Published: Wednesday, October 14, 2009 at 12:59 p.m.
Eddie Payne and Tammy George stood inside the Hodge Center gymnasium at the University of South Carolina Upstate on Tuesday, looking upward and dreaming about their respective men's and women's basketball teams someday playing in front of packed houses in a facility that even the nation's most elite programs would aspire to call home.
By this time next year, that dream may be on the verge of reality.
The university announced today plans for an historic renovation of the 36-year-old Hodge Center, thanks to a $4 million gift from 1981 USC Upstate graduate Dodie Anderson to fund the project. The gymnasium and the rest of the center - which hosts the men's and women's basketball and volleyball teams, athletics department offices, a student-athlete performance center and athletic training facilities - will be transformed into a state-of-the-art building that Payne said will rival any in the nation.
Final plans for the renovation have not been completed, though construction is expected to begin shortly after the wrap-up of this coming basketball season, with the desire to have the work accomplished by the beginning of the 2010-11 basketball season.
Payne called it a ”huge shot in the arm for us,” and other university officials agreed that Hodge's new look will be a major step in legitimizing the school's recent move to Division I athletics while also keeping pace with USC Upstate's rapid growth.
“You could almost say it's like a Division I football school getting their first-ever bowl bid, or us getting our first NCAA (Tournament) bid and being on (national television),” Payne said Tuesday. “It has the potential to raise our profile as well as improve our facilities.”
Anderson, 81, a Greer resident and former co-owner of Clinton-based Anderson Hardwood Floors, said earlier this week that her motivation behind the gift included a passion for the university and excitement for its growth, her longstanding friendship with Payne, a love of basketball and a desire to help make the program be more competitive.
“I've been to a lot of Division I schools, and they have some pretty impressive facilities,” Anderson said. “It's going to take a while, but we're going to do it. It will be fun.”
Payne and George said they were “very grateful” to Anderson for a gift that will have far-reaching effects.
“In all areas it's going to help us, especially recruiting,” George said. “Just that ‘wow' factor ... when you walk in the gym it makes a lasting impression on kids, because that's kind of their home; that's where they spend most of their time. So to have something that nice to sell is going to have a great impact.”
Payne said seating capacity in the new-look Hodge Center will be reduced from about 1,350 to close to 1,100, “but there will be no place nicer.”
Payne and George said they envision a loud and energetic venue with a feel similar to Duke University's infamously intimate Cameron Indoor Stadium that will produce a significant home-court advantage for the Spartans.
“It gets your attention,” Payne said. “It's not something that you can ignore.”
“When we go to play Belmont and Lipscombe,” George added, “they have these really nice big arenas, but they're not full. We've played at Winthrop, and there may be 400 or 500 fans, but they're so spread out, they don't make a difference in the game. If you get 400 or 500 in here, or more than that, it will make a huge difference.”
Among the changes inside Hodge will be new separate locker rooms for the women's basketball and volleyball teams, expanded training facilities, and all new furnishings, flooring and lighting down the entire main corridor.
The main focus, however, will be on the gym, which will be completely gutted and refurbished with a new floor, seats, lighting, scorer's tables and two state-of-the-art video scoreboards.
”It's as good as it gets,” Payne said. “Everything will be new - this won't even look like the same place. It will be as nice as anything in America.”
George said she sees Spartan games becoming the hottest ticket in town, which, as Payne noted, will help draw the kind of talent he hopes will lead to championships.
“If we as a department take advantage of that and promote it and market it,” Payne said, “I don't see any reason why Tammy and I can't recruit athletes and say, ‘You've got an opportunity to play for sellout or close-to-sellout crowds your entire career.' That is doable now because of this facility.”