Published Sunday, February 24, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 11:35 am
Barfknecht: Devaney Center a truly star-spangled arena

LINCOLN — Flash back to winter 1976 and read about a small-town Nebraska businessman who cursed legendary basketball coach Bob Knight from close range and lived to tell about it.

It's a Bob Devaney Sports Center story worth retelling as the building ends a 37-year run in its original configuration.

Hart Floors Inc. of Doniphan, Neb., was the subcontractor installing the arena's maplewood showpiece. Rowland Hart, in his 38th year of business, was on the job with his 24-year-old son, Dave.

Looming large was a deadline to finish the floor in time for the building's first major event — the state basketball tournament of March 1976.

“We were under a lot of stress to get the project done,'' Dave Hart said in a recent interview from Doniphan. “At the tail end of a project of that magnitude, all eyes were on us.''

The deadline grew stricter because striking laborers earlier in the construction process had disrupted the work timeline.

Hart recalled the point in which the floor had been laid, and sanding, painting and court markings had commenced. The four main floor entrances were barricaded to prevent people from spoiling the finish work.

Arriving before dark to work one day, the Harts pushed aside a barricade and could tell from dim light sifting in from the hallways that two people were standing at center court.

“My dad was toward the end of his career,'' Dave Hart said, chuckling. “He was kind of tired and old and grumpy.

“In his usual style, he said something to the effect — and I'll paraphrase here — 'What in the hell are you guys doing on the floor?' He said it pretty loud. He was ticked off.''

Who got scolded?

Nebraska head coach Joe Cipriano and then-Indiana head coach Bob Knight.

The two had worked together with U.S. head coach Henry Iba at the 1972 U.S. Olympic Basketball Trials. In his book “Knight, My Story,'' Knight wrote that Cipriano “was one of the closest friends I had in coaching.''

Knight apparently took time from his undefeated 1976 season to come to Lincoln and take notes on the new construction.

Neither being a big name nor a close friend of Nebraska's head coach impressed Rowland Hart.

“Bobby Knight didn't ring a bell with my dad at all,'' Dave Hart said. “To him, he was just a guy about to make more work for us by messing up our floor.''

Cipriano called to the Harts and asked them to come meet Knight.

“They were real cordial,'' said Dave Hart, now 60 and in his 38th year in the business. “They found it humorous that some construction guys were yelling at them to get the hell off the floor.''

Now, it's almost time for everyone to get off the floor so the main purpose of this multi-use building can change from basketball to volleyball.

Knight is far from the only big name to set foot in the Devaney Center.

President Gerald Ford spoke at the first commencement in May 1976. Tickets were limited and security was tight, but I was there, courtesy of my brother graduating that spring.

Besides a president, a boss also has graced the building.

Actually, “The Boss.'' Bruce Springsteen performed in November 1984. Other music stars: Elton John twice, Van Halen twice, the Beach Boys five times, Diana Ross, Bob Dylan and Garth Brooks.

Two of the biggest rock stars in pro basketball played at the Devaney in NBA exhibitions: Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers in 1989 and Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls in 1988 and 1995.

Share your Devaney Center memories on the Big Red Today Facebook page.

Husker athletes with Olympic gold medals who have competed at the Devaney include gymnasts Jim Hartung and Scott Johnson; wrestlers Rulon Gardner and Jordan Burroughs; swimmer Penny Heyns; and sprinter Linetta Wilson.

Coach Francis Allen's Nebraska men's gymnastics team, housed on the north side of the Devaney Center, celebrated national championships five times in its home building with crowds of more than 10,000 common.

Track coach Gary Pepin trained his two NCAA national championship women's indoor squads on the west end of the Devaney, and it has hosted premier athletes from around the world on its renowned banked surface.

High school championships arguably created memories for more people in this state than anything. The looks of awe the first time those athletes walked into the arena to compete will never be forgotten.

There have been NCAA tournaments and governor's balls, visits from Dick Vitale and the Famous Chicken, state fair hucksters and the Shim Shams.

Now, $20 million is being spent to renovate a building that cost $13.8 million to build.

As the dust from construction starts flying, don't look for many tears to be shed or mournful goodbyes.

For weeks, I have asked coaches, athletes, administrators, maintenance workers and media colleagues for interesting stories or great memories of the Devaney Center. Most responses involved a shrug of the shoulders or the words “nothing great really comes to mind.''

“The building served its purpose,'' longtime NU volleyball coach Terry Pettit said. “But I never got the feeling there was a great emotional attachment to it like people have for the Coliseum or Memorial Stadium.''

“Of course,'' Pettit added, “winning has a big impact on that.''

The Devaney Center was finished my freshman year of college at Nebraska. In looking back, I have written about some event there in each of the 37 years it has been open.

Yet for all the time I spent roaming those halls, walking out won't be a big deal.

The Devaney did serve its purpose. It was a big improvement over the Coliseum when built. But it's time for some new folks to move in and others to move on to a place where hopefully bigger stories await.

Contact the writer:


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>> Timeline: View an interactive timeline of some of the most memorable moments at the Devaney Center, complete with photos, videos, coach quotes and more:

Contact the writer: Lee Barfknecht    |   402-444-1024    |  

Lee Barfknecht has won nine national writing awards from four separate organizations, and is a 12-time winner of the Nebraska sportswriter of the year award. He covers Big Ten football and basketball, Nebraska basketball and other college financial issues for The World-Herald.



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