The University of Tennessee is preparing to say goodbye to an old friend. After more than half a century as an iconic campus landmark, Stokely Athletic Center shuts down at the end of this week. The last day of business for the UT Bookstore and athletic apparel store in Stokely is Saturday, December 15.
Before the days of Thompson Boling Arena, Stokely was the home of hoops for the Tennessee Volunteers. In recent years it has been used for the track team to practice pole vaulting and throwing events indoors. Stokely also houses several offices, including the ROTC program.
These days the building is showing its age. Damaged ceiling tiles drape in hallways. The walls are stripped as people move out of the facility. All offices will be relocated by the end of December. The pipes in the building are coated with dangerous asbestos.
Wednesday the retired vice president of development for UT, Charlie Brakebill, took a stroll down the hallways to say so long to Stokely.
"This is like a walk down memory lane," said Brakebill. "Not only for me, but hundreds of thousands of people. It was such a center for everything. Think of all the families that came in this arena to see a child or a grandchild graduate from college. Then there were the basketball games, of course."
The Stokely Athletic Center is named for William B. Stokely Jr., the man who donated money for an expansion of the facility in 1966. When the building was opened in 1958, it was called the University of Tennessee's Armory-Fieldhouse.
"I remember standing with Mr. Stokely outside the building in 1966 at the Tennessee football game against Alabama. We had our picture taken and it was on the front page of the newspaper. The very next day, Mr. Stokely went to visit his mother in Newport and died suddenly," said Brakebill. "His children maintained that devotion to this school. The Stokely family has been so generous through the years and made a real impact on this university."
Stokely Athletic Center certainly made a lasting impact on Tennessee fans. The building is the birthplace of the phrase "Big Orange Country."
"The legendary basketball coach Ray Mears painted the sky orange with his career in Stokely," said Brakebill. "He is who called this 'Big Orange Country' for the first time."
"The Ray Mears quote, 'This is Big Orange Country,' was in the tunnels going out to the court," said Holly Warlick, UT women's basketball head coach. "You knew this was 'Big Orange Country' right when you walked out."
Stokely stands as the first home of Lady Vols basketball, where Warlick flew up and down what was then considered a state-of-the-art tartan floor surface in the 1970s.
"I think Stokely is old school. You go in and it smells like a gym. On game day, it had probably the best smelling popcorn in the world. And they always had great concerts there. I went to my first concert there and saw Elton John," said Warlick.
"To think of everything that's happened here in old Stokely," said Brakebill. "You had Elvis Presley come here three times. He played here just a few months before he died."
In addition to the King, some other rock and roll royalty hit the stage in 1977 when the Beach Boys played to a packed house.
Brakebill said the old building holds recent rounds of military memories.
"Think of all the Army and Air Force Cadets that were here and now they have gone all over the world as leaders," said Brakebill.
While fans give Stokely a final salute before it is shut down and demolished, they also contend that the facility will live on in their hearts and minds.
"It's a very special place. There were a lot of great fans very close," said Warlick.
"It had a togetherness you can't get in a large arena. It's a little like losing a friend. It was just something that so many people loved," said Brakebill.
Charles Primm with UT's media relations department said there is no firm date set for the start of demolition. The school also has not determined how the land where Stokely is located will be used.
Primm also sent 10News the following list of "Key Historic Dates" at Stokely Athletic Center:
- 1958 Vols open the UT Armory-Fieldhouse with a 72-71 win over Wyoming on Dec. 2.
- 1966 The venue undergoes a $2.6 million renovation, paid in part by William B. Stokely Jr., the gymnasium's new namesake. The Vols won their first 23 games in the building.
- 1969 Janis Joplin plays on Nov. 8 to a sellout crowd at Stokely.
- 1972 Elvis plays in Knoxville for the first time ever at venue, giving fans two shows in one day on April 8.
- 1974 Elvis returns for a show at Stokely on March 15. Top-tier tickets sold for $10.
- 1974-1977 The high-scoring Ernie Grunfield and Bernard King put on "The Ernie and Bernie Show," leading UT to some of its best seasons in history.
- 1977 Three months before his death, on May 20, Elvis plays his final show in Knoxville.
- 1983 Stokely hosts the famous NCAA "Dream Game," where rival Louisville beat Kentucky in the regional final of the tournament on March 26.
- 1987 Tony White scores 51 points, the most ever by a Vol in a single game, against Auburn on Feb. 14.
- 1987 The Lady Vols, coached by Pat Summitt, win their first national championship with the team's first three games played at Stokely.
Reporter's Note: See the two web-extra videos attached to this story for a look at extended WBIR archive footage of Stokely Athletic Center. One video is about three minutes of the 1977 Beach Boys concert. The second video contains extended clips of UT basketball at Stokely. Mobile app users may have to visit the video section or navigate to the full website to view the web extra videos.