Johnson Coliseum is going to look quite a bit different this fall if everything goes according to schedule for Sam Houston State.

The home of the Bearkat men’s and women’s basketball teams and Sam Houston volleyball squad is receiving an estimated $12 million upgrade.

White Construction Company began work on the project, which was designed by Houston-based PBK Sports, on March 24, the day after Sammypalooza took place.

Much of the improvements will go to toward components of the building that fans might not necessarily notice visually when they walk into Johnson Coliseum, but will nonetheless make for a better experience.

“A majority of that is going to be deferred maintenance items,” Sam Houston State athletic director Bobby Williams said last Tuesday. “We are redoing the air conditioning. Some of the behind-the-scenes mechanical and maintenance issues are a major part of this project.”

The crew from White Construction has already removed the hardwood floor so that a new one can be installed. The locker rooms have also been torn out.

Larger locker rooms and a bigger training area for the athletes will be built in their place, as well as a media room and more spacious dressing rooms for coaches and referees.

“The whole east tunnel area — locker rooms, training rooms, storage room, even our team meeting room area — all got (demolished),” said Ed Chatal, who oversees Johnson Coliseum as Recreational Sports’ associate director of facilities. “Also, the court will have a new paint job, obviously, because we’ll have a new court coming in.

“We’ve kind of given way to some space that some of these garages that we would store stuff in. The north side will be all training. There will be not only a place for treatment, but also for wrapping ankles. We never had that kind of space. Kids would have to go out into the hallway to have their ankles wrapped. One of the big key features for athletics will be to enjoy more space for the student-athletes. We’ll be putting back the locker rooms pretty much one to one. The men’s basketball team is getting theirs, soccer will be getting theirs and women’s basketball and volleyball.”

There will be a suite area replacing the current lounge near the top of the north side of the arena and more pullout seats will be added in hopes of getting more fans flowing through Johnson Coliseum’s doors.

“There are about six rows above the pullout seats (on the north side of the arena) that aren’t very wide. We are going to knock that wall out and create a club area, a suite-level type situation,” Williams said. “We are going to dress up the concession stands and some of the concourse area.”

“The area known as the Bearkat Lounge, we’ll be able to access it from the side by the seats,” Chatal said. “So if the president or someone is entertaining before or during the basketball game, they’ll be able to go in and out, using it almost like a club suite. They’ll come out and there will be some bar-high tables. None of that will start until after June graduation.”

A bulk of the project involves replacing the air-conditioning systems, as well as the seats that go down to court level.

“A lot of the work is getting the old units out, then replacing them,” Chatal said. “Heating, ventilating and air conditioning is a big part of the project. It’ll not only make it more comfortable during the events, but it’ll be better during things like practice.

“There won’t be as many seats. I think we’ll have something in the 360 to 380 range. The old ones were 565. We’ll still have our media table on one side with teams and team benches on the other side. I don’t think people will see much of a difference there.”

Replacing the air-conditioning units and the telescopic seats took up a large portion of the budget on the project, but Chatal said those were necessary because the equipment had been in so long that repairs were no longer possible. The air-conditioning units were installed when Johnson Coliseum was built in 1976, while the seating was put in more than 30 years ago.

“I think the professionals will tell you the HVAC stuff, that it’s meant to go 25 to 30 years, but ours went 40,” Chatal said. “We’ve pushed it on that.

“The bleachers, as my understanding, went in in 1983. We needed some help there because we couldn’t find parts anymore. The last couple of basketball seasons, you probably saw a couple of rows that were empty. We couldn’t really fix them; they were beyond repair. We called our guy from Conroe. He did a great job of keeping them alive. He had to replace the motor system one time. They were due.”

While construction has been going on, the coaches who had their offices in Johnson Coliseum (men’s basketball coach Jason Hooten, women’s basketball coach Brenda Nichols, soccer coach Tom Brown, tennis coach Jim Giachino and volleyball coach Brenda Gray) had temporary offices built in the parking lot by Holleman Field.

Additionally, the largest event that will be moved because of the construction is Sam Houston State’s August graduation, which will be held at Woodlands Church. Sam Houston State’s spring semester graduations are still set to be held at Johnson Coliseum.

With the renovations, Williams believes the Bearkat sports teams that utilize Johnson Coliseum will be able to lure more prospects to Sam Houston while providing fans with more seating options.

“We’re trying to get a wow factor for our teams so that they can recruit,” Williams said. “I think we are going to be able to attain that. We’ll be able to add that club seating area and some of those amenities that we haven’t had in the past to help us generate more revenue.”

The Johnson Coliseum project is expected to be finished in the fall, possibly before conference play in volleyball gets underway in late September.

“Our goal is to be able to play volleyball in there,” Williams said. “It’s a tight timetable, but that’s what we’re looking for.” 

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Gene Schallenberg is the Sports Editor for The Huntsville Item.