Last Sunday marked the 40th anniversary of the Carrier Dome’s opening, and as I reflected on all the momentous events staged inside that Teflon-coated big top, sage words from Winston Churchill sprang to mind.
“We shape our buildings,’’ he once opined. “Thereafter, the buildings shape us.”
The famed British prime minister and orator probably was thinking about Big Ben, the Tower of London, Winchester Cathedral or any number of ancient English castles and palaces when he uttered those words. But they easily could apply to other places and times, too. And the more I thought about the Dome, the more I realized how much it has shaped Upstate New York — and me.
Plopped down like some gigantic flying saucer on the Syracuse University campus where Archbold Stadium once stood, the Dome transformed not only the Salt City’s skyline, but the Salt City itself. It put Upstate on the national map, as people from Bangor, Maine to Walla Walla, Wash., tuned into national basketball and football telecasts from the only roofed stadium in the Northeast. Despite its spartan, at times sweaty, claustrophobic confines, it became home to so many iconic sports moments and concerts, with more than 38 million spectators navigating its wind-swept, revolving doors since its christening in 1980. There really is no place like Dome.
Pearl Washington broke ankles there and Joe Morris broke tackles there. It was a place where Donovan McNabb juked and Mick Jagger strutted. Billy Joel performed a record seven concerts in the arena — eight if you count the commencement address he sang after receiving an honorary degree from SU in 2006.
No coach has won more games in the Dome than Jim Boeheim, who initially threw a fit about having to play basketball games there because he didn’t want to give up the home-court advantage he enjoyed in cozy Manley Field House. Like many, he figured the Orangemen would draw, at most, a couple thousand more fans a game in the cavernous stadium built for football. Never in his or our wildest dreams could we have imagined record basketball crowds in excess of 30,000 spectators.
This is a place that hosted both Air Gait and Air Jordan. Lacrosse superstar Gary Gait earned his moniker after performing the never-before-seen move of leaping from behind the net and stuffing the ball over the crossbar for a goal. The Orange legend’s shot was so revolutionary — and so unstoppable — that lacrosse officials adopted a rule banning it. Michael Jordan would experience one of his finest and one of his worst college basketball games there while visiting twice with his North Carolina team. His Airness later would return as a member of the Chicago Bulls for an NBA exhibition game and as the proud parent of a daughter who graduated from SU.
Many tears have been shed inside the Dome, particularly at commencements and during a mid-January 1989 ceremony memorializing the 35 SU students who were killed in that terrorist bombing on Pan-Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Pounds have been shed in the Dome, too — or, at least water weight has, as sun rays through the translucent roof turned the building into the world’s largest sauna. This only added to the stadium’s legacy — and beverage sales. Many a patron walked out of the Dome feeling like a wet dish rag and wondering why a place named after the world’s largest manufacturer of air conditioners was not air conditioned.
Over time, the place became my second office. I’ve probably spent thrice as much time covering or watching events in the Dome as I have at any other sports venue, including the Orchard Park stadium formerly known as Rich, Ralph Wilson and New Era Field. At least 500 visits, by my best estimates.
Had space permitted, I easily could have listed 40 memorable moments I’ve eye-witnessed there. A handful that stick out were Pearl’s half-court, game-winning shot; SU’s football upset of top-ranked Nebraska; Michael Owens’ two-point conversion run that preserved a perfect season; at least a dozen Orange-Georgetown basketbrawl games, including the ejection of Hoyas Coach John Thompson; and unforgettable concerts by the Rolling Stones and Sir Paul McCartney.
I’m big on history, and I really like that the Dome was built on the site of old Archie, the one-time “eighth wonder of the world” that hosted many momentous moments of its own during its 71-year run. The Dome’s predecessor didn’t lack for star power. SU’s triumvirate of sublime No. 44 running backs — Jim Brown, Ernie Davis and Floyd Little — gained rushing yards, first downs, touchdowns and immortality on those hallowed grounds. It also was a place that saw the Orangemen shut down the legendary Jim Thorpe; Babe Ruth slug one of his longest home runs ever during an exhibition game; and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John Fitzgerald Kennedy deliver commencement speeches, a few years before becoming presidents of the United States.
The Dome clearly has been a worthy successor. And this Saturday, the tradition continues, though sans fans because of pandemic precautions. The Orange football team will host Georgia Tech in the first game beneath the renovated big top. A permanent roof has replaced the old, air-supported one, and it’s now high enough to allow for a gigantic, four-screen video board to hang, high above midfield. There’s even air conditioning in parts of the building. During the next few years, concourses, restrooms and concessions stands are expected to be expanded and modernized.
Some consider these renovations akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Critics wanted a new stadium, even if it meant at a site off-campus. But I’m happy the powers-that-be decided to stay put. Had money been no object, I would have loved to have seen a retractable roof, because there’s nothing like watching a college football game outdoors on a crisp, sunny, autumn day. But such a project was cost prohibitive.
So, we’ll settle for a Dome that’s undergone an extreme makeover. The building has served us well for four decades. It has shaped us in more ways than we could have imagined, and will continue to do so for years to come.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist. His latest book, “Remembrances of Swings Past: A Lifetime of Baseball Stories,” is available in paperback and digitally at amazon.com.