For a number of years some University of Northern Iowa athletics fans complained that the UNI-Dome was ill-suited to sports such as basketball, volleyball, and wrestling. They believed that the cavernous Dome was too large for the crowds that these sports were likely to attract. They mentioned the frequent need to take up and put down the basketball court and the occasional conflicting facility requirements between sports such as basketball and track. Some suggested that the West Gymnasium be improved to house these sports. Others believed that a new facility should be built. Basketball games cancelled due to continuing leaks in the Dome roof exacerbated the situation. Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Rick Hartzell believed that UNI could not be competitive in the Missouri Valley Conference unless it improved its athletics facilities.
Eldon Miller, former UNI men's basketball coach, stated that a fund drive for a new sports arena would be challenging, especially since the university chose not to seek support from the Iowa General Assembly or to raise student fees for that purpose. However, the fundraising efforts got off to a very good start when, in July 2000, Clark and Mary McLeod made what was then the largest donation ever given to the University of Northern Iowa. The McLeod gift of $4 million would be used in the construction of an athletics facility for the men's and women's basketball, volleyball, and wrestling teams. The facility was named the McLeod Center in honor of the McLeods' gift. In December 2001, Betty McCoy made a donation in honor of her husband, Robert McCoy, general manager of the Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier from 1952 to 1983. The basketball court was later named in his honor. Edward J. and Catherine Cassidy Gallagher also donated $500,000 to the project.
Total cost of the construction of the arena was set at $18 million. It would be located south of the UNI-Dome and would be connected to the Dome via an underground tunnel. The arena was expected to seat 6100 people, with room for an additional nine hundred in floor seating. In August 2002, the firm of Herbert Lewis Kruse Blunck, Des Moines, was hired as the architect for the project. That firm worked with Crawford Architects of Kansas City.
The university decided to combine the McLeod Center project with the proposed Human Performance Center. The two facilities would be considered one project in terms of fundraising and architectural design. As of April 2003, an estimated $15 million had been raised for the McLeod Center and $4.5 million for the Human Performance Center. The city of Cedar Falls allocated $1.5 million in landfill refund money to the project. In November 2003, the UNI Foundation announced major gifts from the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier ($100,000) and Greg and Lea Ann Saul ($150,000) that helped bring the amount of money raised to $17 million of the $18 million goal.
On November 12, 2003, the Board of Regents, on a 5-3 vote, gave final approval to begin construction on the McLeod Center. This close vote followed another close vote in the Regents Banking Committee. Those who voted in favor of the proposal cited strong private financial support for the project. If the project failed to go forward, UNI might well find fundraising even more difficult in the future. Those who opposed the project said that they believed that proceeding with the facility, now projected to cost about $20 million, would send the wrong message to the public during difficult economic times. They also feared that the facility would be a drain on resources in the future.
In December 2003, university officials announced that they had reached their $18 million fundraising goal, though they hoped to raise an additional $3 million to fund retractable seating, concert rigging for lighting and sound systems, a walkway to the Dome, a hospitality suite, and an athletic hall of fame. A $500,000 donation from Wells Fargo assisted in meeting that goal.
In February 2004, the Regents approved the sale of $10 million in bonds for McLeod Center construction. The bonds had a term of twenty years and an interest rate of 3.94%. Because some of the money raised from private sources was in the form of pledges, the bonds would be used to finance the project until the pledges were paid. Groundbreaking for the project took place on Homecoming weekend, October 9, 2004. President Koob praised Eldon Miller, former men's basketball coach, for getting the project on track. President Koob said, "Eldon Miller went door to door. He was single-minded and focused" in getting support for the project, which was to be complete by fall 2006.
In October 2004, the university received six bids for the construction of the McLeod Center. Due to increased prices for steel, all bids were higher than expected. The university recommended acceptance of the low bid of $19.56 million from Cardinal Construction Company of Waterloo. Officials considered temporarily putting aside several amenities associated with the project, or trying to raise additional money, in order to make the project budget fit the amount of resources available. On November 4, 2004, the Regents approved a revised project budget of $22,843,199 for the McLeod Center. The construction site fence was installed on November 8, 2004. The center was still planned to be the home for the volleyball team and the men's and women's basketball teams. It would also be the performance site for the wrestling team. The center had the potential to be the site for school and community events such as concerts, exhibitions, and sports camps. The center would include a commissary kitchen and a UNI Hall of Fame.
By spring 2005, construction crews were working with the steel frame of the building. Two large cranes hoisted the first of eight roof trusses into place on May 20, 2005. These massive structural elements are 208 feet long and weigh forty tons. The center of the span is nineteen feet tall while the ends are fifteen feet tall.
William Calhoun, Vice President for Advancement, saw the project as symbolic of public support for UNI and its programs. He believed that public perception of the successes of the Gallagher-Bluedorn Performing Arts Center and the Freeburg Center on the Allen Hospital campus helped with fundraising campaign for this project.
In June 2005, William Krause of the Krause-Gentle Corporation made a large donation to the McLeod Center. And in August 2005, Harshida Kothari, widow of Dr. Jitu Kothari, announced a gift of $500,000 to the Center. Dr. Kothari was a long-time friend of UNI athletics, who also served as the orthopedic surgeon for the football team from 1981 until his death in 2003. These two gifts were used to finance the construction of a two level walkway between the McLeod Center and the UNI-Dome.
In March 2006, the Board of Regents tabled a request from UNI to increase the project budget by $1.825 million, which would push the total budget over $26 million. The addition to the budget would be devoted to a scoreboard and a concession/commissary area. The Regents asked university officials to reconsider the financial arrangements for the scoreboard as well as the need for a complete kitchen set-up in the Center. The university planned to bring the matter back to the Regents in May 2006.
At their May 2006 meeting, the Regents approved an increase of $1.75 million to bring the budget for the project to about $26 million. The University would borrow money, to be repaid over ten years, to pay for a scoreboard that would cost about $876,000. UNI officials stated that advertising revenue from the scoreboard would generate enough income to pay off the loan. Officials also scaled back plans for a complete kitchen in the new facility. Instead, the university would purchase only the kinds of material and equipment necessary to store food properly.
By August 2006, the project was nearing completion, and officials were planning grand opening activities. On Saturday, November 18, 2006, the grand opening ceremony was held in the new McLeod Center before a football game in the Dome. The volleyball team played the first scheduled athletic activity on Saturday evening: UNI defeated Bradley University in three games to win the Missouri Valley Conference volleyball title. On Sunday, November 19, the men's basketball team defeated the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 69-58. On Monday, November 20, the women's basketball team lost to Iowa State University in overtime, 80-74. In their first match in the McLeod Center, the wrestling team lost to the University of Iowa, 18-15, on Tuesday, November 21.
On March 21, 2007, there was a small fire in the McLeod Center that was apparently started by a welder. The building was evacuated, and the fire was contained quickly. There were no injuries reported.
In September 2008, the university announced a gift from Peters Construction Company to build eight suites on the west side upper concourse of the McLeod Center. Dave Peters, president of Peters Construction Company, is a 1978 industrial technology alumnus of the university. Mr. Peters stated in an article in the Waterloo Courier, "My wife, Cindy, and I have been huge fans of Panther athletics and we realized this was a way to give back and see UNI athletics continue to grow." Each suite would seat twelve to sixteen people, and feature a hospitality area. Lease revenue from the suites was projected to bring in about $150,000 annually.
Compiled by Library Assistant Gail Briddle and edited by University Archivist Gerald L. Peterson, August 2000; substantially revised by Gerald L. Peterson, April 2003; last updated, March 21, 2012 (GP); photos and citations updated by Graduate Assistant Eliza Mussmann February 1, 2023.