Memories Endure from Memorial Stadium
It’s been 25 years since the University of Minnesota’s Memorial Stadium was demolished. With calendar year 2017 slipping away, it’s time to remember the Gophers’ old football home.
Minnesota played in the on-campus “Brick House” from 1924 through 1981 before moving into the Metrodome downtown. In my childhood and teen years I developed a passion for both the Gophers and the University on football Saturdays at Memorial Stadium. My dad was a longtime season ticket holder and attending games with him and my mother was a cherished ritual of fall.
I fondly recall the anticipation of each season and the football talk in our home. My father and I constantly argued about coach Murray Warmath. Dad thought the University made a terrible decision in the early 1950s not hiring Bud Wilkinson as coach. Wilkinson was a former Gopher standout as a player and became one of college football’s legendary coaches at Oklahoma. My father was constantly critical of Warmath, including his assessment of how the team blocked and tackled.
Warmath came to Minnesota in 1954 and had mixed results through the 1959 season. Then in 1960 the Gophers won the national championship. Between 1960 and 1962 Minnesota’s cumulative record was 22-6-1. During that era the Gophers also played in two Rose Bowls, losing to Washington and defeating UCLA.
Lets it be noted that Dad’s harping about Warmath’s coaching was more subdued in the early 1960s.
My father was a graduate of the University of Minnesota’s law school. He knew the campus well and to avoid traffic jams on football Saturdays he parked the car on the University’s West Bank. We walked across the old Washington Avenue Bridge and then several blocks further before arriving at Memorial Stadium. There are a couple of things about that walk I vividly remember including this:
Looking down at the Mississippi River while crossing that bridge scared the bejeebers out of me.
I recall, too, how there was pavement and grass down below part of the bridge at the west end. I regularly saw a small group of kids, about my age, gathered in the area. The enterprising 10 to 12 year olds liked to peer up at the masses crossing the bridge and yell, “Throw some money down!” Benevolent Gophers fans then showered them with pennies and other loose change from their pockets.
My dad insisted on early arrival at the games which started at 1:30 p.m. The stadium was mostly empty when we first sat in our seats about 12:15 p.m. The stadium loudspeaker blared John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” while Boy Scouts assisted early arrivals in finding their seats. Soon the Gophers took the field for warm-ups. I knew who many of the players were because I studied the Goalpost stadium program and memorized their jersey numbers. These were my heroes and I was entertained by everything they did on the field including simple calisthenics like jumping jacks.
When it was close to kickoff time the marching band took the field and played the “Minnesota Rouser.” I didn’t need the drama of a border rival game, or marquee opponent like Michigan to get me excited because the “Rouser” always sent chills up my spine.
For late season games there was also a different cause for chills. On cold November days I was wrapped up in a blanket, wearing winter clothes, and shivering so badly I thought the shakes might become a permanent condition.
I sat through rain, sleet and snow at Memorial Stadium. Mostly the conditions had little impact on the outcome of the games but in late October of 1955 there was a snowstorm in Minneapolis. At snowy Memorial Stadium the Gophers upset the No. 10 ranked Southern California Trojans. The SC roster was loaded with California boys and my dad always claimed the Gophers pulled off an upset that day because the warm-weather-bred-lads had never experienced the elements they faced in Minneapolis.
Most of the time fans didn’t have much appreciation for the bench style seats that were in place throughout the stadium. The width of each numbered seat was minimal and near the conclusion of the national anthem aggressive fans used to plunk down and claim their wooden space as fast as possible.
However, when the weather turned cold the crowded masses were grateful to share the body warmth of nearby neighbors. On nippy days it was common to see a flask making its way out of someone’s pocket. Unlike today’s stadiums, alcohol wasn’t sold at Memorial Stadium so it was BYOB—sort of. Public address announcer Julius Perlt gave a stern announcement before every game regarding the consumption of alcoholic beverages being strictly prohibited!
The crowd, particularly in the student section, let out a chorus of good-natured (?) boos.
Perlt also stirred the emotions of fans with his announcements of upset scores from big games around the country. He gave the scores backward, setting up the drama. “In the Big Ten today, Michigan, 10 (long pause)—Northwestern, 21!”
When the Gophers were in their glory years Memorial Stadium was packed. I was at the Purdue game in 1962 when a record crowd of over 67,000 watched the Gophers beat the Boilermakers. The biggest of games had fans sitting in the aisles and brought out local celebrities like Minnesota Twins owner Calvin Griffith.
I saw my first game at Memorial Stadium in 1954 and then witnessed almost every game there through the 1981 season. A few of them, of course, are favorites starting with a long ago Iowa game. The rivalry with the Hawkeyes back then was probably more intense than now. The crowd was raucous on November 13, 1954 when Minnesota halfback Bob McNamara literally carried Iowa tacklers on his back in leading the Gophers to a dramatic 22-20 victory.
The drama was greater and the stakes higher in 1960 when No. 1 ranked Iowa came to play No. 3 Minnesota at the Brick House. All-American nose tackle Tom Brown dominated the Iowa offensive line and the Gophers beat up the Hawkeyes physically in a 27-10 win. Minnesota went on to win its first national championship since 1941 and play in the program’s first Rose Bowl.
I am not sure there has ever been a more anticipated home opener for the Gophers than in 1968 when nationally-ranked Southern California came to town featuring the most hyped player in college football—Orenthal James Simpson. Warmath let the Memorial Stadium grass grow long hoping to slow O.J. but the All-American tailback and the Trojans had their way winning 29-20.
In 1977 coach Cal Stoll, an energetic and rah-rah coach, was trying to revive the glory days of Golden Gophers football under Warmath and before that Bernie Bierman. Stoll never got the program turned around before being fired after the 1978 season but on October 22, 1977 he led Minnesota to one of its greatest upsets. The Gophers totally dominated No. 1 ranked Michigan and won 16-0.
In the 1970s the stadium was in need of repairs and upgrades. Stoll and other athletic department officials had plans to dome the Brick House, turning the old stadium into a climate-controlled environment that could be used for multiple activities. If not for the Vikings and Twins, those plans might have materialized. Minneapolis boosters wanted to move those teams from Met Stadium in Bloomington by constructing a downtown multipurpose domed stadium. They got their way with the help of the Minnesota Legislature, and the Metrodome opened in 1982 with the Vikings, Twins and Gophers as tenants.
Horseshoe-shaped Memorial Stadium, with its handsome brick exterior, stood for 10 more years before it was torn down in 1992 to make way for new buildings including the Aquatic Center and Alumni Center. The stadium’s name was a tribute to 3,527 University workers and graduates who served in World War I. Some of the stadium’s bricks were used in the 1990s to build nearby Mariucci Arena, while others were sold off to the public as keepsakes. A reconstructed Memorial Stadium arch inside the Alumni Center also pays tribute to the old stadium.
Every once in awhile I have a dream that the stadium is still standing. With so many memories, apparently my mind won’t let Memorial Stadium crumble to the ground.