More than a century’s worth of stories are written on the walls at Northeastern’s Matthews Arena and hearing them is what got the wheels turning for Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis.
There was the one about Muhammad Ali training there for his second fight against Sonny Liston. It had been only two years since Ali converted to Islam, and he had the members of the Nation surrounding him along with cornerman Bundini Brown and comedian Stepin Fetchit. The price of admission to see the boxing legend was all of $1.
There were countless stories about US presidents, including Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, stopping at Matthews for political rallies.
There was one about the Celtics’ first home game in 1946, when actor and two-sport athlete Chuck Connors broke the backboard during the layup drill and arena staffers had to scramble to find a backup. The substitute backboards were at Boston Garden, which was hosting a rodeo. The backboards happened to be in the same spot as the Brahman bulls. It took two hours to clear out the bulls, rescue the backboards, and get them over to Matthews.
The more Hollis heard, the more it piqued his interest.
“I’m a person who, when somebody’s talking to me about something, I’m jumping on the computer and trying to figure it all out,” Hollis said. “Matthews Arena is one of, if not the oldest facility that’s used for sports today in the world. That alone was kind of a trigger.”
Hollis had been talking with his close friend, Northeastern athletic director Peter Roby, over dinner while the two were in Indianapolis during NCAA Tournament selection week. They discussed how hard it was for Northeastern to get opponents from college basketball’s power conferences to play at Matthews, which opened in 1910.
For Hollis, agreeing to play was the easy part.
He told Roby without hesitation, “We’ll come play you.”
But Hollis has always been one to think outside of the box, finding the crosspoint between sports, history, and culture to concoct some of college sports’ more interesting events.
In 2001, he came up with the idea for the Michigan State men’s hockey team to play its Cold War rivalry game against Michigan in the middle of Spartan Stadium, home of the football team. The game drew 74,544 fans. On Veterans Day in 2011, Michigan State’s men’s basketball team played North Carolina on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson, with President Barack Obama in attendance.
Hollis saw a similar opportunity against Northeastern, not just for the men’s basketball team, but for hockey and women’s basketball as well.
“As we got to talking, we started talking about the history of Matthews Arena,” Hollis said. “The two of us just started collaborating back and forth. Why don’t we bring the hockey team, then it grew into, why don’t we bring the women’s basketball team. We started to look at it as an opportunity to become a memory maker for our student-athletes.”
And that’s how this weekend’s “Winter Showdown” at Matthews Arena was born. On Friday night, the schools’ women’s basketball teams will tip off, and Saturday afternoon the NU men’s basketball team will take on the top-ranked Spartans. On Saturday night, the men’s hockey teams take over the arena.
The Spartans will be the highest-profile opponent to play at Matthews Arena since Duke came through in 1995; they are just the second No. 1 team to face the Huskies and the third team from a power conference (outside of Boston College) to visit Matthews.
“We were always excited about the prospect of having a program with the reputation of a Michigan State coming to our campus to play us,” Roby said. “Just given how things have worked out with respect to the kind of season that they’re having, it’s just made it that much more special and created a lot of buzz, certainly, for our campus and our alumni.”
Hollis saw the potential of all three teams traveling together, sharing meals, staying at the same hotel and walking the streets, taking in the sites. He also saw an opportunity to connect with alumni and donors from the Northeast corridor.
“It should be a great experience for Spartans that are up in that area,” Hollis said.
“The only ones that are stressed are the three coaches,” Hollis said.
Spartans men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo can vouch.
Along with being the former home of the Celtics and Bruins, Matthews Arena was also where Jim Calhoun stalked the sidelines for 14 years as NU’s coach. Calhoun was at a Michigan State game this week, and Izzo told him about the Winter Showdown.
Calhoun did a double-take. He said, “You’re playing who? Where? When?”
“I didn’t feel as good after I told him,” Izzo said.
Hollis acknowledged the risk — not just in terms of being upset on the court, but also in the loss of revenue as a road game. But the experience, he said, was more valuable.
“Sometimes you have to take it from an approach of, ‘What’s the experience like? What are the opportunities like?’ ” Hollis said. “This is one of those events. Nobody’s going to get wealthy off Michigan State going to Northeastern. Frankly, nobody got wealthy off the Carrier game or the Cold War. Those were very much break-even type events, but those break-even type events are the ones that really create the memories of a lifetime and that’s what we try to do over and over again.”
When Roby told his coaches, they were immediately on board.
“Anything that can give our student-athletes an opportunity to compete and measure themselves, I think, is a really, really good thing,” said Huskies coach Bill Coen. “We’ve never shied away from competition, but I think that when Peter brought the idea to us, we were doubly excited because it was a home opportunity.”
When Coen ran through the list of big wins in the program’s history — over Indiana, St. John’s, Providence, Georgetown, Florida State, and most recently Miami last month — they all had one thing in common.
“They’ve all been away from home,” Coen said. “Our students and fans and alums really couldn’t get a chance to see it, and see our team compete at that level. Saturday will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our fans and our student body and our university community to really see what this basketball program can be.”
On the one hand, Roby said, the Huskies take pride in the fact that teams aren’t breaking their door down to play them. It’s a sign of respect. On the other hand, finding games becomes a challenge.
“It’s difficult if all the games that you play against teams that are really high in the RPI are always on the road,” Roby said. “Just the law of averages aren’t always in your favor. We’re not afraid to go on the road, but we’d love to have a balance to it.”
Both Hollis and Roby believe a game like this will be a start in balancing the scale. Roby said he’s in talks with other power conference schools, and Hollis thinks the unified travel experience could be a model for other programs.
“I hope that after this weekend, when other schools see the kind of exposure and excitement that it created in a city like Boston, I’m hopeful that it will help us be able to convince other schools like Michigan State to want to expose their students to the same experience,” Roby said. “So I’m optimistic that this won’t be the last time we do it.”
Matthews Arena timeline
Apr. 16, 1910: Boston Arena opens
Dec. 14, 1910: First college hockey game between Harvard and MIT
Dec. 1, 1924: The Bruins played the first game, defeating the Montreal Maroons, 2-1
Oct. 10, 1926: Arena balcony opens, adding 2,000 seats
1924-28: Bruins home games played at Boston Arena
Jan. 17, 1930: First Northeastern hockey game
Dec. 31, 1934: First college basketball game between Notre Dame and Holy Cross
Nov. 5, 1946: First home game for the Boston Celtics
Dec. 12, 1952: First Beanpot hockey game
Oct. 4, 1979: Northeastern University purchases arena
Nov 11, 1982: Dedication of Matthews Arena, named after George J. Matthews, who helped fund its refurbishment.
Sept. 13, 1984: Bobby Orr receives honorary degree at fall commencement
Aug. 2, 1993: Funeral services for Reggie Lewis
Dec. 1, 1995: Hosts World Junior Hockey Championship
Source: Northeastern University