The first week in May is the annual spring cleaning time at our office and my favorite find so far this year has been the program from the first basketball game played at Memorial Coliseum. It’s loaded with gems.
In addition to the Tigers making the move to the 13,000-seat arena from their tiny 2,500-seat crackerbox (the Auburn Sports Arena, aka The Barn), there was added excitement with the return of LSU’s “Pistol” Pete Maravich to the Plains.
The previous season, Maravich’s sophomore year, it is difficult to say for sure how many fans were turned away at the box office trying to buy tickets, but it was certainly more than 6,000 who went home disappointed. The six-foot-five guard was college basketball’s rock star in an era few games were televised.
The fans who were fortunate enough to watch the 1968 game saw Maravich score 49 points, but Auburn won so everybody left The Barn happy except LSU’s players and coaches. For the rematch on January 11, 1969, the crowd was much bigger, but the result was the same. Maravich put on scoring and passing show, finishing with 46 points, and the Tigers won the game.
On opening night at the coliseum the Tigers were led by 6-7 center Bill Alexander, who scored 18 points. Alexander, a junior from Cherokee High School, would become an All-SEC player. His grandson, 6-10, 230 Haston Alexander, joined the Tigers this past season as a freshman walk-on after leading Covenant Christian School in Tuscumbia to the Class A state championship as a senior.
Auburn’s balanced scoring attack vs. LSU included 18 points from guard Carl Shetler, 14 from guard John Mengelt and 13 from forward Wally Tinker. Mengelt went on to become one of the top players in Auburn history, earning All-America honors, on the way to a successful pro hoops career.
When the coliseum was built it became the SEC’s second largest arena, leaving behind the tiny Sports Arena that had served as an airplane hangar on a military base during World War II before being disassembled in Louisiana, put on a train and reassembled on the Auburn campus. It was the home of Tiger basketball for two decades and opposing coaches around the league were not sad to see Auburn move to the larger venue. Even though The Barn had the smallest capacity of any SEC arena, the fans were so close to the action it gave Auburn’s teams a great homecourt advantage.
Mel Pulliam, who was the columnist for the LSU game program, pointed out that in addition to the seating capacity growing five times the new facility would house the entire athletic department while also giving the university a great venue for concerts and other events.
The arena, which would later be named Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum, also greatly expanded the concessions options for fans attending the game. You could buy a soft drink for 15 cents, the same price as Cracker Jacks. If you didn’t have three nickels in your pocket you could get a candy bar or bag of peanuts for one thin dime. If you wanted to splurge sandwiches were 35 cents.
Buying a ticket was a lot easier on the pocketbook, too, at $3 per seat. That is something current Auburn fans understand quite well whether they are season ticket holders or trying to line up a pair for any game played at Neville Arena.
Mark Murphy is an award-winning journalist who covers Auburn for 247Sports.
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