Duquesne unveils plans for $45 million renovation of Palumbo Center
When plans for Duquesne’s $45 million reconstruction of Palumbo Center were revealed Tuesday, men’s basketball coach Keith Dambrot couldn’t help but feel a wave of nostalgia.
The place he hopes one day will house the type of prominent program his father, Sidney, played for at Duquesne is getting a makeover. It will be named UPMC Cooper Field House after the school’s basketball icon, Chuck Cooper, who in 1950 became the first African-American drafted by the NBA.
The name matters to Dambrot.
“My dad played right after Chuck,” he said. “I heard lots of stories about Chuck Cooper. In 1954, Duquesne started three African-Americans and two Jews at a Catholic university. That’s very progressive. “I’m very proud of the heritage and what this school stood for. In some ways, that’s probably why I’m here.”
With six years left on his contract, Dambrot is pleased Duquesne is investing in its basketball program.
“Without investment, it’s hard for your family to grow, so you have to feed your family,” he said. “That’s pretty much what they’ve done with this building.”
Duquesne President Ken Gormley and athletic director Dave Harper are thinking big, all but tearing down the 30-year-old Palumbo Center on Forbes Avenue and replacing it with a new facility in the same footprint that will house everything from sneakers to school books. Groundbreaking is scheduled for March.
By the time the building opens in time for the 2020-2021 basketball season, Dambrot hopes he’ll have a team worthy of its home.
“We have to do our job. We have to win games before this building is built,” Dambrot said. “If we can build momentum as the building is built, now we can take a huge jump.”
The arena will seat roughly the same number of people as Palumbo (4,400), but Dambrot wants to make it “a ferocious place to play.”
Charles Cooper III, president of the Chuck Cooper Foundation and son of the new building’s namesake, might have coined a nickname when he said he hopes to see Duquesne players “taking people to the hoop at the Coop.”
Gormley said the result of nearly two years of construction will be something more than a renovation.
“It is a transformation,” he said. “A lot of glass, a lot of lights so you can see the city. Everything is going to be turned upside down. A total re-imagination of this facility.”
Partially because Harper bugged Gormley about it from the time both were hired three years ago. Plus, they have no interest in maintaining Duquesne’s status quo.
“I was barely sitting in my chair and we were looking at ideas for this concept,” Gormley said. “If you don’t shoot high and think big, you’re going to continue to be doing small things. That’s not what we were trying to accomplish here.
“He had a vision of Duquesne athletics returning to its grandeur and not just sitting still and accepting mediocrity. He wanted to go for big things right away, and that’s my kind of thinking.
“We have in mind re-imagining all of Duquesne athletics and this is one major step in that direction.”
Gormley is most proud the project will be entirely funded from outside sources. Student tuition fees or other university monies will remain untouched, he said.
Support came from graduates, foundations, friends and even state government. Duquesne received $2 million from the Redevelopment Assistance Capital grant program.
It’s more than just a place to play basketball, volleyball and lift weights. Among the additional features are:
• The Gilliand Center for Academic Success and the Gilliand Pavilion, which will feature a new Hall of Fame and a 150-seat Father Sean Hogan Lecture Hall.
• The Vaccarello Center, named for former football player Vinnie Vaccarello. It will feature indoor practice and recreational space, including a 60-yard enclosed field and track.
• The Joe and Kathy Guyaux Practice and Player Development Center , which will include two basketball practice courts, an observation balcony and team dining areas.
• The John and Karen Folino Sports Performance Center will feature nearly 10,000 square feet of training equipment, sports performance labs and a nutrition center.
• The Schaming Family Basketball Suites will house office areas for men’s and women’s basketball, including a film room, individual instructional rooms and meeting rooms.
• The Jerry and Janet Cholewinski Athletic Suite will put most of the athletics staff in one area.
• The A.J. Palumbo Atrium and Gate will be in honor of the original benefactor, with a new gate, main entryway, fan store and concession area.
During construction, other arrangements must be made for work areas and, of course, games.
The basketball teams will play at PPG Paints Arena and other venues during the 2019-2020 season, with perhaps more road games than usual.
“We’re a little bit up in the air right now as to the exact logistics of everything,” Dambrot said. “It’s natural to play (at PPG). Obviously, it’s a little expensive and a little big.”
But the big picture is what it means to the future of Duquesne’s athletic program.
“Keith and I have always talked, we’re not building a season, we’re building a program,” Harper said. “And to build a program, you have to have the facilities and this is a critical step for us.
“I think this is going to push us right to the top half of the (Atlantic 10) and if you’re in the top half, all you have to do is jump a spot or two to get to the top.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.