Looking back at historic Gregory Gym as it hosts men’s basketball again

Matthew Boncosky

Gregory Gym has always belonged to the students of the University of Texas.

Since its original construction in 1930, the historic gymnasium has served as a centerpiece of campus life on the Forty Acres. Due to its previous status as the largest building on campus, Longhorns would register for classes there, graduation would take place inside if the weather was bad, and the chants and cheers of pep rallies used to emanate from the structure.

In a previous life, the gymnasium also served as the home court for both varsity basketball teams and was the home of the Texas swim teams. These days, the volleyball team is the only varsity sport that still calls Gregory Gym home, but on Monday, for the first time in 44 years, men’s basketball will play a regular season game in the historic gym against Sam Houston State.

“We’re taking basketball back,” head coach Chris Beard said. “It’s going to be more like ‘Hoosiers’ than it is going to be like an NBA arena. … The game is about honoring the past, uniting the (Texas basketball) family and getting the students on board.”

Men’s basketball began play in the old gym in the 1930-31 season and remained there for 46 years until the last game took place Feb. 26, 1977 — a Southwest Conference tournament play-in game that Texas lost to Baylor 72-70. Ever since, the Longhorns have played basketball in the Frank Erwin Center, a building where students struggle to make the trek up and across Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to attend games.

Removing the team from the heart of campus into a large and shiny new special events center made sense financially as Texas sold fewer than 100 men’s basketball season tickets in Gregory Gym prior to the team’s move to the Frank Erwin Center, according to Bill Little, former Texas Athletics sports information director and historian. But it took the games away from the students.

Before the move, students made up the vast majority of the attendance at any given game in Gregory Gym. As a result, the team was uniquely connected with the student body. The proximity to the dorms and the intimate nature of the old gymnasium provided students with close ties to their basketball program.

“It was our team,” said Little, who also wrote for The Daily Texan as a student at UT during the early 1960s. “We felt it. … The students were a huge part of the team.”

The original proposal for a new auditorium-gymnasium was put forward by the building’s namesake, Thomas Watt Gregory, in 1925. Completed at the approximate cost of $500,000, the structure resembled the classic university-style building. A large, stone staircase leading up to a set of grand arches define the front exterior that once greeted throngs of students that would come to see legendary acts such as Louis Armstrong perform. Gregory Gym’s arched windows and slanted roofline form an image that rivals any classic midwestern fieldhouse gymnasium.

The University Interscholastic League used to hold all of its high school state events in Austin before the days of 70,000-seat stadiums in other major Texas metroplexes, with the basketball tournaments held in Gregory Gym. For kids from small towns across the state, their first sight of the gym’s classic stature was one to behold.

“It was like an (annual) pilgrimage in the spring when it came to those things,” Little said. “The statement Gregory made then is the same statement that massive stadiums make today for young people coming in from a smaller town.”

Some characteristics of the venue that made it unique prior to the digital age included a massive analog clock situated above the gymnasium’s west end that marked the passage of game time with its sweeping hands, and a 4-inch thick pine floor, identical to the one in the Texas Union Ballroom, that had an incredible trueness to its bounce, according to former shooting guard Ron Baxter.

But what stands out the most about games in Gregory Gym were the fistfights.

Anytime a few thousand students were packed in the old arena, shoulder-to-shoulder with those from in-state Southwest Conference rivals like Texas A&M and Baylor, emotions ran hot.

“It was a scene because the students and football players primarily would sit under the basket opposite the court from where the benches were,” Little said. “So when the fights broke out, the teams really weren’t involved in it as much as the students from the two schools.”

Whenever Texas A&M came to town, the prized trophy would be capturing an Aggie and taking his boots. Once the fighting began, the students involved would then go out the doors and down the steps to keep the fracas going while not interrupting the game going on inside.

UT students still find use for the old gym today as a popular recreational sports facility, but the annual fisticuffs with A&M students are long gone. Monday’s basketball game will feature UT student-only attendance in a throwback to the days when Longhorns packed the venue and created a hostile atmosphere for opposing teams.

“We have one of the coolest venues in all of basketball,” Beard said. “I appreciate the season ticket holders’ and people’s understanding that everybody won’t be able to get into this game, but I think everybody will be able to feed on the excitement of this.”

Beard has organized so-called throwback games at each stop in his coaching career, and if it were up to him, Texas would play a game in Gregory Gym every year. The first-year head coach recalled participating in summer camps and pickup games in the spring and summer offseasons at Gregory Gym when he was a student from 1991-95. 

Hoping to bring back fond memories for those who used to play in or attended games in Gregory Gym, Beard wants to make sure that the students stay at the heart of the event in possible future iterations. The logistical hurdles of setting the game up were significant, but for Beard, doing so just felt right.

“We’re proud to put this on the floor in our first year,” Beard said. “Hopefully the people will appreciate all the work that went into putting this game on.”