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Smoke rises over Jordan-Hare Stadium during the 1996 Auburn-LSU game as the old Sports Arena, used by the gymnastics team, burns. (YouTube image)

Smoke rises over Jordan-Hare Stadium during the 1996 Auburn-LSU game as the old Sports Arena, used by the gymnastics team, burns. (YouTube image)

Thick smoke appeared above the Jordan-Hare Stadium stands growing thicker and darker. Fans in the southernmost end of the upper deck and above the student section alternated between watching the Auburn-LSU game on the field and the fire that quickly raged just a few hundred feet from the stadium.

Auburn’s gymnastics team trained in the university’s old gymnasium, officially named the Auburn Sports Arena. Made of wood and built in 1946, it officially seated 2,500. Unofficially, students and fans would cram into the little box affectionately known as “The Barn” to hang from the rafters, peer through doors over shoulders and try to watch the action of the men’s basketball team.

The Sports Arena had been painted many times with a white exterior. I passed it frequently while a student at Auburn and ducked into it a time or two for a glimpse. Old gym, for sure. When the Tigers moved into the bigger Beard-Eaves Coliseum in 1969, the little gym became secondary and largely forgotten.

Robert Dillard took over the Auburn gymnastics team in 1994 after a great run at Jacksonville State. Dillard died on June 13 after a long battle with cancer. Charles Goldberg of AuburnTigers.com has a fine tribute here to Dillard and his career. He was a fine coach and good man.

About That Fire
The fire raged, quickly consuming the Sports Arena. Television sets in the pressbox showed wild images of flames and black smoke rising above the stadium.

Robert Dillard, former Auburn and Jacksonville State gymnastics coach.

Robert Dillard, former Auburn and Jacksonville State gymnastics coach.

I was working for the Huntsville newspaper at the time and covering the game with a co-worker. As the smoke worsened, I left my seat with a notebook and pens, popped out of the press box to the ramp and headed downstairs.

Ten years earlier I’d worked about a year with the Auburn Sports Information Department as a student assistant. Jordan-Hare Stadium, at the time, still had some little quirks. One was a gap in the fence between the inner walkway of the stadium concourse. Dart through the gap and you could skirt underneath the stands to get to the locker room or out of the stadium without moving through the fans.

I did this, popped out by the locker room, out the players’ gate and up the little hill of what is now Heisman Drive. In 1996, fans could still park around the stadium and tailgate before games. Atop the hill the heat from the fully engulfed Sports Arena could be felt. Vehicles near it were being damaged. Reports later indicated the sparks or heat from a tailgater’s grill likely were the cause of the fire.

I made a few notes and hustled back to the stadium, retracing my steps. When I reached the elevator, then-Athletic Director David Housel — the former Sports Information Director when I was a student assistant — was arriving at the elevator with Dillard. When the elevator door opened I motioned for them to go on, but Housel said for me to get on with them.

Rebuilding from the Ashes
Dillard was in shock. His entire program’s gear and facility were gone. Just a couple of years into the job, he surely wondered if gymnastics, a non-revenue sport he was trying to build (and did, successfully), would be saved. A fire like this, the cost of all equipment … it was devastating.

Housel offered him reassuring words and said without a doubt, the gymnastics program would rise from the ashes stronger and better. Dillard nodded but he likely wondered what, with a season at hand, would happen. He gave me a couple of quotes I scribbled in my notebook and the elevator doors opened.

We three walked into the press box, and Housel and Dillard gave formal statements to the media. A day later the Sports Arena was a dripping, smoking mess of black ashes with a few damaged cars nearby. That was a day that Dillard, no doubt, wondered again what would happen to his program, and the day that Auburn’s gymnastics team began rebuilding into the solid program it still is today.

I always think about the fire and Dillard’s determination, and Housel’s assurances, when I hear anything about Auburn gymnastics. From what seems like the darkest of times, light can shine. Rest in peace, Coach Dillard.

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