. A 1951 UD graduate whose dad Dan Leary was a Dean of Education at the school, my grandpa lived and breathed Dayton basketball. I’m sure he enjoyed the wedding reception of my parents, Jeff and Mary, who celebrated their nuptials on the upper level of the arena in what was then called the Arena Associates Lounge on August 22, 1975, two years before I came along. They both graduated from Archbishop Alter High School in 1971 and had some of their first dates on Brown Street, not far from the UD campus. Alter’s Joe Petrocelli, the second-winningest coach in UD Arena history, remembers both of my parents from their high school days. Joe Staley, who sat on the Chaminade High School bench for the first high school game at the arena, remembers me when I was a little kid. His wife Micky was best friends with my mom in high school. From those perspectives, the University of Dayton and UD Arena had central roles in my existence.

The more I pondered the project, the more I started to commit, in my mind at least, to doing it now. I put some gas in the Google machine and discovered that a number of similar arenas — in age and prestige — had books devoted to them: Allen Fieldhouse, at the University of Kansas; Hinkle Fieldhouse, at Butler University; University Arena, aka “The Pit,” at the University of New Mexico; and, of course, Madison Square Garden, the mecca of basketball. Ritter Collett’s 1990 book, “The Flyers: A History of University of Dayton Basketball,” touched on the planning, construction and opening of the arena, but that was a book about men’s basketball and the history of Dayton’s program. I realized that a book focused on the arena could touch on so many more topics that make it special.

This book also touches on the forgotten stories that add extra layers to the arena’s history. For example, one player who starred for the first UD team to play in the arena also worked on the construction crew that built the place. Also, in the arena’s early years, one man lived at the arena so he could keep an eye on it at night. Later in the arena’s history, UD officials who worked there would blow off steam by racing a go-cart through the walkways. In more recent years, one of the most successful coaches in school history made his team stay at the arena after a loss to help the cleaning crew pick up trash.

Those memories add soul to the concrete and steel. It is just a building in the end but also a landmark for so many people who see it as a second home. Many also see it as the “epicenter of college basketball” — and thus the title, something I settled on before writing a word of this book. Many fan bases — Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina fans, to name a few — will cringe upon seeing the title, for sure. The epicenter of college basketball does not lie in Dayton, Ohio, they will say. The Bluebloods of college basketball will argue that University of Dayton Arena does not represent the central point of their universe. Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas, is 14 years older. Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky, seats almost 7,000 more fans. More important games have been played at the Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Dayton’s claim to fame is being the birthplace of aviation — no matter what the state of North Carolina says about Kitty Hawk. But few would name a city in the middle of Ohio as the epicenter of college basketball — unless you ask Google, the modern authority on all things.

“Google, what is the epicenter of college basketball?”

“UD Arena,” it reports. “The University of Dayton Arena is widely considered one of the national premier college basketball facilities.”

How did the 13,407-seat venue earn that kind of digital praise? The award for the first social media mention of Dayton as the “epicenter of college basketball” goes to college basketball writer Jeff Borzello, who Tweeted (perhaps tongue in cheek) on March 24, 2013, “I always knew Dayton would be the epicenter of college basketball.”

The phrase originated before the 2013 NCAA Tournament in meetings of the First Four Local Organizing Committee, which annually promotes Dayton’s role as the host for the First Four games and hosts events such as a four-mile run and a STEM challenge for kids. J.P. Nauseef, the chairman of the local organizing committee in its early days, brought his business skills to the group as it sought ways to push messages about Dayton basketball, the fans in the area and what makes the Miami Valley region special.

“From my economic development days, I was always building concentric circles to show what you can get in Dayton, Ohio, from a one-day drive or a one-hour flight,” said Nauseef, who’s now president and CEO of JobsOhio. “That’s how we were marketing Ohio. So we decided to do the same thing around successful college basketball programs and college basketball fans. You build those same concentric circles, and right at the epicenter was Dayton, Ohio, the epicenter of college basketball.”

At the same time, the committee trademarked the phrase, “The Road Starts Here,” to mark Dayton as the place where March Madness begins. A sign bearing that slogan still hangs above the ramp that leads players to the court at UD Arena.

The push to make the epicenter phrase stick took off in 2014. The first mention of it in the Dayton Daily News was by Matt Farrell, a former director of basketball operations on Dayton Head Coach Brian Gregory’s staff who became a spokesman for the First Four Local Organizing Committee. Talking about the financial impact the NCAA Tournament has on Dayton, he said, “Dayton is truly the epicenter of college basketball, and we have the opportunity to tell the world.” A video released on social media that same year by The Big Hoopla NCAA First Four Local Organizing Committee, the non-profit organization that promotes the First Four, also highlighted the phrase. It showed how the majority of the teams playing in the NCAA Tournament that year came from a 600-mile radius around Dayton.

A few years later in 2018, UD Arena Director Scott DeBolt brought it all together: “We call ourselves the epicenter of college basketball and the road starts here in Dayton, Ohio, for the NCAA Basketball Championship.”

Then in 2020, the Dayton Flyers men’s basketball team captured the nation’s attention with a 20-game winning streak and soared to No. 3 in the Associated Press top-25 poll. Dayton truly lived up to the nickname. A season like no other for the Flyers culminated on March 7, 2020, as ESPN’s College GameDay filmed its show at UD’s Frericks Center, the former home of the men’s basketball team, once known as the UD Fieldhouse. The Flyers capped the regular season with a rout of George Washington that evening at UD Arena. As Toppin punctuated the victory with three dunks in rapid succession late in the second half, no one complained about Dayton calling itself the epicenter of college basketball.

UD Arena has more than one great day on its resume, of course. There’s a long list of reasons Dayton can boast about its basketball home.

• UD Arena has hosted more NCAA Tournament games than any arena in the country. The number reached 133 in 2023.

“The arena, for me, has always been one of the best basketball venues in the country because it’s the right size,” CBS analyst Clark Kellogg said. “It’s always full. The people know and love basketball here. The program has great tradition and history.”

• Every year since 2001 (except for 2020, when the tournament was canceled because of the pandemic, and 2021, when the entire tournament was played in Indiana to limit travel during the pandemic), March Madness has begun at UD Arena. From 2001- 2010, UD Arena hosted the play-in game, or opening round game, of the 65-team tournament. Since 2011, UD Arena has hosted the first four games of the 68-team tournament. Eight teams play two games on Tuesday and two on Wednesday and advance to first-round games on Thursday or Friday at different sites around the country. Dayton has earned the right to host the First Four through at least 2026.

• Austin Carr, of Notre Dame, set a NCAA Tournament single- game scoring record that still stands with 61 points against Ohio on March 7, 1970, at UD Arena.

• Although its days as a venue for big-time musical acts ended long ago, in its heyday, UD Arena had Elvis Presley, Elton John, Queen, Diana Ross, Johnny Cash, R.E.M., MC Hammer and many more big stars perform under its roof.

• President Barack Obama sat courtside at a First Four game in 2012 with David Cameron, prime minister of the United Kingdom.

• LeBron James played at UD Arena as a senior in high school in 2003 and in an exhibition game with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2004 before his second season in the NBA. Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls played an exhibition game there in 1995 before the start of their second three-year run of NBA champi- onships. The list of basketball greats who have played at the arena includes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, David Robinson, Magic Johnson and many more.

• The arena will live on for decades thanks to a three-year, $76.2 million renovation project completed in 2019. UD Arena is now a glittering gem that often makes lists of the top sporting venues in the country. Scout.com ranked it 37th — and No. 2 among college basketball arenas, behind Allen Fieldhouse — on a list of 761 stadium experiences in 2016. The listing by Paul Swaney said: “Among the impressive college basketball history, incredible game atmospheres, and enjoyable and affordable fan experience, Dayton’s UD Arena should be on any college basketball fan’s radar for an upcoming visit.”

* Nothing makes UD Arena more special, however, than the millions of Dayton basketball fans — the Flyer Faithful — who have filled the seats since its opening in 1969. Not counting the 2020-21 season restricted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Dayton has ranked in the top 35 in attendance in NCAA Division I in all of its 52 seasons.

* The arena saw more history in the 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons. Dayton fans bought every ticket for every men’s basketball home game — 33 over the two seasons — before the seasons began. The program had never sold out a season before then at the arena. The sellouts led to the Flyers setting a school record by averaging 13,407 fans per game in both seasons.

Even those milestones are not the whole story. In more than 50 interviews for this book, a common theme emerged: It’s all about the people. Not just coaches, fans and players, but the workers behind the scenes who run the show.

“The No. 1 thing that made it stand out was the relationship of the fans to the building and to the program,” said Ted Kissell, who served as UD’s athletic director from 1992-2008. “The building would not have been built without the fans. The way that it was funded was through fee licenses. That was the core funding of the building — not corporate dollars or significant major gifts or university dollars.”

About the Author