By: D. Scott Fritchen
Nineteen-year-old Dick Towers looked forward to admiring the construction every day on his way to class. Towers, a native of Olathe, Kansas, who felt the heat as he watched Kansas State basketball games inside the stuffy 2,400-seat Nichols Gymnasium, knew he was witnessing something special directly north of Memorial Stadium. Was it a monument, no, an institution, no, a crown jewel 84 feet high, touching the Manhattan sky, many years in the making, 10 to be exact, a petition of 4,000 names scratched onto a roll of paper covering nearly a quarter of a mile, begging for a field home. The structure that Towers so loved to examine from afar every day would be called Ahearn Field House. She was a mentor to several people, including Mike Ahearn, who served as basketball coach in the early 1900s and athletic director from 1920 to 1947, and coach Jack Gardner. Construction of Ahearn Field House was $2 million. When completed, it was the fifth largest field house in the United States with a capacity of 14,000, was the envy of every school in the Big Seven Conference, and was used not only for basketball but so much more. Two fully enclosed batting cages could be lowered from the ceiling, the running track was 220 standard yards long with six three-foot lanes, and facilities for pole vault, high jump, wide and shot put. The K-State football team used Ahearn Field House for spring training, removing the basketball floor, which rose 22 inches above the dirt floor. Over the years, Ahearn has also hosted women’s volleyball, tennis, music concerts, rodeos, and speeches by top politicians. But, of course, everything has returned to its original purpose, basketball, the hottest ticket in town. Towers played K-State football and ran track, and eventually became K-State’s athletic director from 1981 to 1985. Towers is 92 years old and resides in Manhattan.
“Ahearn Field House was the largest indoor facility west of St. Louis up to the coast,” says Towers. “Every day I walked the campus between 1949 and 1950 and saw the building, and boy, it turned out to be an amazing, extraordinary, and very useful structure. It really was a mammoth.” At basketball games, of course, there were there were bleachers along the side, so when you sat next to someone, you hugged each other tightly. The surprising part was the number of attendances. Nichols Gym seated 2,000 or maybe a little more, and as a student you couldn’t see every game. You managed to see a third of the games. At the time, I helped set up the pre- and post-game bleachers at Nichols, so we got to see the games inside Nichols, but with Ahearn, we went from a capacity of 2,000 to around 14,000. The city of Manhattan had about 20,000 people. A lot of people came to town to see Kansas State play basketball.” Ahearn Field House officially came to life on December 9, 1950, when K-State hosted Utah State. at a K-State basketball game when 14,028 saw K-State defeat #4 Long Island, 85-65, on January 31, 1951. The Wildcats won 378 games, including six undefeated home basketball seasons, inside Ahearn between 1950-51 and 1987-88 Former K-State head coach Lon Kruger recalls the last basketball game Ahearn played: K-State beat Norm Stewart and Missouri, 92-82, on March 5, 1988. Kruger, a native of Silver Lake, Kansas, was a two-time Big Eight Player of the Year in 1973 and 1974 and served as head coach from 1987 to 1990. ‘Last game against Missouri, c ‘It was a lot of preparation,” says Kruger. “Norm Stewart and the Tigers were in town. It was an important match, a great atmosphere and a good result. It was always loud and intense, but that game, the fans took it to another level. “The first thing that comes to mind is the fans. They influenced the outcome of many matches. I mean, not just in number, but our fans were very well informed. Sometimes, the fans respond to a good stretch, but Our fans understood when we needed a good stretch and demanded it. They were very unique that way. It was the best atmosphere in the league. You didn’t want to let the fans down.” Even as capacity shrunk to 11,200 to accommodate health codes, Ahearn remained one of the most impressive arenas in college basketball. Ahearn Field House has also hosted the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament five times: 1996, 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2007. Liz Wegner-Busch recalls those days. The first two-time women’s volleyball All-American in K-State history, Wegner helped K-State reach one of its most successful four-year seasons in history between 1998 and 2001. The Wildcats won 80 games and they have made four NCAA tournament appearances. “I remember the smell,” she says. “It’s very nostalgic for me. It felt like home. I loved racing at Ahearn. I remember the very first time I walked onto the course during my recruiting visit, I thought it was the most unique environment and setup. I loved the field and how it was surrounded by the big track. I loved how over the years we started packing Ahearn. They put the big purple net behind the north side seating. ‘I loved how hot it was out there.’ interior of Ahearn. I liked racing when it was hot and I always thought it was an advantage for us. Many teams couldn’t handle the heat. I couldn’t have imagined competing anywhere else.” The same goes for director of athletics Cliff Rovelto, the world-renowned track coach who is in his 31st season in charge of the program. Rovelto has personally coached 17 Olympians who made a total of 22 Olympic Appearances.However, Rovelto’s introduction to Ahearn actually came before he officially arrived at K-State.Rovelto was a 22-year-old track and field head coach and basketball coach at the McLouth High School. He attended a coaching clinic led by K-State head coach Jack Hartman. Kruger was a graduate assistant at the time. “My first time at Ahearn,” Rovelto chuckles, “and I was there for a clinic for basketball coaches.” Ahearn would become Rovelto’s home for more than three decades.” First of all, for track junkies, it’s really cool because you’re in a relatively small space and there are a lot of things happening at the same time,” says Rovelto. “The indoor track has been described as a tre-ring circus and it is in many ways. There is always a lot of activity and energy in indoor racing, particularly when it means something.” regular season before the Big 12 Indoor Championships. Friday’s indoor track and field meet will mark the last athletic event ever at Ahearn Field House. After 72 years, two months and eight days, K-State Athletics bids farewell to the facility that was once the envy of schools around the world. “To be a dinosaur and to be someone who’s been here for 35 years, that’s the end of an era,” Rovelto says. We have had many outstanding performances at Ahearn. We’ve had a lot of great rallies at the track over the years. It is definitely something we will miss. It’s just an evolution, but it’s definitely something I’ll miss, that’s for sure. “It will be a little sentimental for me.” It will also be sentimental for the 92-year-old Towers. “Ahearn has so many memories for me,” he says. “I’m an old man who has seen the thing grow from the beginning. It was great to walk around the campus and see it being built. It was a really nice place on campus. “We were all quite proud of the building. ”