By Owen McCue (@Owen_McCue)
OLNEY — Ashwin Puri hasn’t been to a game at Tom Gola Arena before.
As he’s walked through the gym about 10 to 20 times since being named La Salle University’s Athletic Director back in June, he’s been able to envision what that might look like — both this upcoming season and in the future.
“The first thing is as we approach basketball season is how we can improve the fan experience,” Puri said. “How can we make sure students come and want to come and be engaged, and then I look around the building and think of little tweaks we can make, even before the renovation, to create more opportunities, whether it’s additional courtside seats or upgraded amenities. We have a plan to do all that this year.”
La Salle AD Ashwin Puri was introduced at Tom Gola Arena on Wednesday. (Photo: Owen McCue/CoBL)
Puri was officially introduced as La Salle’s Vice President of Athletics & Recreation and Director of Athletics at Tom Gola Arena on Wednesday morning. He takes over for Brian Baptiste, who held the position since 2019 before taking over as the Deputy Director of Athletics at the University of Miami (Fla.).
The first key area of focus Puri mentioned in his introductory press conference was “modernizing the university’s facilities” — followed by fostering a culture of collaboration and compliance, creating financial sustainability, and winning. He said the first priority was to complete the renovation of Tom Gola Arena.
With no football program on campus, La Salle’s men’s basketball program is the school’s top spectator sport and its arena one of the top draws to campus. However, those who follow the program and college basketball in general are well aware Tom Gola is long overdue for a major upgrade to compete with other programs in the city and Atlantic 10.
There was a slight facelift with a new paint job in 2021, but the facility hasn’t received a significant upgrade since the university turned Hayman Hall into Tom Gola Arena in 1998 and has routinely been compared to a glorified high school.
The university is currently in the process of improving the 3,200 seat arena, a process that dates back to 2013 when La Salle received a posthumous gift from an alumnus for $6.2 million, specifically for an arena project. With the stipulation that it needed to begin in the 2023 calendar year.
La Salle president Daniel Allen told Philadelphia Business Journal in an article last October that the project would cost between $15-20 million. Puri said the plan for the project is to begin as soon as the 2023-24 basketball season ends and be ready to go by tip-off for the 2024-25 campaign. He also said there would be an official announcement coming next month, when the university will be able to “show off” everything.
“This project is going to be a beacon of light not just for basketball, but for the entire community,” Puri told CoBL after the press conference. “It shows us what’s possible when we rally, we gather, we build consensus, we build a team and find the support financially from the donor community.”
La Salle’s men’s basketball program hasn’t had a winning season since a 17-16 (8-10 A-10) mark in 2014-15 and hasn’t had a winning conference mark since the 2012-13 squad that went 24-10 and 11-5 in the league. The team drew an average of 2,910 fans during the Sweet 16 season and neared 3,000 fans per game the following season, but La Salle’s home attendance hasn’t rivaled that since, dropping to 1,481 in 2022-23 despite the hiring of alum Fran Dunphy as head coach.
“Basketball’s ingrained in this city and this university period,” Puri said. “It’s our flagship sport and we’re going to invest the necessary resources to make all La Sallians proud.”
Firing longtime coach John Giannini in 2017-18 didn’t prove to be the answer to the problem as Ashley Howard continued to struggle to get the proper talent and results, combining to go 45-71 in four seasons and Dunphy’s squad went 15-19 (7-11 A-10) last season.
It will still be a challenge, but in order to become competitive in recruiting and on the floor, it’s clear the Explorers need a significant improvement to their home gym. Puri, who arrived at Villanova a year after a renovation at Finneran Pavilion, plans to usher that in.
“A new building jumpstarts everything,” he said. “The ability to recruit and making this a point in the recruiting process to show off our new gym, but it’s also the opportunity to show off new revenue streams, getting more people interested and becoming a crown jewel of our program, so it’s critical. Facilities are right up there with name, image and likeness and all the other things that go into recruiting too.”