UNI celebrates the historic legacy of the West Gym

UNI celebrates the historic legacy of the West Gym

Crowd of people gathers outside West Gym

Commencement on the UNI campus marks an annual opportunity to celebrate our students as they embrace new opportunities. As degrees are conferred and mortarboards are decorated, families can fondly look back at how their students met challenges and eventually reached an important milestone in their lives.

While it’s impossible to adorn an iconic structure in a ceremonial cap and gown, members of the UNI community paid tribute to the West Gym on Friday, sharing memories and giving a final homage to a building that stood on the UNI campus for nearly a century.

Led by President Mark Nook, a ceremony was conducted to not only recognize the West Gym for its service to the UNI community, but to also acknowledge the individuals, groups and teams who will forever hold special memories of moments in the facility. 

“This has been a historic place for many, many reasons,” said Nook. “For our community, for our student body — it is hard to say goodbye to a building of this type, because many things have happened in here and it’s touched lives.”

Originally named the Men’s Gymnasium, the structure has withstood snowstorms and blizzards. Its bricks have buffeted wind and rain, along with humid Iowa summers, while housing countless athletic competitions, political speeches, physical education classes, ROTC events, dances, pep rallies, concerts, commencements and much, much more.

The West Gym’s origins begin after World War I when UNI (then the Iowa State Teachers College) began to prioritize recruiting men to the teaching profession, including physical education and coaching. College officials decided that a new gymnasium built solely for men’s physical education and intercollegiate athletics could aid these recruiting efforts.

Over the years, the building has served as a makeshift dorm, a boxing ring, a place to swim, a polling location and gathering spot for the UNI community. It has been the site of marriage proposals and its coordinates are tattooed on the arm of at least one alum.

Full West Gym History

In the summer of 2023, architects and consultants identified unexpected structural issues in the building, making it necessary for the West Gym to be vacated. Offices for track and field, cross country and softball relocated to other areas on campus. UNI’s wrestling program moved to a temporary training location for its student-athletes to train and practice. Since then, the Iowa Board of Regents has given UNI permission to plan for a new wrestling training facility, and fundraising efforts are underway.

Certainly, no UNI athletic team identified more closely with the facility devoid of many modern accouterments than the wrestling program. 

Coach Doug Schwab in West Gym

“The West Gym was an iconic space for us. So many memories were built there, but so many men were built there,” said UNI head wrestling coach Doug Schwab. “It’s not just a wrestling room, no, it’s so much more than that because of the lessons that were taught in it.”

The Panthers hosted and won the 1950 NCAA Wrestling Championships in the West Gym under head coach Dave McCuskey. Both the 1974-75 and 1977-78 UNI wrestling teams captured the NCAA Division II national titles for head coach Chuck Patten. That 1977-78 squad featured three individual national champions. In 2024, Parker Keckeisen became the latest UNI wrestler to be crowned a national champion and the latest in a distinguished lineage of athletes to have training in the West Gym that has included Olympic medalists.  

Fittingly, the Panthers won their final dual conducted in the West Gym, a 31-10 triumph over West Virginia on February 5, 2022.

“There's a grieving process to it,” said Schwab. “But I can tell you that, to me, the heart of the building isn't gone. The heart of the building is the memories that will live on.”

While the West Gym’s origins are rooted in attracting more men to campus and the teaching profession, the facility also helped usher in intercollegiate female athletics at UNI. The inaugural UNI women’s basketball game was played in the West Gym on December 7, 1968 as the Panthers registered a 60-30 victory over Upper Iowa. Although the opening of the UNI-Dome in the 1970s provided another home venue for women’s basketball, the program still played a number of games in the West Gym over the ensuing years with the final contest in the building coming against Northern Illinois on December 2, 2010.

No women’s sport at UNI enjoyed more success in the West Gym than the volleyball program. The initial match in program history was a two-set win over Coe in 1975. Then the program began its rise to national prominence when Iradge Ahrabi-Fard was named head coach in 1981. His illustrious tenure included wins in the West Gym over the likes of Iowa, Iowa State, Kansas, Minnesota and Missouri. 

One of Ahrabi-Ford’s star pupils was Bobbi Becker, who later became UNI head volleyball coach Bobbi Petersen. 

“I can remember so vividly watching now-Coach Petersen, but she was Bobbi Becker the star player at the time,” said Interim Athletics Director Bob Bowlsby, recalling the successes the Panthers had in the facility during his time of being assistant athletics director and athletics director in the 1980s. “I remember the first time when we got to the NCAA tournament and how proud we all were, and how much we knew that playing in the West Gym was an advantage for us.”

The success of the volleyball team only continued as Petersen took over as head coach in 2001 and guided the Panthers to a 29-1 record en route to another NCAA Tournament appearance. After dispatching Northern Illinois in the opening round, UNI competed in one of the most memorable matches in West Gym history in Round Two. After losing the first two sets to Minnesota, the Panthers rallied to win three straight sets to advance to face #1 Long Beach State in the NCAA Regionals.

The UNI volleyball program registered a three-set victory over Creighton in its final West Gym match on November 11, 2006 before posting a straight set win against Bradley in the inaugural event in the McLeod Center a week later. While Petersen’s squad no longer competed in the West Gym, the volleyball squad still conducted periodic practices and workouts in the facility until 2023.

UNI volleyball players in huddle

“I know to some this is just a building. But it isn’t and it wasn’t. It was a home. It was our home,” said Petersen. “It provided a space for so many of us to grow up, learn to fail and to accomplish things that we may not have even thought we could have accomplished.”

No West Gym retrospective would be complete without mentioning the vibrant history of men’s basketball in the building. The facility opened during the tenure of Coach A.D. Dickinson as the Panthers competed against the likes of Iowa Conference foes such as Central, Cornell, Coe, Parsons, Upper Iowa and William Penn. Dickinson was followed by O.M. Nordly, who guided the program to five conference titles and the school’s first-ever victory against Iowa State in 1938-39.

The State College of Iowa program truly came of age when a swaggering Missouri native named Norm Stewart was hired as head coach in 1961. Stormin’ Norman guided the Panthers to their first-ever berth in the 1962 NCAA College Division Tournament, leading the squad to a win against Hamline. In 1963-64, Stewart’s squad defeated Iowa State and registered a pair of NCAA Regional wins in the West Gym to advance to the NCAA College Division National Tournament. That team’s 23 wins remained a program record until 2009-10. The Panthers would topple Iowa State again in 1964-65.

UNI students playing basketball in the West Gym

Coach Jim Berry manned the UNI bench for UNI’s final years in the West Gym, culminating with a contest against Eastern Illinois on February 10, 1976. The Panthers then moved into the recently completed UNI-Dome for the final five games of the 1975-76 campaign, registering wins in all of those contests. But over a decade later, both the UNI men’s and women’s basketball squads would return east of Hudson Road to play in the West Gym. A leaky UNI-Dome roof forced the women’s team back to the West Gym for the 1998-99 season, while the men would also play multiple games there. A 83-37 win vs. Drake on Feb. 22, 1999 would mark the final time the UNI men competed in the venerable gym.

During the farewell to the West Gym, held on a sunny Friday afternoon in May, both coach Petersen and Schwab spoke of West Gym Magic. Said Petersen, “I do know that the magic of the West Gym will live in the hearts of many of us, all of us that are here today, and it will live on always.”