Blast from the Past: Big House on the Prarie

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The plush, sun-splashed meadow in the northeastern corner of rustic Summit County wasn’t always so peaceful. In fact, back in the 20th century, this piece of land near the intersection of I-271 and SR-303 was home to some of the wildest, most raucous nights in the history of sports and entertainment in Northeast Ohio.

Those of you who’ve been there know.

The Richfield Coliseum now exists only in fans’ memories. But the House that Mileti Built – which was razed in 1999 – exists there because the events that occurred there were so incredibly memorable.

The Coliseum opened its door in 1974 and eventually became the sports home of the Cavs, Crusaders, Barons, Force, Crunch and the AFL’s Cleveland Thunderbolts. The arena also hosted the 1981 All-Star Game that featured Larry Bird, Julius Erving and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – as well as Cavalier, Mike Mitchell, who electrified the crowd with 14 points in 15 minutes.

Through the first four years of the franchise’s existence, the Wine and Gold played in the decrepit Cleveland Arena on the corner of 37th and Euclid Ave.

The downtown arena held just 10,000 fans for basketball and hockey, and parking was limited. The inside of the gym, by all accounts, was less than pristine.

“The players on other teams – and maybe even on our own team – used to refer to it as ‘the black hole of Calcutta,’” recalled Joe Tait. “And they wouldn’t change or shower there because the showers bordered on disgusting. So what players would do – they’d stay at the midtown Sheraton across the street and they’d walk in their uniforms across to the arena.”

On March 24, 1974, the Cavaliers crushed the Knicks in front of 8,829 fans in the final game (for a while) in downtown Cleveland. The next season, they would relocate to the ornate arena in Richfield.

Nick Mileti was the impetus behind the construction of the Coliseum, working on the idea that the team should draw fans from both of the region’s major cities – with nearly five million Ohioans living within an hour's drive of the arena. The location hoped to capitalize on the confluence of the Ohio Turnpike, I-77 and I-271.

(Of course, that worked out better on paper than it did on a snowy night in February. Any veteran fan or concertgoer knew [how] to be prepared for a long procession on gridlocked Black Road – the only way in from Route 21.)

The Coliseum doubled the old Arena’s capacity – with over 20,000 seats for basketball and 18,500 for hockey. It was also one of the first indoor arenas to have luxury boxes.

Bill Fitch’s squad did not christen their new basketball home. That honor went to the Chairman of the Board.

On October 26, 1974 – while the Cavaliers were in New Orleans winning their third straight – Frank Sinatra played a sold-out Coliseum, opening with “The Lady is a Tramp” and bringing down the brand new house with “My Way.”

From a Cavaliers’ perspective, the Coliseum’s first year was a smashing success. Overall, they improved their win total from 29 to 40 in 1974-75. Cleveland opened the arena with a loss to Boston after opening the season with six straight road games. That loss to Boston drew 13,184 fans and was followed by consecutive wins over Phoenix and Detroit.

The team – and their new gym – finally found their footing in that season. And by the campaign’s end, they boasted the biggest crowd to watch a Cavaliers game, with 20,239 fans on hand to watch the Wine and Gold top the Knicks, 100-95, in the home finale.

Those first two years of the Coliseum’s existence were legendary.

The first rock concert held at the Coliseum featured a little band called Led Zeppelin, who played on January 24, 1975. Later that year, during Elton John’s first appearance at the new arena, Richfield Zoning Commissioner Richard Crofoot observed the usage of hippie lettuce and attempted to pass legislation to ban rock concerts at the Coliseum.

That didn’t happen, and the Coliseum went on to host countless major-league concerts in its first few years, including both George Harrison in 1974 and Paul McCartney in 1976. Bruce Springsteen and the E. Street Band blew the roof off the place on New Year’s Eve in 1978.

As great as the shows were in Richfield, the sports scene was even better.

In 1975, the Coliseum hosted a nationally-televised fight between an unknown fighter from Bayonne, New Jersey named Chuck Wepner and the heavyweight champion of the world, Muhammed Ali. Though Wepner was paid $100,000 for the fight (compared to Ali’s $1.5 million), the “Bayonne Brawler” lasted 15 brutal rounds with The Greatest.

A young actor named Sylvester Stallone, watching the fight at home, was inspired to write the script for “Rocky.”

Along with the Cavaliers, the WHA’s Cleveland Crusaders also called the Coliseum home – albeit for just a short time.

In 1975-76, the Coliseum hosted the WHA All-Star Game – pitting stars of American-based teams against Canadian-based teams.

That season also featured one of the wildest hockey games in the history of the sport – with the Toronto Toros jumping out to an 8-2 lead midway through the second period, only to see the Crusaders close the gap to 8-5 before the second intermission. Cleveland went on to take a 9-8 lead in the third before Toronto tied the game. But with 10 seconds to play, Cleveland’s Russ Walker scored to give the Crusaders a 10-9 victory.

That season would be the Crusaders’ last.

But when it comes to sports insanity at the Coliseum, nothing could compare the eponymous “Miracle of Richfield.”

In that now-famous series, the Cavaliers – led by local legends like Austin Carr, Bingo Smith, Campy Russell, Jim Chones and Nate Thurmond – knocked off the Eastern Conference Champion Washington Bullets in a thrilling seven-game series.

The Bullets topped Cleveland in Game 1 at the Coliseum, but the Wine and Gold evened the series in Washington when Bingo Smith, the only remaining original Cavalier, canned a 30-footer with two seconds to play for the 80-79 win.

The Cavaliers returned home to take Game 3, 88-76, but were beaten by 11 in Game 4 back in the nation’s capital.

A throng of 21,312 watched Elvin Hayes miss a pair of free throws with seven seconds remaining in Game 5 and the Bullets leading, 91-90. As time wound down, Bingo Smith attempted to duplicate his heroics from Game 2, but his off-balance shot was short. But Jimmy Cleamons, who was roaming under the basket for the rebound, grabbed the shot in mid-air and, with his back to the basket, spun in the game-winner as time expired.

The playoff-tested Bullets bounced back to win Game 6 in overtime – setting up a sold-out showdown in Richfield.

The arena was full an hour before tip-off, with the crowd standing and screaming, “We want the Cavs!” And that crowd watched their Cavs slug it out with the Bullets. The score was deadlocked 85-85 with nine seconds to play, when Cleamons inbounded the ball to veteran guard Dick Snyder, who dribbled down the left side of the lane, zipped past Wes Unseld and tossed a running five-foot shot high off the glass and through the net to give the Cavaliers the 87-85 lead.

As Phil Chenier threw up a desperation shot that fell short, fans stormed the floor. At that point, Cavs fans did something that even the players that witnessed it said they’ve never seen before or since: They tore down the stanchions.

"I would say it was like a riot, but a ‘peaceful riot,'" recalled Austin Carr.’"Everybody was just so happy, joyful. (Fans) were hysterical – that one hugging this one, this one hugging that one. It was just amazing to see, it was controlled and yet, completely off the chart."

The rest of that playoff run is history. After Jim Chones fractured his foot before the next series, the depleted Cavaliers met their match in that year’s eventual NBA champs – the Boston Celtics.

The Coliseum would see some of the best (and worst) of times for the franchise. Ted Stepien’s teams reached rock bottom while Lenny Wilkens’ clubs reached the summit of the Eastern Conference, only to be thwarted (repeatedly) by Michael Jordan’s Bulls.

The Cavaliers would call the Coliseum homecourt for the postseason from 1976 through 1978. George Karl’s comeback Cavs rallied to make the Playoffs in 1985 and Wilkens’ and Mike Fratello’s teams of the late-80s and early-90s reached the postseason in every season but 1991.

The 1993-94 Cavaliers were the last squad to play in Richfield, with the team finishing the season at 47-35. The final game played on the Coliseum floor was a 95-92 overtime loss to the Bulls in Game 3 of the First Round.

The last concert at the Richfield Coliseum was Roger Daltrey on September 1, 1994.

As the Cavaliers moved to Quicken Loans Arena (nee Gund Arena) in downtown Cleveland, the Coliseum lied vacant for five more years. But in spring of 1999, the arena was torn down.

The surrounding areas were allowed to be returned to woodland as part of the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, now Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The grassy meadow where the Coliseum once stood has become an important area for wildlife. Birds such as the Eastern Meadowlark, Bobolink, and Savannah Sparrow now inhabit the area, which has become popular with local birdwatchers.

Those fans old enough to remember the Coliseum remember a different type of Bird-watching. They remember the days of Keith Lee and Keith Furphy. They remember the days of Iron Maiden and the Iron Sheik.

From the boisterous fans to the outstanding game presentation, The Q is among the greatest arenas in the game today. But years ago, in a land far, far away, there were countless Cavalier memories made in a place that’s now just a spacious green pasture.