12,222: Busting the Attendance Myth of the Don Haskins Center
One of the greatest myths in the history of UTEP athletics involves the seating capacity of the Don Haskins Center. Originally opened in 1977, the Special Events Center gave the Miners a state-of-the-art arena to host their men's basketball games. Beginning in the 1980s, the team regularly sold out their home games with the official attendance listed as 12,222. Twenty years ago, the arena was renamed the Don Haskins Center, and the center scoreboard was removed for corner scoreboards and video boards. When the modifications were made, some permanent seats were removed but the 12,222 stayed the same. In later years, the capacity had been changed to an even 12,000, but that total was also in question.
New UTEP Director of Athletics Jim Senter was fascinated by the fictitious capacity total for the DHC and after research, he discovered that the home of the Miners actually tops out at 11,892. That number is 330 seats short of 12,222 and 108 shy of 12,000. The real story behind the mythical sold out number involves legendary public address announcer Paul Strelzin.
When the Special Events Center opened its doors for the first time on February 3rd, 1977 for the UTEP men's basketball game against Wyoming, nobody knew what the actual capacity was for the arena. Since the first game was a sellout, Strelzin, who was courtside as PA announcer made up the 12,222 number because he liked the number two and the way it sounded. UTEP officials must have liked it too, because they quickly adopted his sellout total. The Strelz passed away more than five years ago, but the story was confirmed by members of the Strelzin family and El Paso Sports Commission CEO Brian Kennedy. If you examine the official attendance listed in the scorebook from that game, it is written in pen as 12,222. Eddie Mullens worked from 1962-1970 as sports information director and then he came back to UTEP in 1980 as SID and worked there until 1996. He never questioned the capacity for the arena when he returned to the school and was told it was always 12,222. Whenever a basketball game had sold out, 12,222 was listed as the attendance total. I told Mullens about the origins of the sold out story. "Knowing Paul, that doesn't surprise me in the least."
Another important backstory to 12,222 involves the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Forty years ago, the NCAA had a requirement that arenas needed to be a minimum seating capacity of 12,000 to host an NCAA Tournament regional game. Four years after their new arena opened, UTEP hosted a first and second round regional from March 13-15, 1981. In the official game program, the Special Events Center was listed as "a 12,000 seat fieldhouse for Miner basketball games." That number complied with the NCAA's minimum requirement, yet UTEP has never hosted an NCAA regional since then. So, what was the actual capacity for the arena?
According to the Sun Bowl Association, their records date back to 1992. Their official capacity for the Don Haskins Center at that time was listed at 11,741. That was years before the school removed the center scoreboard and took permanent seats out of the corners of the arena to install the four corner scoreboards in time for the 2001-02 season. Then in 2014, more seats were taken out to accommodate the giant video boards on the north and south sides of the Don Haskins Center.
I downloaded a map of the Don Haskins Center off the UTEP special events website. The lower bowl contains 6,604 permanent seats and the upper bowl has 5,015 orange chairs. Add them up and you get 11,619. The DHC also has 36 wheelchair accessible seats and 237 portable floor seats. That brings the grand total to 11,892. I am not sure how that number is greater than the 1992 total I received from the Sun Bowl Association, since the arena has removed permanent seats on two occasions since then. What I can confirm is that from now on, UTEP will report 11,892 as its new sold out total.