Former coach reflects on gym’s history
In the News: Former IC men’s basketball coach Bill Merris reflects on his memories of Memorial Gymnasium, which will be taken down later this year.
Illinois College’s Memorial Gymnasium holds many memories for former IC men’s basketball coach Bill Merris.
Merris learned Monday that IC’s board of trustees had voted to demolish the old gym, where Merris coached for 38 seasons.
His memories of Memorial Gymnasium actually predate his coaching days.
“I played basketball at IC beginning in 1952-53, which was the first full basketball season that the college used the building,” Merris said. “At that time, the gym had skylights in the roof that leaked. I remember playing games in which pails were placed on the gym floor to catch water drips from around the skylights.”
Merris graduated from IC in 1956 and began coaching the college’s basketball team in 1958.
“My first team had some players that I had played with and I was a little concerned about how I could handle coaching them,” Merris said. “But we started with the McKendree tournament and won it, and then I felt more comfortable with the team.”
Merris said the construction of Memorial Gymnasium’s floor was unusual.
“The hardwood boards on the floor run across the playing area instead of with the flow of the game,” he said. There are two different stories as to why the floor was constructed like it was, according to Merris.
One story says it had to do with where the bleachers were originally going to be installed, which was on the north and south sides of the gym, instead of on the east and west sides. The other reason is because doors on the south side of the gym [long since bricked over] were originally meant to lead into a seating area for the swimming pool. Merris said the doors were never used because the pool was later built on a lower level.
Merris recalled two basketball games against crosstown rival MacMurray College — one in the 1960s and his final home game in 1996.
“The first time I defeated Mac was on a last-second shot by Dick Clough of Carrollton in the 1960s,” Merris said. “And I’m happy to say that my last home game was a victory over Mac.”
Merris is glad he had the opportunity to coach in Memorial Gymnasium.
“At the time I played and coached, we thought Memorial gym was a very adequate facility,” he said. “For example, when the Bruner gym opened, I was in the foyer area of Bruner talking to a guy who had played for me in the 1970s, and a former IC student and friend said to him, ‘Don’t you wish you had played in this building? His response was, ‘Yes, but I had a very enjoyable time playing in Memorial gym.’ That goes along with what I think. The players enjoyed playing in Memorial and I enjoyed coaching there.”
IC trustees voted Feb. 17 to demolish Memorial Gymnasium, which has been in poor condition for many years. The project will begin in June and be completed by mid-August. The college plans to save the gym floor’s center circle.
Memorial Gymnasium has been a part of the IC campus since 1951, but has not been used as an athletic facility since the Bruner Fitness and Recreation Center opened in 2003. IC stopped using Memorial Gymnasium in 2016 when offices in the building were relocated. IC officials determined that the cost to maintain or remodel the building was too high. The gym’s site will become a green space.
Memorial Gymnasium was named in honor of the IC men and women who participated in wars the United States fought in from 1829 to 1947. The gym served as the site of many notable moments in IC history, including commencements, the college’s first sports competitions for women in the 1970s, and many record-setting games over the years.