Welcome to the place where March went mad. For college basketball fanatics everywhere, the Jon M. Huntsman Center is remembered as the site of the 1979 National Championship game pitting Larry Bird's Indiana State squad against Magic Johnson and Michigan State. Back then, it was known as the Special Events Center.
Utah's recent move to Pac-12 means the JMHC is now known primarily as the conference's largest basketball venue. But is it among the Pac-12's best?
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Fairly ho-hum offerings here. Nearly every stand is dedicated to basics: hot dogs, popcorn, nachos, and Coke products ($4 each); candy, bottled water, Vitamin Water, and soft pretzels ($3 each, $1 extra for dipping cheese).
A handful of stands branch out with brats ($5), Ute Burgers, barbecue beef sandwiches and chicken sandwiches ($5 each with chips). The lone pizza stand I saw will set you back $6 for a personal pepperoni or cheese.
The most unique entrees here belong to Chile Verde (variety of burritos, salads, platters, or super nachos for $9; soft taco or quesadilla for $7; bean and cheese burrito for $5; and churros for $3) and Yoshi's Rice Bowls ($6 each; feature chicken and your choice of sauce: Hawaiian, Teriyaki or "Raging Bull", AKA "Spicy"). I personally thought the Chile Verde offerings of the person sitting in front of me smelled like a messy diaper, but to each his own.
Sweet treats include ice cream novelties ($3), Dippin' Dots ($4, $6, or $8), Maui Wowi fruit smoothies ($4-$5) and a cinnamon almonds kiosk (bags ranging from $4-$7). My choice would be ice cream scoops from local favorite Leatherby's ($4-6).
The game I attended was the latest chapter of the Utah-BYU rivalry, now limited to one meeting a year with BYU in the West Coast Conference. With rivalry games come the expectation for an enthusiastic crowd, and this was no exception.
Problem is, most of the enthusiasm came from the traveling BYU faithful. My rough estimate was an even split of Ute red and BYU blue on this day, though Cougar fans were consistently noisier. The same was true around the court: BYU had as many cheerleaders at the game as their hosts, and Cosmo the Cougar was much more active than Swoop, Utah's red-tailed hawk mascot. In fact, other than one crowd-surfing trip and a sponsored pantomiming of a rollercoaster ride, Swoop was content to nestle in one corner of the court and not do much of anything.
The only saving grace for the Utes was their pep band and (to a lesser extent) their student section, The MUSS (Mighty Utah Student Section). Between fight song refrains, chants, and giant head cutouts, this group made their presence felt. Still, the basketball MUSS has work yet to do to reach the acclaim (or sheer numbers) of its football counterpart.
The closest cluster of restaurants can be found on 1300 East, about a mile and a half away. You'll have a wide variety of choices, but here are my two recommendations:
The Pie Pizzeria (1320 E 200 S) has reached near-mythical status in Utah. So much so that The Pie now offers to ship its pizzas anywhere in the United States. You're welcome to build your own, but odds are you'll find something to love among their specialty pies. From the "Mountain of Meat" to the "Xtreme Veggie", there's a pizza for just about everyone. Discover more of what The Pie has to offer in the review for Weber State's Dee Events Center.
Aristo's Greek Restaurant and Cafe (224 S 1300 E) has an atmosphere (and flavor) that's a bit more sophisticated. All the Greek classics you're probably familiar with (gyros, souvlaki) are here, as well as plenty of dishes you'll enjoy trying. In a group and can't decide what you want most? Get the Pikilia, a platter of assorted meats for $19.99: chicken, pork, and gyro meat, among others.
Other than the aforementioned MUSS and pep band, there wasn't much excitement from Ute fans in the stands during my visit. There was a fair amount that stood and clapped along whenever the fight song "Utah Man" was played, but that was essentially it in terms of spontaneous noise from the group. Contrasted with the boisterous BYU contingent, the pro-Utah crowd seemed relatively disinterested.
Another somewhat telling sign of increasing fan apathy: For the rivalry game, fans were encouraged to wear Utah red and participate in a "Red Out," which many did. For those who did not wear red that day, plastic ponchos made to look like jerseys were handed out at the door. These did not appear to catch on with fans, as I saw stacks of ponchos by nearly each JMHC entrance during a halftime walk.
A fair amount of free parking is available at Rice-Eccles Stadium (Utah's football stadium). This requires either a pre-paid ride on Salt Lake City's TRAX light-rail system or hoofing it uphill for just under a mile to make it to the Huntsman Center. On-campus parking appears much more restrictive here than at rival BYU, so that limits your options.
The tight circular construction of the building makes concourses somewhat cramped during breaks, but not impossibly so. The restrooms feel antiquated in both size and automation compared to modern offerings, highlighted by separate manual hot and cold-water knobs on the sinks.
My "Red Zone" ticket in the upper bowl would normally cost $5-8, but was given a premium $12 price for this rivalry game. Obviously, I would have preferred to pay the normal price, but having a chair-back seat with a great view of the court for $12 wasn't bad.
Besides that, the overall ROI experience has ups and downs. The food prices are reasonable, but the lack of variety is unappealing. The free parking at Rice-Eccles Stadium is nice, but not the one-mile uphill hike or the overcrowded TRAX ride. The scoreboard and sound system are state-of-the-art and quite attractive, but the rest of the building feels quite old.
One point for a unique architectural marvel. The "steel cloud" appears to merely hold the scoreboard, lights, and sound system. A closer inspection reveals that the JMHC was actually designed in such a way that the steel cloud actually holds the entire dome in place.
With the Utah program currently in a down cycle, the Huntsman Center experience follows suit in some ways. The crowd's lack of enthusiasm - besides being the most glaring inadequacy - admittedly led my eyes to wander during the game and perhaps heightened some of the building's other shortcomings.
It's hard to imagine one of the West's most historically successful programs staying down for long. When Utah begins to make noise regionally and nationally once again, surely its supporters will follow suit.
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