Irwin Academic Center opens at UCI

Family and friends of Al Irwin lined in up in front of the 95-year-old man who sat in a furniture chair in a brand new academic center named after him Wednesday afternoon at UC Irvine.

They wanted to congratulate the legend, who was a great coach at UCI, as well as at Newport Harbor High, where he was also a standout athlete.

As Irwin spoke gently to the media, while smiling and reminiscing of his past, the line in front of him grew.

Irwin talked about the importance of athletics and of how it led to many opportunities in his life. He also expressed his emotions about the new facility that opened Wednesday — the UC Irvine Al Irwin Academic Center.

"Unbelievable," Irwin said of how he felt to see the new facility. "I never thought that I would be here with the way the university is now, from nothing to everything. All the students here now. This is great."

Irwin said he attended the groundbreaking for the facility, which is located below Crawford Hall and near UCI's pool. He saw the academic center in its complete form for the first time Wednesday.

It gave him excitement. The Al Irwin Academic Center includes 24 computer stations and seats over 100, including lounge space.

Near the entrance there is a large photo on the wall. It's Irwin huddled with his men's water polo team. Irwin spent 14 years at UCI from 1965-78, when he coached men's water polo and men's swimming and diving. He led the men's and swimming team to the 1969 NCAA championship.

In 1970, he was the assistant coach with the water polo team that won the team's first NCAA Division I crown.

Irwin remains popular in Newport Beach, where he grew up. Several of his friends from there came to the official opening of the academic center.

Irwin also excelled as an athlete at Newport Harbor, where he also came back as a great football coach.

A reporter at the opening asked Irwin what is his greatest accomplishment. He said it was playing football at the University of the Pacific and learning under legendary coach Amos Alonzo Stagg.

Irwin also talked about serving in the Navy during World War II and "not getting hurt," when he was a flight deck officer aboard the USS Lexington in the South Pacific.

All those life lessons and those opportunities he spoke of played a big part in his coaching. Jim Newkirk, who played football at Newport Harbor, said Irwin stressed academics and organization to his athletes.

Newkirk knew it made sense to name the facility after Irwin when Newkirk and his wife, Martha, provided the funding for the academic center.

Newkirk said he saw what the UCI athletes used before the new academic center — a small green trailer that included a few computers.

"When I saw that I knew we had to build an academic facility for the athletes," said Newkirk, who noted the plans started about three years ago. "I was thinking we have to find a place. I knew how much [Irwin] stressed academics, and being on time, and being organized."

Ben Orloff, a UCI baseball assistant coach and a former standout shortstop, is impressed with the facility and says it could be great for recruiting.

He said UCI didn't have a facility as grand as the new one when he attended UCI.

"This shows our commitment to academics," Orloff said. "It shows just how far we've come from where we were to where we are now."

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