From decades of sweaty sports—with no AC—to today’s resort-like outdoor pools, and from hellish registration lines to swinging jazz shows, Gregory Gym has seen it all. A look back at why it’s been the center of campus life since 1930.
Excerpted From The Texas Book Two: More Profiles, History, and Reminiscences of the University. Edited by David Dettmer. Coming in March from UT Press.
These days the busiest place on the Texas campus must surely be Gregory Gymnasium. From 6 a.m. to midnight the building is full of students, staff, faculty, and other Austinites lifting weights, riding stationary treadmills, bicycles, and cross-trainers; playing handball, raquetball, and squash; and climbing the artificial rock wall. A renovated indoor swimming pool is a popular spot for early-morning lap swimmers, and in 2005, two new outdoor pools opened—one an extravagant “leisure pool” and the other a handsome lap pool landscaped with date palms. On the top floor are four basketball courts that can also be used for volleyball, and above that is a walking track that on the east end looks down on the luxurious lap pool. It is hard to imagine a better-designed or more heavily used university sports complex.
Walking up the stairs from the entrance to the fourth floor there is a tangible memory of the old building. In remodeling the annex, the original south exterior wall of the old gym was integrated into the new building—the beautiful old brick is marked with stunning geometric concrete touches. The original gym is now the home of the nationally ranked Texas volleyball team. These exciting contests are played on the same gym floor where the University’s basketball games once were. Before the fall of 1977, when varsity basketball moved to the new Frank Erwin Center, men’s and women’s hoops were played on the same confined court in Gregory. Just like then, now there are solid balconies on three sides and below them bleachers that pull out to the floor. The front features a stage with a curtain. For decades it was a loud, intimidating place for archenemies like A&M to visit, and for several generations of University students it was literally the place where everything happened.
For generations of UT students, Gregory Gym meant one thing: registration. Especially in the fall when the weather was hot, waiting in line outside and then spending an hour or more inside the non-air-conditioned gym was an ordeal. Registration was a maze of tables placed on the gym floor and arranged by department where the student would wait in line to get a card for the section of the class she needed.
If the class was full or otherwise not available, the student would be sent to a mid-level official called a “sectionizer” who would advise on how best to fix a schedule. If there were several sections of a lower division class, this usually meant being assigned to a section that met on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, often as early as 8 a.m. The sectionizers were usually graduate students who worked for $50 a week and considered notably unsympathetic to the desires of the hapless freshmen.
After the registrant ran through the hoops on the gym floor, he or she ascended to the stage, where the cashiers were enclosed in metal cages. In the early ’60s the cost for a full load of 15 hours was usually about $50. The last step was going up to the balcony to have a picture taken for the student ID, which would indicate whether or not the student had bought a “blanket tax.” The blanket tax was the biggest bargain at the University. Using it meant free admittance into all varsity sports events, including football, plus most campus lectures and concerts.
Rec Sports, Celeb Players, and Naughty Names
Activities in the gym and its annex have always been associated with Intramural Sports and what has been known since 1972 as Recreational Sports, the non-varsity branch of UT athletics. A good capsule history of these activities can be found on the bottom floor of the annex. Lining the halls are framed photographs of intramural champions, from the 1920s to the present. The inventor of the intramural programs at Texas was the legendary Berry Whitaker, who coached varsity football and then began intramural sports in 1919. Whitaker’s idea was to hold the intramural finals during the early spring semester for boxing and wrestling, and later for volleyball and basketball. Other activities include obvious choices like flag football and softball, but also fencing, badminton, table tennis, and even horseshoes.
Recreational Sports has always operated out of Gregory Gym. Now as many as 500 teams participate. The competition has evolved from four divisions—Fraternity, Club, Housing, and Independent—to new divisions that include Open, Orange A&B, White A&B, and Greek. In addition, there are a Law and Graduate School League, women’s leagues, and, since 1974, three coed divisions. Some of the legendary fraternity teams have been the Fijis and the Kappa Sigs (thought by some to pledge new members based on their athletic prowess), and a housing winner year after year was the Oak Grove Men’s Co-op.
On a tour of the bottom floor “wall of fame,” assistant RecSports director Bob Childress points out some of the notables who have played intramurals. Included are legendary Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry, trailblazing heart surgeon Denton Cooley, major philanthropist Jack Blanton, and A-list actor Matthew McConaughey.
Teams name themselves, and as we get to the ’60s and ’70s, some pretty frisky names appear, such as two coed football teams named “The Cunning Linguists,” and the “Holes and Poles.” In the 1980s an excellent football team made up of members of the Vietnamese Student Association called themselves the “Napalms.” Childress says some names had been not approved because they were just too raunchy or politically incorrect. The subtlety of some names is evidenced by a law school football team who called themselves the “Nads.” It was their cheering fans (“Go Nads!”) who completed the joke.
Different intramural sports were always popular, but for 21 years (1930-51) the biggest event by far was Fight Night (a.k.a. “Fite Nite”), an evening of boxing matches held on the floor of Gregory Gym.
The boxing ring was set in the middle of the gym and was flat on the floor, not raised. There were divisions by weight, and Fight Night was a must-see University event. The crowd was not just from the University—prominent Austinites, including the governor, flocked to Fight Night. On the stage during the fights there would be fencing matches, and some years there was a second ring on the floor for wrestling. Other than Longhorn football and in some seasons varsity basketball, Fight Night was the biggest athletic event on campus. It must be remembered, however, that boxing, along with baseball and horse racing, was the most popular American sport during the ’30s and ’40s.
Culture in the Gym
By the 1950s and ‘60s, the University had something of a space problem when it came to popular performers on campus. This was a combination of exploding enrollment and growing sophistication on the part of those responsible for booking literary and musical attractions. There were four campus mainstays: the Texas Union main ballroom, Hogg Auditorium, Batts Hall auditorium, and, by far the largest, Gregory Gym. The popular spring Shakespeare productions directed by B. Iden Payne filled up Hogg, popular speakers including political pundit William F. Buckley and Lil’ Abner cartoonist Al Capp spoke in the Texas Union, and Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, spoke to a standing-room-only crowd in Batts auditorium. But the biggest attractions were booked in the old gymnasium.
By 1958, Harry Ransom’s dream of a great literary center was becoming a reality. What was later to be known as the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center was acquiring some of its most important literary archives, and in spring 1958, the three most prominent English poets of the time each appeared on campus: H. Auden, Robert Graves, and finally T. S. Eliot himself. Both Auden and Graves appeared in Batts Hall auditorium. But with T.S. Eliot, nothing would do but Gregory Gymnasium.
The 69-year-old poet landed in Austin accompanied by his 31-year-old wife and former secretary, Valerie. Also with them was New York book publisher Robert Giroux. Eliot had a warm reception that included one of Provost Ransom’s first literary exhibits on Eliot and Modernism up in the Wrenn Library, where the presidential suite is now located. During Robert Graves’s visit to Austin he had gone out of his way to criticize Eliot and his work, calling several of his recent poems “sordid.”
More than 6,000 people were in the audience at Gregory Gym, some having driven from as far away as Louisiana. They heard the great man forcefully read his most notable poems, including parts of “The Wasteland” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Before Eliot left the campus, he passed on to Harry Ransom a manuscript copy of “The Wasteland” that contained an extra line. The story lives on that Eliot was presented with a Stetson cowboy hat.
Jazz in the Gym
By the early ’60s, the campus Cultural Entertainment Committee regularly scheduled top jazz acts for Gregory
Gym. Louis Armstrong had appeared in Austin numerous times before, but 1964 was the year that his hit “Hello Dolly” knocked the Beatles out of first place in the top music charts. For a young jazz snob, “Hello Dolly” was not
the reason to see the show—it was the soulful “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” “Muskrat Ramble,” “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” and a number that Pops introduced as one of the “good old good ones” he was playing for an old friend in the audience: “The Bucket’s Got a Hole In It.” Armstrong could still hit the high notes on his trumpet, and he and the All Stars were in fine form.
The Count Basie group was a fully stocked big band: four trumpets, four trombones, five saxophones, and a rhythm section that featured Count Basie on piano and Freddie Green on guitar. This was the early-’60s ensemble that almost blew Frank Sinatra off the stage in the live recording “Sinatra Live at the Sands.” Basie always opened his show with an old trick: a very soft piano solo by Basie accompanied by Freddy Green playing quiet rhythm guitar and then about two minutes into the piece: Pow! The whole band comes in playing fortissimo. There is nervous laughter from the audience because no one who has never heard an honest-to-God big band can believe how loud it is.