The nation's eyes will turn to the Kohl Center March 22 when the men's NCAA Tournament rolls into Madison for a three-day basketball extravaganza. Hosting this year's Midwest Regional is a privilege that UW's state-of-the-art facility has been anticipating for four years.
\You could say it's arrived,"" said John Finkler, assistant to UW's associate athletic directors. ""It's a major thing not only for the city, but for the state.""
Hosting an event of such national importance is a new experience for the university. While the Kohl Center sits less than a mile away from the old UW Field House, it is light years ahead of ""The Barn"" in terms of modernity.
According to Finkler, it became clear to the Athletics Department in the early 1990s that the Field House was no longer an adequate facility for basketball, due to serious fire code problems and the lack of available restrooms and concessions. The option existed to renovate the Field House, but at the cost of $20 million.
The journey from the Field House to the Kohl Center started with a bang when U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., donated $25 million to the project on April 1, 1995. The gift by the 1956 UW-Madison alumnus was the largest single private donation in the university's history.
""Our hats are off to Senator Kohl,"" Finkler said. ""His donation moved the bar up as to what would be possible.""
On June 26, 1995, Albert ""Ab"" Nicholas and wife Nancy announced their own $10 million donation to the new facility's construction. The Nicholas-Johnson Pavilion, a three-court practice facility built into the Kohl Center, now bears his name.
The list of Kohl Center benefactors grew longer when the Kellner family of Milwaukee gave a $2.5 million gift in November 1995.
In all, $49 million of the Kohl Center's final $76.4 million price tag was paid for by private contributions.
The Kohl Center officially opened Jan. 17, 1998 after 21 months of construction that began in May 1996. The UW men's basketball team christened the new 17,142-seat arena that night with a convincing 56-33 win over Northwestern.
The Big Ten's first facility to house both basketball and hockey contains 26 restrooms, more than 30,000 square feet of glass and enough concrete to build a sidewalk from Madison to Chicago, according to the UW Athletics Department's Web site.
In addition, the Kohl Center boasts the necessary space and built-in technology for media personnel to operate, a must for hosting NCAA Tournament games.
Perhaps the most important feature of the Kohl Center is its unique cantilever design, allowing the second balcony to hang directly over the first balcony without support beams. This allows every seat to be near the court without an obstructed view.
""One of the goals from day one,"" Finkler said, ""was to have a building that retained a lot of the intimacy of UW's Field House.""
""If you look at our record since our teams moved in there, I think we've done pretty well,"" Finkler said.
So forget about Aerosmith, Britney Spears and maybe even Wisconsin basketball and hockey. This week, the Kohl Center has bigger fish to fry.