To those who never saw the Raiders play there, it was just a 2800-seat gymnasium with wooden seats that rolled back to the wall on days there wasn’t a game being played. For long-time Raider basketball fans, the Physical Education Building was so much more and holds many indelible memories. The electric atmosphere. The birth of the Raider Rowdies. All-American players like Bob Grote, Roman Welch, Rodney Benson and Mark Vest. The great victories over Kentucky Wesleyan, District of Columbia, Charleston, Chapman, just to name a few. The 86% winning percentage!
But crowds that regularly reached maximum capacity and the university’s impending move to Division I in 1987 meant that the program had outgrown its cozy home of 18 years.
Paige Mulhollan, Wright State’s president from 1985-94, recognized an opportunity for the university to think big. Long-time PA announcer Gordie Wise remembers the impact Mulhollan had on making the dream come to fruition. “When he became president, he clearly was a guy with long-range vision. Something along the order of the Nutter Center was in the front of his mind pretty soon.”
Paul Newman, an administrator in Athletics at the time, also credits Mulhollan. “We owe a big debt of gratitude to him, because what he pushed for was the building of the Nutter Center. It was quite a unique undertaking.”
Significant credit also goes to the building’s namesake still today, Ervin J. Nutter. Nutter, a local businessman and philanthropist, was not only committed in a financial sense, but also committed to making the facility state-of-the-art.
“Erv flew our administrators and architects around the country to visit other facilities to pick out salient points that they’d like to incorporate into the Nutter Center,” remembers Newman. Two of the more unique features included two sections at one end of the arena that were on wheels, which could be moved depending on the event being held. Also, 16 hospitality suites were incorporated into the design, a feature commonplace today but not at the time.
The new arena would not only be the home to the school’s basketball and volleyball teams, it would become a major venue for concert acts, featuring a who’s who of talent, including Elton John, Guns N Roses, Frank Sinatra, and The Dave Matthews Band. It would become the home to intercollegiate athletics and the Department of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. The Berry Room would host meetings, wedding receptions and other events for up to 400 people.
After a 20-month construction period, the Raiders opened play at the Nutter Center on December 1, 1990 against Tennessee State. Due to various delays and scheduling issues, the team barely knew more about the surroundings than the fans. Former player David Dinn remembers, “I think we got one shoot-around [prior to the first game]. We were coming into a facility where we really didn’t know our way around the whole building.”
Anticipation was immense, for both the players and the fans. “It was like Christmas for us,” recalls Dinn, who was among a handful of players who started their careers in Division II playing in the PE Building, and finished it in Division I playing in the Nutter Center. “This is what was promised to us when we decided to come to Wright State, and now it was showtime.”
Opening night was a sell-out, with 10,234 fans in attendance to christen the new facility. After trailing by as many as 10 points in the second half, the Raiders stormed back and won in dramatic fashion, as Sean Hammonds recovered a loose ball under his own basket and laid it in with :03 on the clock. “The game was an afterthought, and that’s why I think it was so close,” says Brown. “Tennessee State was a good team, but it never should have gone down to the wire.
Twenty-seven years later, the Nutter Center still stands tall on the east end of campus, hosting concerts, events, meetings and, of course, Raider basketball. Its impact on the university has been undeniable.
“I personally think it was the single best thing that’s ever happened to the university,” says Brown. “Not just for what it did for basketball, but what it did for the university in terms of the number of people that come to see shows, to see events, that would never come on our campus.”
Grant agrees, “It became much bigger than Wright State basketball almost immediately. What a financial boost to the area, but more importantly for a young university at that time, what a name recognition boost it was.”
However, Brown believes there’s no question the Nutter Center legitimized the Raiders as a Division I program. “It just put us immediately at another level in terms of who we could recruit and who we could bring in to play.”