Memories of Richfield: A Q&A w/ Author Gary Webster

“Hello everyone and Happy Thanksgiving.”

That’s how Gorilla Monsoon welcomed viewers to the first Survivor Series in 1987 when the pay-per-view broadcast emanated live from a place known as the Richfield Coliseum.

I’d never heard of the Richfield Coliseum until I started diving into wrestling history with my 1998 PWI Almanac. I remember being curious, flipping through the back of the almanac looking at all the old pay-per-view and supercard results, mainly looking for anything from Ohio. One of the first results I saw was the 1987 Survivor Series and it was listed from a place called Richfield, Ohio. I was familiar with the big cities like Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, Akron and so on. But I’d never heard of Richfield.

It turns out that Richfield is situated between Cleveland and Akron, two of Northeast Ohio’s biggest cities. The arena itself was the main entertainment venue for that area from 1974-1994, home to numerous sports like basketball and hockey, as well as concerts, the circus and of course, pro-wrestling. Its placement at nearly the halfway point between the two burgeoning metropolises enticed residents from both areas along with fans from nearby cities like Youngstown and even Pennsylvania cities such as Erie and Pittsburgh, both of which were within a few hours drive of the arena.

Recently, I was listening back to some episodes of one of my favorite sports podcasts Good Seats Still Available, which covers the history of forgotten sports teams, leagues and venues that don’t exist anymore. This particular episode was about the Cleveland Barons NHL hockey team (yes, there was an NHL team in Cleveland once upon a time) and the guest was author and WKKY-FM radio disc jockey, Gary Webster. During the episode the host briefly mentioned the Richfield Coliseum.

Credit: WWE

With this weekend being the 36th anniversary of the inaugural Survivor Series, I wanted to do something unique to celebrate it. I wanted to dive deeper. I wanted to know about this coliseum that once existed in the middle of Northeast Ohio farmland. To celebrate the occasion I reached out to Gary to talk about the history of the Coliseum, his experiences and what he feels the legacy of the building is.

And so, on this 36th anniversary weekend of the first Survivor Series, let’s take a deep dive into some history and look back at the venue that hosted the inaugural Survivor Series (along with the 1988 and 1992 editions of the event): the Richfield Coliseum with author and sports historian Gary Webster.

Q: Where exactly is Richfield, Ohio and why do you suppose that it was picked to put a sports arena there?
Webster: Richfield is a village between Cleveland and Akron. The Coliseum was built there to accommodate fans from both cities attending basketball and hockey games. The building itself was at the interchange of State Route 303 and Interstate 271. Where the Coliseum once stood is now an empty field.

Q: The Coliseum was built by a guy named Nick Mileti. What can you tell me about him?
Webster: Mileti is a very interesting guy. In the early 1970s, he owned the Indians, Cavaliers, Crusaders, and the 50,000 watt AM radio station that broadcast their games, in addition to owning the Coliseum. How he accomplished that (using other people’s money, basically) would fill a book. Mileti sold the Crusaders in ’75, was ousted as Indians CEO in ’74 by stockholders tired of losing money, sold the Coliseum in ’76, and sold the Cavaliers in ’79.

Q: In doing my research, I discovered that Mileti wanted to build more than just the Coliseum in Richfield and create an “entertainment district” surrounding it which could have possibly included stadiums for the Indians (now Guardians) and the Browns. Is that accurate? If so, why do you think that never happened?
Webster: I haven’t heard of  plans for stadiums at the site, but that may be, as Mileti loved to think big. He envisioned the Coliseum as the hub of a development that would include office buildings, shopping malls, restaurants, movie theaters. But Cleveland and Akron simply stopped expanding. The metroplex stopped growing, and started shrinking, so the Coliseum sat there by itself.

Q: What was the general reaction to the Coliseum when it opened?
Webster: The general reaction was WOW! How did Mileti build a palace like this without asking for any public money? I remember my first trip to the Coliseum. It was in ’74 for a Crusaders game. The Coliseum was such an enormous improvement over rickety old Cleveland Arena. Many Clevelanders were upset with Mileti for moving the Cavs and Crusaders away from downtown, but he got a state of the art facility built when the politicians couldn’t.

The Richfield Coliseum and neighboring farmland.
Credit: Wikipedia

Q: The building was primarily built for the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers who were a fairly new franchise at the time it opened. What were the Cavs like in those early, formative years of the franchise?
Webster: The Cavs were the laughingstock of the NBA their first season. They lost their first 15 games and were 2-37 at one point. They averaged 3,500 fans per game the first year. It’s truly a wonder they survived long enough for the Coliseum to be built.

Q: The arena also hosted an NHL team briefly called the Cleveland Barons. I know you wrote an entire book on the subject but can you briefly describe the Barons?
Webster: The best way I can describe the Barons is the phrase I use in my book about them: the Barons should never have existed. The California Golden Seals should never have moved to Cleveland, but did so solely because of the presence of the Coliseum. It may have been the finest facility in the country, but Cleveland’s interest in hockey was waning. The Barons were a terrible, boring team that did everything wrong when it came to promoting itself when it arrived in Cleveland, especially by constantly losing. The Barons were a disaster from the day they arrived in Cleveland, and almost no one cared when they merged with the Minnesota North Stars and left Cleveland without hockey for the next 15 years.

Q: Could you describe going to a typical event there, like a Cavaliers game for example? What was the building like on the inside? Was it hard to get in and out of?
Webster: I saw many Cavaliers games there, and a few hockey games, plus some World Team Tennis matches and indoor soccer games. Compared to today’s arenas, the Coliseum was drab on the outside, and the concourses weren’t particularly fancy, either, but the arena itself was beautiful. There wasn’t a bad seat in the building. Entering and exiting were a pain when the crowds were large. I’d sit in my car for an hour or more waiting for the parking lot to empty out before trying to leave. Those who tried to fight the crowd, which I did occasionally, might sit in their cars for half an hour or more and literally not move an inch.

Q: What are some of your favorite memories of the Coliseum?
Webster: My favorite memory of the Coliseum was April 29, 1976: game seven of the playoff series between the Cavaliers and Washington Bullets during what we still call the “Miracle of Richfield” season. The building was sold out, the Cavaliers won by two points and moved on to the conference finals. I also fondly remember the game. I watched from the radio broadcast booth, getting to meet Joe Tait, the Cavaliers’ Hall of Fame radio voice. And, on a personal note, my first date was at the Coliseum: a Cavs game. Probably not the most romantic place I could’ve taken her. Maybe that was why she married someone else.

Q: What do you think led to the Coliseum’s downfall and eventual replacement by the Gund Arena (currently Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse) in downtown Cleveland?
Webster: There really was no “downfall” of the Coliseum, although it didn’t help that north-eastern Ohio’s miserable winter weather often made it a difficult and sometimes dangerous place to get to, especially since the expected development around it never happened. You went to the event, then you went home. There were no attractions to stick around for. The Coliseum’s fate was sealed when the mayor of Cleveland, Mike White, said in 1990 he wouldn’t support a tax for a new ballpark for baseball, without which the Indians would’ve moved, unless the plan included a new arena for basketball, to bring the Cavaliers back downtown. Without White’s support, the tax was doomed, so the plan had to be expanded to include a basketball arena to replace an arena that really didn’t need to be replaced. When the tax passed, the Coliseum became unnecessary.

1977-78 Topps Cleveland Barons Team Card

Q: Today the site of the Coliseum is open grasslands and woodlands, part of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Have you been back to the Coliseum site at all since it was demolished in 1999?
Wesbter: I haven’t been back to the site since there’s really nothing to see, but I have driven by the interchange many times since the building was demolished. I remember driving south on 271 and seeing the Coliseum in the distance, watching it grow larger as I got closer, and anticipating soon being inside and watching the event, probably a Cavaliers game. It feels strange to drive past the interchange now and see the empty space, remembering all the time I spent inside the building that once occupied that space.

Q: What do you feel the legacy of the Richfield Coliseum is?
Webster: The Coliseum gave north-eastern Ohio a world class sports and entertainment facility at a time when all we had was the aging, crumbling Cleveland Arena, and aging, crumbling Municipal Stadium. And we didn’t have to pay for it. It gave north-eastern Ohio something to be proud of when we really needed it.

I want to thank Gary for his generosity in answering all my questions. Gary has written several books on sports history including The NHL’s Mistake by the Lake: A History of the Cleveland Barons and The League That Didn’t Exist: A History of the All-America Football Conference, 1946-1949. His books can be purchased at Amazon and he can be heard every weekday 6am-12pm and Saturdays from 10am-1pm on WKKY-FM.