Celebrating the Big 3-0

As the University of South Dakota prepares to blaze a new trail in Division I athletics, the 30-year old DakotaDome continues to act as the cornerstone of Coyote athletics.

"It's just been amazing for me to see the improvements made in the dome since day one," said Jack Doyle, former USD athletic director. "I think when teams from other Division I schools come into the DakotaDome to play a football or basketball game, it will be mind-boggling. There just aren't too many schools that have a facility like ours."

Completed in 1979, the DakotaDome has undergone a barrage of improvements over the past decade in order to keep the facility up-do-date and state-of-the-art, Doyle said. Most notably, the dome received a $13 million steel roof in 2001, allowing the university to eliminate the concern of snow build-up on the canvas roof.

"There were times that we were very, very concerned about the roof holding up to the weight of the snow," Doyle said. "It put a lot of pressure on USD facilities management as we used to have to go and shovel snow off the roof to prevent it from collapsing in."

Collapse it did in on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 1982, Doyle said, forcing the athletic department to examine other venues of a Saturday night football game against Morningside College.

"It was touch and go for a while and we actually had to look into playing the game in Sioux Falls," Doyle said. "Luckily, we had such a great cooperation between the workers and the university that we were able to have it patched in less than a week."

In fact, university officials, insurance officials, representatives of the Owens-Corning company, which manufactured the Teflon-coated fiberglass roof, all worked together to repair the dome in time to allow the Coyotes to host its football game on Saturday, Oct. 23, 1982 as planned.

It wasn't the first time that the university had to deal with Mother Nature's tendency to challenge the integrity of the unique, inflated top of the dome.

The public was invited to visit the DakotaDome in September 1978 to watch as the covering of the yet-to-be completed athletic facility was inflated. The roof was raised in less than an hour.

In March of 1979, a 5,000-square foot section of the dome's roof ripped in a Saturday snowstorm, shortly before the scheduled April 1 university move-in date. At the time of this roof incident, the dome's resilient floor and some of its seating had yet to be installed.

Although it may be hard for some to picture USD athletics and Vermillion without the DakotaDome, former USD Foundation President Ted Muenster said USD had to jump several hurdles to make the dome a reality.

"There was opposition to the DakotaDome from some segments of the faculty, citizens of the state and the Editorial Board of The Volante," Muenster said. "Some within the athletic department thought we should have gone with a different type of building but were ultimately accepting of the project."

Doyle agreed.

"In the minds of some people, it was very difficult to visualize a dome being built in Vermillion, so I think some people didn't think that it was necessary at the time," he said.

Muenster said the idea for a structure similar in scope to the DakotaDome was first proposed by then-USD President Richard Bowen. Following the exploration of several options for an indoor recreational structure, the concept was brought to the attention of Governor Richard Kniep  and the South Dakota Legislature.

Thanks in part to personal lobbying on the part of Kniep, the legislature allotted $5.2 million for the construction of what would become the DakotaDome, Muenster said. USD then raised $3.6 million from area banks, which was later paid off through the sale of seating contracts for basketball and football games.

After the first bid came in $3 million over budget, Doyle said USD worked with New York Engineer David Geiger to develop an air-inflated roof to bring the project within budget.

"If we hadn't built a dome with an air-inflated roof, we wouldn't have a dome today," Doyle said. "It was very, very unique because there simply weren't many domes in the country."

Constructed by Sharp Brothers of Kansas City, MO, the DakotaDome was completed in 1979 at a total cost of $8.2 million.

"If today you were to build that building, it would probably cost around $40 to $50 million," Muenster said. "So I like to think that $8.2 million in 1979 was a good investment."

Doyle, who also served as the men's basketball coach before becoming athletic director, said the DakotaDome posed some unique challenges to the basketball program when first opened.

"Playing in the New Armory, we always felt that we had a home-court advantage," Doyle said. "If you had 2,000 people in there, it seemed like you had 20,000 because it was so small and the fans cheered so loudly. In the DakotaDome that decreased somewhat."

In addition to playing home to five USD intercollegiate sports teams, the 10,000-seat DakotaDome has long served as the headquarters of the South Dakota High School Football championships as well as the Vermillion Tanagers football team.

"The first football game played in the dome was in August of 1979 between Vermillion and Yankton," Muenster said. "I remember it to this day because the dome wasn't air conditioned at the time and I sat there trying to not think about how hot and sticky it was inside."

Occasionally, the DakotaDome played host to a variety of football programs who were forced to relocate a game due to inclement weather. In November of 1991, Doyle said the five-state area was socked by a blizzard during high school playoffs, forcing area universities to join the playoffs in the dome.

"We had 17 games from 9 a.m. until late at night for six days," he said. "On Saturday night we had a football game between South Dakota State University and Minnesota State-Mankato that began at 11 p.m. at finished at 2 a.m. on Sunday morning. After SDSU lost the game, the SDSU coach told a reporter that he thought the Jacks played better on Saturday night then on Sunday."

Although much has changed in the DakotaDome over the past 30 years, USD Athletic Director Joel Nielsen said the original goal of the building has not.

"The DakotaDome is still the heart and home of USD athletics, even after 30 years," Nielsen said. "It's a very recognizable place and symbol for this state."

As USD moves to D-I, Nielsen said the dome continues to play a large role in helping to recruit new generations of Coyotes.

"The DakotaDome has a vital role in recruiting for all of our athletics," Nielsen said. "Not too many golf programs can say they have a driving range in the same facility as their locker rooms and weight rooms, nor can many softball programs play games in the middle of winter."

USD President James Abbott said the DakotaDome even helped USD gain entrance into the Summit League, a D-I athletic conference that plays home to SDSU and North Dakota State University.

"When the Summit League came here to see if USD would be a fit in their conference, they were very impressed with the DakotaDome," Abbott said. "Even though the Summit is not a football league, they were very excited about the dome and the facilities in it."

For Muenster, however, the legacy and history of the DakotaDome are its greatest attributes.

"The DakotaDome has seen some great events, from down-to-the-wire football games against SDSU to a speech by former U.S. President Gerald Ford," Muenster said. "Every time I drive by it I feel a certain sense of pride that I had something to do with building the DakotaDome."

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