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Murphy Center marks 40 years of memories

by Bill Lewis

From first kisses and first concerts to first days of college, Murphy Center may hold more memories than any other building at MTSU. As the arena enters its fifth decade, efforts are under way to renovate it and ensure that it continues to be a vibrant part of campus life.

After all, where else on campus—or anywhere else in middle Tennessee—did Elvis Presley make a live recording of back-to-back concerts? Recorded over two nights in May 1975, the King’s Dixieland Rocks CD is available at shopelvis.com, the official site of Graceland.

“When he sings ‘Falling in Love with You,’ he says, ‘We have another show tomorrow night,’ ” at Murphy Center, says Chip Walters, director of broadcasting for Nelligan Sports Marketing and someone who spends a lot of time in the building.

Elvis, who performed there five times, was one of dozens of top acts that drew fans by the thousands to Murphy Center in the years before Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena was built. With its free-floating cantilevered roof, 520 glass panels that form its walls, and 11,500 seats for concerts and sporting events, there was, and is, no place like Murphy Center in middle Tennessee. A who’s who of ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s entertainers—Elton John, the Who, the Beach Boys, Johnny Cash, the Eagles, the Judds, George Strait, and many more played there.

But those concerts did more than entertain local audiences. As Murphy Center reached its 40th birthday in December 2012, local officials were looking back and noting that the building played a part in the enormous growth of MTSU and the city of Murfreesboro.

“Murphy Center burst on the scene when MTSU was growing. High schools didn’t have enough room for graduation. The TSSAA [high school sports association] wanted to use it. I’m sure it influenced the decision of young people to go to school at MTSU,” says Bill Smotherman, who managed the building for years.

Just as all those entertainers found their way to Murfreesboro, so did their fans, and many became students or the parents of students. They also found out that Murfreesboro was a desirable place to live, work, and raise a family.

“It gave the city a sense of being cosmopolitan,” Walters says. “What other building has contributed so much to the growth of the city and the school?”

More than just a building, Murphy Center has been a catalyst for economic development, according to Tommy Bragg, Murfreesboro’s mayor. “Murphy Center is a great athletic and music venue that brings cultural options we never would have had. It spreads the word what a great place Murfreesboro and MTSU are when people come here to go to concerts,” Bragg says. “It has taught us locally how important tourism can be and why we should continue the great partnership the city of Murfreesboro has with MTSU.”

For many young adults who grew up in Murfreesboro, memories of Murphy Center begin early in life. The arena quickly became a focal point for the community after it opened Dec. 11, 1972.

For years, almost every rising seventh grader in the public school system was herded into the arena by the Rutherford County Medical Alliance, made up of the spouses of local physicians, to hear lectures about what was delicately called “health education.”

“We were talking about pregnancy,” says Madge Lewis, whose husband was one of the doctors. “The physicians spoke about sex. The girls had a conversation about pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.”

Not everyone was comfortable. “Some of the ministers and some of the parents were a little iffy,” Lewis recalls.

Unbeknown to University officials, Murphy Center quietly became a school bus stop and an after-school playground for elementary kids. That led to some heart-stopping moments on the indoor track.

“We’d have track and two or three world-class sprinters could come around the curve and run into three or four third-graders,” says Jim Simpson, director of the MTSU Varsity Club. Luckily, no one was ever injured.

Today, as the building and campus evolve, it’s possible that the track, which circles the concourse behind the seats, could move to a proposed indoor multipurpose sports facility. That building is still on the drawing board—a site hasn’t been decided on—but its funding is a key part of the University’s $80 million fundraising campaign.

“That would allow us to do something special with the concourse. When you walk in [today], it doesn’t feel like you’re walking into someplace special,” says Chris Massaro, athletic director.

One idea is to build spectator suites in space now occupied by the track and some seats, which would modernize the building and increase its appeal. But even in a building as large as Murphy Center, space is at a premium. During graduation ceremonies, every seat is filled, and reducing capacity has not been an option. Meanwhile, some upgrades have been made: new flooring for the basketball court, an improved sound system, new seats, and fresh paint and murals. Massaro says new wiring and a new roof are still needed.

“If we are to keep it for another 40 years, the facelift would make it hard to recognize,” Massaro says.

Murphy Center is a “cultural icon and should be treated as such,” says Massaro. “There is no other building in Rutherford County or the midstate that holds as many memories as Murphy Center. I’ll bet more people went on first dates there. They graduated there. Now their kids or grandchildren have graduated. You mention Murphy, and everybody has a memory.”

The original four buildings of Middle Tennessee Normal School are still in use after 100 years. But, for many, 40-year-old Murphy Center is MTSU’s most sentimental spot.


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