How the DakotaDome’s New Neighbor Unleashes the Full Potential of Coyote Athletics

November 8, 2016 / Al Harris

In order to understand the significance of the University of South Dakota’s new $66-million Sports Performance Enhancement Complex, you need to get familiar with its neighbor, the DakotaDome, and the community of Vermillion, South Dakota.

Tucked into the southeast corner of the state, the city of Vermillion revolves around its university like few other places. For the past 36 years, the largely rural community has rallied around its Coyotes in the DakotaDome, a 10,000-seat concrete and steel structure that rises above the plots of farmland surrounding it in all directions.

It’s an iconic structure across the entire upper Midwest region, one whose official capacity coincidentally matches up more or less with the total population of Vermillion. At some colleges, it can feel like the entire community turns up and takes a seat on gameday. At USD, it’s physically possible.

Designed with football in mind, the dome took on a multi-purpose role over the years and served as the cornerstone of Coyotes athletics. The university’s volleyball, track & field, swimming & diving and basketball programs all called it home as recently as last year.

The configurations for basketball and volleyball, in particular, left something to be desired. The dome’s spacious dimensions put a damper on basketball games. Volleyball games, on the other hand, felt the squeeze of a 400-person capacity setup located behind the student bleachers.

“We got really good at being resourceful in the dome,” University of South Dakota Athletic Director David Herbster told Vermillion Plain Talk.

But if the University of South Dakota was going to elevate the profile and potential of all its teams, that resourcefulness would need to be channeled into a new, unprecedented endeavor, one that lightened the load on the DakotaDome while giving the Coyote community another icon to be proud of.


An aerial rendering of the new Sanford Coyote Sports Center and DakotaDome (right)

Three pieces make up the new Sports Performance Enhancement Complex:

  • The Sanford Coyote Sports Center, which consists of a 6,000-seat arena and training facilities for men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball
  • The innovative Science, Health and Research lab that houses four university academic programs
  • A new outdoor track and soccer complex

With so many moving parts, the biggest challenge facing a design team comprised of Populous and Sioux Falls-based Architecture Incorporated was arranging each piece in a way that let people flow from one space to another effortlessly.

“Just like with any journey, you always find your true north first,” says Jim Swords, my teammate on the project. “For us, that was figuratively and literally the DakotaDome.”

With this in mind, we placed the arena, now known as Sanford Coyote Sports Center, directly to the south of the dome. The two facilities align perfectly, with the center of the north-south oriented football field lining up with half-court of the hardwood. Visitors transition between the arena and dome via one of two bridges.

Both venues share more than just coordinates. Two new premium spaces, the Arena Club and DakotaDome Club connect the two structures, with each overlooking the playing surface of its namesake.


The resulting arena and its intimate intensity will be on full display Saturday, Nov. 13, during a men’s/women’s basketball doubleheader. Women’s volleyball, meanwhile, has already felt right at home since starting its season earlier this semester, drawing record crowds and losing only once in nine home games so far.

In between games, the entire complex’s innovative features truly come to life. That’s when students and student-athletes cross paths in the Science, Health and Research Lab. Home to USD’s occupational therapy, physical therapy, kinesiology and sports sciences, and sports medicine programs, the facility boasts state-of-the-art classrooms, laboratories and clinics that connect seamlessly to the larger complex.

Housing academics and athletics under one roof puts the University of South Dakota at the forefront of a national trend, one that makes more sense the longer you think about it. The athletic department’s and university’s goals overlap with education, so the lab plays a prominent role in the new space in along with first-rate training components like practice courts and a weight room.

While visitors have already experienced the “wow factor” after first setting foot in the new arena and lab, the complex’s full impact won’t be felt right away. Its most important contribution to the university could very well be the gift of future growth in recruitment and other areas. Just like the stalks of corn taking root nearby, potential always comes before the payoff.

Meet the author

Al Harris

Senior Principal, Senior Architect / Kansas City

1 thought on “How the DakotaDome’s New Neighbor Unleashes the Full Potential of Coyote Athletics
  1. Great article Mr. Harris. I played my collegiate ball in a small rural town in Pocatello Idaho. Would love to see an architecturally sound facility such as the DakotaDome to replace the dated barn yard dome that is currently on campus at Idaho State University.

    Also, I would like to get in touch with you regarding an innovative product that will most certainly add value to each of Populous staduim and entertainment venues

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