An Arena's Architect
Dec. 6, 2007
by Jeff Smith
It's not easy to build a house, and the process is far more difficult when there is just one builder. Being the lone architect of a sports stadium is impossible to say the least. But for the last 40 years, Michigan's Crisler Arena has commonly been referred to as "The House That Cazzie Built." For the record, Cazzie Russell will tell you himself that he did not actually build the Wolverines' basketball arena nor was he the sole reason behind it. He and his teammates from the mid-1960s just helped a basketball program become a little more popular at a football school.
What perhaps is most intriguing of the 40-year-old venue, which will be celebrated by Michigan in late January, is that the "architect" of the building never once had a chance to play in the arena itself while at Michigan. In fact, Russell played his entire career at Yost Fieldhouse in Ann Arbor, a building he did not even get a chance to see until he was a freshman.
As a heavily-touted recruit out of Chicago's Carver High School, Russell narrowed his choice of colleges to Michigan and Cincinnati. While on an official visit to Ann Arbor, the 6-5, 218-pounder who averaged 21 points a game in high school could not actually see where he would potentially play because his host forgot the keys to unlock the doors at Yost.
Imagine, here is this coveted recruit who could play any position on the court and was known maybe more for his great hands and smoothness than his ability to shoot the ball, and he can't see the gym. So, Michigan improvised. The football school took young Russell to the football stadium. They told him to imagine the stadium full of fans and that he could help engineer that kind of support for the basketball program.
Perhaps they made their best pitch inside Michigan Stadium after botching the visit to Yost, but consider this. Cincinnati, which at the time was the frontrunner in the recruiting race, sent fellow alum Oscar Robertson to Chicago to visit and eat lunch with Russell at his high school.
"I just remember sitting down and talking to my idol at lunch," said Russell. "I am almost his size, about 6-5, and he's talking to me about Cincinnati as the school's ambassador. I ended up going to Cincinnati for a visit and it was like family there. Everyone treated me and my family really nice."
Done deal right? Russell was allowed to see the gym, he fit in like family, and the "Big O" came to his high school just to eat lunch with him.
Perhaps the expectations were far too high for any young high school senior to follow in the footsteps of Oscar Robertson. But for Russell, the quick change of heart was based on what Michigan's star center Bill Buntin told him while he was in Ann Arbor. He told Russell the Michigan program was on the move and he was needed for it to reach the next level.
Russell enrolled at Michigan in the fall of 1962, but would have to wait until his sophomore season to play for the Wolverines because freshmen were ineligible at that time. It's something that Russell admits is one of his few regrets.
"First of all I would say that just getting the chance to play in the Big Ten was an exciting moment," said Russell. "I got a chance to play at a top-notch Division I school that wasn't too far from home. There was a lot of hype surrounding my sophomore year because our freshman class had come in the previous year and challenged the varsity in practice."
While away from the court, Russell became friends with Don Canham, who was on then on the back-nine of his 20-year appointment as Michigan's track and field coach, a post he served until he began another 20-year stint at Michigan as the athletic director in 1968. Canham prescribed a conditioning regiment for Russell that involved running up and down the tough terrain of the school's golf course.
"Don Canham taught me how to run there," Russell said, "and he had me running down the No. 10 fairway at the golf course and back up the hill at No. 11. I remember there was this big `ol apple tree off the No. 1 fairway where I used to take breaks and relax. I loved those apples."
As a well-conditioned sophomore, Russell's first year on the court was a memorable one. He scored 30 points in his debut against Ball State and finished with a single-season school record of 670 for the year, an average of 24.8 points per game. Along with fellow All-American Buntin, Russell helped the Wolverines to a 23-5 mark in 1964 and guided the Wolverines to an 11-3 record in the Big Ten, which earned them a share of the conference title with Ohio State. The program won its first Big Ten title since 1948 and went on to capture its first-ever NCAA Regional Championship and a third-place finish in the NCAA Championship in Kansas City.
In 1965, Russell led Michigan to its second-straight Big Ten title after a 13-1 conference mark and went on to finish 24-4, falling in the NCAA Championship title game to UCLA. Honored with his second All-America distinction, Russell was the Big Ten's Most Valuable Player, averaging 25.6 points per game, which led to breaking his own single-season scoring mark with 692 points.
The following season was Russell's finest as a Wolverine. The senior leader helped Michigan to its third consecutive conference championship with an 11-3 record and guided the Maize and Blue to an overall mark of 18-8 before the team fell to Kentucky in the NCAA Elite Eight. Despite falling short of a national championship in his final season, Russell still considers the Kentucky game as a memorable game.
"We had some pretty good competition in the Big Ten those days and back then you only had the conference champion go to the NCAA Tournament," he said. "We came within one game of making it three Final Four appearances. A great trivia question would be `What team did Kentucky beat to get to the national championship against Texas Western?'"
The answer of course is Michigan and the 1966 NCAA title game has long been referred to as one of the greatest moments and upsets in college basketball history, and recently provided the storyline for the movie Glory Road.
"That (championship) game in `66 changed how African-Americans were recruited in that conference (SEC) forever."
In his three-year career in Ann Arbor, Russell scored 2,164 points in a span on 80 games, amounting to an average of 27.1 points per game. He set the single-season scoring record each year, after finishing with 800 points as a senior for an average of 30.8 points per game. His senior season ended with a vast number of accolades, including his second-straight conference MVP award, a third-consecutive All-America honor, and was also tabbed as the nation's College Basketball Player of the Year.
Under Russell's leadership, Michigan finished the three-year span 65-17 and finished 31-2 at Yost Fieldhouse. Buntin was right. Russell was needed to take Michigan basketball to the next level. His popularity and the team's success forced Michigan to construct a larger facility - Crisler Arena - as the Michigan fan base began to outgrow Yost Fieldhouse.
For Russell, it is a bittersweet feeling that he was never able to play a college game in Crisler Arena, but is honored to have his name so closely recognized with the building.
"That's a very humbling feeling," he said. "I didn't do this all by myself. I didn't win Big Ten titles by myself. I didn't pass the ball to myself. I have never wanted my teammates to feel that way, but we have had several reunions together and there is a lot of camaraderie between us."
Following graduation Russell was selected by the New York Knicks as the No. 1 overall pick in the 1966 NBA Draft. He would go on to play 12 years in the NBA with the Knicks, San Francisco Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls.
On Dec. 11, 1993, Russell was invited back to Crisler Arena to be honored as Michigan's first player ever to have his number retired. It is only fitting that in the house he built, yet never played in, his banner hangs in the rafters for all to see.
Today, Russell uses his offensive knowledge as a player to stress fundamentals and defense as the head coach of Savannah College of Art and Design - an NAIA Division II college in Georgia. In his 12th year of coaching, Russell has found success as a coach, but most importantly, he has had an opportunity to give back.
While he wishes he had had the opportunity to give back to Michigan as a coach, Russell knows he is still giving back to the sport he loves.
"I have been blessed here for the past 12 years, and everything I have learned, I get to share," he said. "There have been great kids that have come out of this program. I feel very humbled and very excited. You just might not be able to tell that by the way I walk after two new hips and a knee."
Wolverine fans will have a chance to see the Michigan legend when he returns to Ann Arbor for the Minnesota game on Jan. 31.
While time will be precious, after all he is a basketball coach in season, perhaps Russell will arrive early with a feeling of nostalgia. He might remember walking to the football games from his dorm at South Quad with apple cider in hand, saying hello to the passing fans and chanting "Go Blue!". He'll think about those apples alongside the golf course fairway and stroll past Yost, which is now home to Michigan hockey.
Ultimately, he will wind up at Crisler Arena. The "House That He Built".
A place where, for him, the doors will always be unlocked.