Daily Pilot: Vanguard University saying goodbye to the Pit

After 80 years, it is time for Vanguard University to say goodbye to the Pit.

The university plans to demolish the gymnasium this summer and hold a groundbreaking for a new facility, Lions Arena, which officials are hoping to open on campus in 2024.

The construction is part of Vanguard’s 30-year campus master plan, which was approved by the Costa Mesa City Council in 2019. The first improvement was the opening of the Waugh Student Center in 2020, and the campus perimeter fencing and corner monument sign are now under construction.

Vanguard sent out an email blast to 60,000 alumni, fans and donors last week to announce Lions Arena, said David Vazquez, the school’s senior director of external relations.

"[The Pit] is in the minds and hearts of so many people,” Vazquez said. “It’s crazy. We’re sad to see it go, but it needs to go. We need something new … For us, it’s all about enhancing the Vanguard experience. This building was chosen as the next one because it does that, on the heels of doing the student center. It’s enhancing the student experience overall.”

Lions Arena will be a three-story, 61,000-square-foot building that seats up to 1,910 people for athletic events, more than double the Pit’s capacity. It will also feature locker rooms, a weight room, athletics training room and various athletic offices.

As importantly, it will be home to the kinesiology department, including department offices, laboratories and four new general classrooms.

Vazquez said the total cost to bring Lions Arena online will be just more than $40 million. He said the university is actively raising $12.8 million of that total; the rest will be financed.

It will be a home for a burgeoning Lions athletic community. Vanguard’s student-athlete population has more than doubled to over 400 students in the last four years, Lions associate athletic director Rhett Soliday said, and the school has introduced new sports such as wrestling, a dance team, men’s and women’s golf and men’s volleyball.

They add to the Lions’ proud tradition, which includes NAIA national championships in women’s basketball in 2008 and men’s basketball in 2014. The school’s new STUNT cheer team won a national title in 2021.

Soliday is also the men’s basketball coach, which means he has had plenty of special moments in the Pit. His children — ages 16, 11 and 9 — have grown up during his 12 years at Vanguard.

“I can say without any doubt I’ll cry when they take the Pit down, just because of the memories,” he said. “People talk about the Pit a lot, but when I think about this place I think about the people that have come through. Whether it’s the coaching staff, leadership … change is hard, but it’s also necessary. [Lions Arena] is going to be a beautiful thing.”

Vazquez said the school is trying to preserve some of the tradition of the Pit, which predates Vanguard at its current spot. The school, then called Southern California Bible College, moved to the present campus in 1950.

The court at Lions Arena will still be called Bill and Shirley Reynolds Court, in honor of the late former men’s basketball coach and his wife. Vanguard is calling this the Pit’s “farewell season” and is holding alumni events at its men’s and women’s basketball home games on Jan. 22 and Feb. 17. Then, on April 29, there will be one final “Farewell to the Pit” event.

Vanguard women’s basketball coach Russ Davis, in his 26th year, is excited for Lions Arena but will surely be sad to see it go. The games were a highlight, but also the basketball summer camps that the school would put on.

Davis was a friend of the late Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, who would have his Mamba Academy teams practice in the Vanguard gym. Four days after Bryant and eight others, including his daughter Gianna, died in a helicopter crash in January 2020, Davis returned to the bench to coach Vanguard after undergoing a battle with throat cancer.

“I knew everybody in the helicopter, except for the pilot,” Davis said. “It was sad to bring back those memories … but that was a special night.”

Another memory Davis had of the Pit was during the 1997-98 season. In his second year in charge, he led Vanguard — then called Southern California College — to the Golden State Athletic Conference title.

“It’s been home for me for so many years, and we’ve had lots of great memories in our program there,” Davis said. “Lots of great wins, championships, great times with the team. I have a ton of memories that I’ll hold with me forever.”

Vanguard men’s basketball senior Christian Wilson said the experience of the Pit definitely is unique. Unlike most more spacious college gyms, the stands go right up to the edge of the court, which can encourage trash-talking at times.

“It’s really loud and sweaty,” Wilson said. “There are times when the windows are fogging up, because of the people in there and how much energy is in there. I’m going to miss that small environment. When a big play happens, it’s so loud you can’t hear someone talk in front of you.”