A friend of the Sporting Life Arkansas sports desk, J. Frank Parnell, helped us relocate our base of operations one night last week from the palatial penthouse quarters of the state’s fastest growing sports media empire up to Rhodes Field House on the Harding University campus in Searcy, Ark.
Searcy is no more than 45 minutes from downtown Little Rock, and that’s in an old Chevy truck with low tires and a busted gas gauge in the rain and dark. Not being familiar with the ins and outs of the beautiful campus of Harding (and it is beautiful), we took almost another 45 minutes to find the Rhodes Field House, and once located, the parking required for the Chevrolet.
“What are you doing?” Parnell asked the sports desk as we drove through the same jammed parking lot for the second or third time. “Just park. You know, if (famed sportswriter and featured Sporting Life Arkansas contributor Jim) Harris were here, he would be letting you have it for this. Just park it.”
So we did and with not one minute to spare.
We walked briskly across the parking lot and even more briskly across the street with our gear. You see as members of the working press, we require lots of gear. Notebooks, pens, pencils, cameras, phones, laptops, iPads, hats, gloves, coats, chargers, chords and extra batteries, just in case.
Yes, moving the sports desk for an evening of in-the-field reportage isn’t easy.
But sometimes it is required. Sometimes, you have to go for yourself, and see it with your own eyes to believe it. That’s the only way to separate the hype (THIS! IS! THE! COOLEST! PLACE! TO! WATCH! A! BASKETBALL! GAME!) from the truth (THIS! IS! ONE! OF! THE! COOLEST! PLACES! TO! WATCH! A! BASKETBALL! GAME!)
And so there we were, with our gear, press badges dangling around our necks, standing inside the doors of the famed Rhodes Field House on the Harding University Campus in Searcy, Ark., staring a Bison statue in the face.
What follows next is Parnell’s account of the evening. We have taken the liberty of adding our own observations and commentary in parenthesis and italics. We have also used our editorial judgement to include video clips and occasional commentary from Twitter of our night.
The Colossus of Rhodes
by J. Frank Parnell
Looking for a story of resurrection at a small, Christian college?
Rhodes Field House at Harding University in Searcy has risen from the dead more than once. We’re glad it lives because it makes basketball a lot more entertaining.
We caught the Bisons’ (isn’t bison already plural?) game with the Southern Arkansas University Muleriders Thursday night. For the second time this season, these two Great American Conference members took it to overtime. Harding prevailed again, this time 93-87 (Harding won Jan. 17 at Magnolia in double overtime, 81-77). The Bisons are pretty good, hanging around first place in the GAC; the Muleriders, not so much.
But that’s not the point. If you’re a basketball fan jonesing for live action, make the trip to Searcy. Rhodes isn’t Rupp; it’s not Cameron, but it gets loud even at half capacity. A little imagination tells us it must roar when it’s packed with 3,000 faithful.
This old hangar was built for an airfield in France. George Benson, who was quite a world traveler and president of Harding for 30 years, bought it as war surplus. It replaced a tiny gym when it was reconstructed on campus in 1949. It was huge at the time, especially considering Harding had a few hundred students and no athletic teams (the Bisons’ first men’s basketball team took the court in 1957). It was named for B.F. Rhodes, a founding faculty member of 1924.
The school grew, Rhodes Field House wasn’t adequate, and the Ganus Center was built in 1976, which included Harris Gym for intercollegiate games. Kids kept arriving on campus, more seating was needed, but the thought of tearing down the old hangar didn’t stand with students and alumni. Intramural activities were dedicated to Ganus and the domed rectangle was renovated and resurrected again as home of Bisons basketball squads and a phenomenal women’s volleyball team.
Sound bounces off everything hard in this place — and everything’s hard: wood, metal, plastic and concrete. We noticed this right off the bat when the crowd sang the “Star-Spangled Banner” a cappella. It had a hometown feel without the glitz of a singer or band adding flair; it was moving.
(Note from the sports desk: Here is horrible video but wonderful audio of the back third of our national anthem sung at Rhodes Field House on that Thursday night. A much better quality and more complete video example of the anthem singing is at the bottom of this post, courtesy of the GAC.)
The Havana High School Demons in Yell County used to play in a Works Progress Administration rock gym so small that the court’s boundary was painted around supporting columns. Wooden bleachers butted against the court. When a basketball hit a column, it was out of bounds. Fans in the little town packed the place and made it hard for visitors to get the best of the Demons.
Rhodes is not that extreme, but with a full house and a game on the line, we can see how it could become claustrophobic for visiting teams and referees, who get an earful from all sides. The seats at the ends of the court are no more than 8 feet from the action, which allows fans to express their opinions in a personal manner. And they did Thursday. Two guys wearing beards and plaid rode the refs like a mule all night long.
The Rhodes Rowdies, the student section known throughout the GAC, play a strange role in all this. They’re energetic but they’re scripted. We heard the usual “air ball, air ball” chant, along with a few other nuggets, but the Rowdies never rattled the Muleriders. Perhaps they’re more vocal during a crucial match-up.
(Hi-ho, the sports desk here. OK, when two players back-to-back fouled out for the Muleriders, the Rhodes Rowdies pulled off the best “left, right, left, right, right, right, … left, right, left… right, left… SIT! DOWN!” cheer we have ever heard. So effective was it that the first player to foul out, SAU’s Tevin Worthy, got himself cracked up, pacing the floor and sideline and pausing and pacing some more, every step and stutter step announced by the Rowdies, before sitting down to the command of the Harding student section. By the time his rump hit the seat he was laughing. So were we.)
Or maybe they need leadership from a cheerleading crew that spends most of the game standing in the corner. The squad built a few pyramids during time-outs but never elicited a response from the crowd; no routines, no cheers and very little pom-pon waving. Even during the thrill of OT, the Bison mascot sat on the floor. Just an observation.
A few other things. Concessions are adequate. We tried hot dogs, which were warm and tasty, but would have been way better with a wider variety of condiments. We didn’t try the burgers on the menu, but the popcorn was excellent. The usual selection of candy and sodas was available, too. Although about 60 percent of the seats have backs, the ones that don’t will take you back to your high school days; they’re tortuous.
We can see where this little gem would get votes for one of the finest places to watch college basketball, especially for fans who truly enjoy the game.
The Rhodes Field Wins Best Road Trip Destination
Courtesy of Harding University
CHICAGO – Harding University beat out nine other worthy contenders through a two-week Facebook voting competition and won the “Best Road Trip Destination in College Basketball presented by Enterprise Rent-A-Car,” Intersport announced today. The entire Harding community, led by the “Rhodes Rowdies” – the moniker of the Bison fan base – came out in full force to push their team to the top, earning the Division II school an in-depth feature on what makes the Rhodes Field House, the HU campus and the town of Searcy, Ark., a special place for any college basketball fan to visit. The feature will be filmed on March 2, when Harding hosts Southeastern Oklahoma State in its last regular season home game, and will air on GEICO Best of College Basketball at 1 P.M. ET, April 6, on CBS Sports.
“We may not have as many people as some of the other larger arenas and universities,” said Harding head basketball coach Jeff Morgan. “But what we have had for several years is a very passionate, creative, and positive student body, faculty, staff, and community that come to the Rhodes Field House and are a huge part of our team. There is a really strong connection between what is happening on the floor and what is going on in the stands. We want to thank everyone who, through the years, has helped make this a really special place for college basketball. Congratulations and thank you to all of our Harding Team!”
Harding, home to fewer than 7,000 students, beat out basketball powerhouses Indiana University and University of Arizona. The other finalists included: Brigham Young University, College of Charleston, Creighton University, University of Memphis, West Virginia University, Wichita State University and Xavier University. The 10 finalists were chosen based on a wide range of categories including in-game atmosphere, history of the program, pre- and post-game events, scenery and attractions of the town and many more. Fans can visit the Facebook page (Facebook.com/BestofCollegeBasketball) for more information and view photo albums showcasing why each school is a perfect college basketball road trip destination.
In addition to featuring Harding as the ““Best Road Trip Destination in College Basketball,” GEICO Best of College Basketball will relive the season’s greatest moments, players and coaches, as well as reveal the plays of the year as voted on by fans.
In-game notes from the Sporting Life Arkansas sports desk and tweets from you:
Halftime fun for us and fans, as on this night Harding decided to tape its version of the Harlem Shake internet meme. Here are two clips from us, one from the action behind the scenes and the second of what was happening out front.
@sportinglifeark Glad you guys had your first Rhodes Field House Experience tonight. You're always welcome.— Harding Sports (@HardingSports) February 22, 2013
From the GAC, a better video from a year ago of the anthem at Rhodes Field House: