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Rearview Mirror: Sells Out Again

Remember that horrible-but-trendy top 10 list of the 1927 season? Here I am, capitalizing on trends again.

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Georgia Tech v South Florida
Luckily, I found some pictures from a home game Tech played at a professional stadium, though I do not recall said game and was certainly not there.
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Remember that horrible-but-trendy top 10 list of the 1927 season during bye week? While the Rival ranking the next day was certainly better, I am unabashedly proven to be an opportunist. With the news this week that Tech was moving a home game per season over five years to Mercedes Benz Stadium, here I am, capitalizing on trends again. This week a Rearview Mirror special looks at some teams that have taken up residence in a professional football stadium.

In the fall of 2007, I was in Minneapolis to watch the Minnesota Twins host the Chicago White Sox. It was a largely meaningless game by that point in the season - both teams would go on to finish under .500 and well outside of the division race - but as a kid on a quest to visit all thirty Major League Baseball stadiums, just to be in the Metrodome that day was a fascinating experience. When the game ended, White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper stayed outside the dugout to chat with some of the fans who had made the trip. Despite my reluctance to be lumped in with my brother, as a resolute Cubs fan, staying after the end of the game allowed us a brief glance at a stadium at work. The mound slowly vanished, the Homer Hankie in right field was dropped to the turf, and the stadium workers began their methodical work to turn the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome into the home of the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

I say this knowing full well that I was probably predestined to be fascinated by stadiums themselves, no matter the sport, what with my quest to visit all the MLB parks and whatnot, but that afternoon is probably what first got the gears turning. My previous experiences with college football, though, had a pretty indelible mark on my mind. Be it Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Bloomington’s Rock, or Notre Dame Stadium, college football meant being on campus. So what the heck were the Golden Gophers doing in downtown Minneapolis?

At its apex, no one had ever seen anything quite like Minnesota football. The boys of the frozen north weren’t just a great football team for a decade, but, in the first half of the twentieth century, the Golden Gophers claimed six national championships. Before World War II, they were perhaps the most consistently dominant team after the fading of the Ivy Leagues from their stranglehold over college football. Yet, for some reason, by the turn of the millennium, they played in a pressurized, sterilized bubble miles off campus.

Lou Holtz famously declared that, “athletes want to play in the dome,” a statement that was largely true in the early days. Minnesota’s Memorial Stadium - the Brick House - sat roughly 56,000 fans, and up to 10,000 more on temporary bleachers, and also served as the home of Golden Gopher track and field. By 1981, though, the decrepit stadium was crumbling and prominent boosters and civic leaders wanted the team closer downtown. With the shiny amenities of a brand-new professional stadium and protection from harsh weather, attendance was expected to go up. The Metrodome, after all, was noted for its extreme home field noise advantage - just ask the 1991 Atlanta Braves a thing or two about that - so what was there to lose from the fan experience? Holtz’ statement only furthered the fervor, which seemed a great move. The University Aquatic Center was built into the old stadium’s horseshoe, and, just like that, an iconic Big Ten stadium was lost forever to the sands of time.

To quote Wikipedia, who sums it up as well as I could, “The move to the Metrodome proved to be a dismal failure in the long run, as Gophers home games lost the charm of being on a college campus. The Gophers had the lowest priority in scheduling, behind the Twins and Vikings, and had to move games if the Twins were in the baseball playoffs. The university also gave up most concession and parking revenue, although their portion of the rent was the lowest of the three Metrodome tenants.” Ultimately, Minnesota moved back onto campus to a brand-new stadium, TCF Bank Stadium, in 2009, in a slightly new location, thanks to the pool and alumni center. The team has seen up and down years since then, but the new stadium proved to have one thing the dome lacked - charisma.

This is what I’ll call the “redemptive” stadium move. It’s sad, and counterproductive for the program, but ultimately has a happy ending. Until I realized I was forgetting not one, but two other ACC Coastal opponents, I was ready to call this easily the most infamous of any on the list. But we’ll get to those in a bit.

The “Please Pardon Our Dust” Moves

Washington - The story of the Washington Huskies is a simple one: their stadium was really old. They wanted to renovate it. So they did. The Huskies played their 2012 home slate at the Seattle Seahawks’ CenturyLink Field, and that was the end of that. In 2020, Husky Stadium will celebrate its centennial as the home of the University of Washington football program. Simple enough.

The “No Other Option” Moves

Georgia State - Sure, there were some bad options on the table for the fledgling Georgia State Panthers team, and some that were never going to happen (see: “use Bobby Dodd Stadium”). But, for a team just now entering its tenth year on the gridiron, using the Georgia Dome as its first home wasn’t a bad decision. Now located in a stadium to call their own, anchoring more university related development in the building that was, in another life, Turner Field, and a life before that, Centennial Olympic Stadium, Georgia State did what it needed to to get by. Then, it seized an opportunity to set out on its own. And, in an ironic twist, now they play host to a professional football team of their own, the brand-new Atlanta Legends.

South Florida - I attempt to not let my personal distaste for this stadium, and the game I saw in it last year, get in the way of the facts - Raymond James Stadium and the Big Sombrero have been nothing but a generally good idea for the similarly new South Florida Bulls. As a young team on a young campus, there was no place for them to play out on campus. Though it may not be the fullest, most charming atmosphere, or most conveniently located, the Bulls home does what it needs to, and, really, its not like they were in a position to play anywhere else.

The “Understandable” Moves

San Diego State - The funny thing about the Aztecs’ former home is that, in part, it still exists. The only problem is now it’s the home of their basketball program. The entire university moved in the Depression years, and, with it, so did the home for their athletic teams. The subsequent stadium, the Aztec Bowl, was a fine home while they played in the equivalent of Division II, but when the time came for them to make the leap, moving in with the Chargers and Padres made sense. That they got the shell of a basketball stadium out of it, too, was just a plus. A visit to their arena yields more than one hint as to the land’s former use. To boot, the program is working on a new replacement home called SDSU West, as part of the school’s ongoing growth, which would bring them back onto campus, albeit to an expansion.

Temple - The Owls have now played in not one, but two NFL venues in their home city of Philadelphia. And, back in the 1970s when it came time for them to leave their small, moderately well-located stadium for the greener pastures of Veterans Stadium, it really just made sense. A small program got bigger with a larger platform to shine on. Temple, like San Diego State, is exploring a move back towards campus, though, despite a much-scrutinized plan, progress appears to have stalled.

The other “Redemptive” Move

Tulane - “But, Jake!” you say, “Temple and Tulane are a lot alike! They’re both in the American! They spent long stretches as tenants for professional teams!” Tulane, however is different than their conference brethren. See, before Tulane was a Pow6r [sic] team, it was a Southeastern Conference titan. Tulane Stadium, “The Queen of Southern Stadiums,” was billed as the finest in the southeast, and became the home of the Sugar Bowl, as well as later the site of three Super Bowls. Tulane Stadium, located on campus, was one of the most historic stadiums when the fifty year old stadium began to show its age. Rather than renovate the building, which had been expanded piecemeal, peaking at around 85,000 seats, New Orleans built the Superdome, which became the home of the Saints and the Green Wave. With it, one of the game’s great venues was condemned, as the structure was rapidly rusting into oblivion. Tulane’s story is largely similar to Minnesota’s, although Tulane, through a combination of administrative and conference changes, rapidly lost a luster they will never quite regain without their former iconic stadium, SEC membership, and rivalry with LSU. Yulman Stadium, while absolutely an upgrade for the program and its fans over the Superdome, can never quite be what was lost when Tulane Stadium hit the ground.

The “Complete Sellout” Moves

Pittsburgh - Ironically, both these teams that were complete sellouts now rarely sell out their games. In the case of Pittsburgh, the renovations historic Pitt Stadium needed to continue as home of the Panthers were deemed too costly, and the building was torn down and replaced with a basketball stadium and convocation center after the final game of the 1999 season. However, as recently as the 1980s, plans costing as little as $55 million were proposed to dome the stadium, add luxury boxes, and rebuild the bowl from the ground up - a conceptually similar project to the renovation of the Alexander Memorial Coliseum. When the plans took too long to come to fruition, the legendary stadium on Cardiac Hill, which had lasted so long that moving teams out of dual-purpose ballparks was now the trend - teams had started moving back onto campus - was torn down. Pitt won six national championships in Pitt Stadium, only to move first to cookie-cutter Three Rivers Stadium for a season, and later Heinz Field, a generic stadium whose seas of yellow on gamedays is often more due to the color of the seats than anything else.

Miami - Perhaps the “grandaddy of them all” of sellout moves is the most recent, when Miami departed the cathedral of football known as the Miami Orange Bowl for a more distant suburban stadium that has had more names than any person could reasonably be expected to remember. The loss of the Orange Bowl, home of college football’s second oldest bowl, and the home field of all of Miami’s national championship teams, plus many great Dolphins teams, was a blow that many in the fanbase found inexcusable. The new location suppresses student attendance, and the increased expense of attending games have all been noted issues noted by the Miami faithful. The current occupant of the land, an albatross of a baseball stadium, was ironically built to get the Miami Marlines out of the stadium the Miami Hurricanes had just fought their fans, their history, and a gap of several miles, just to get in to.

Honestly, part of me wanted to say that Tennessee State was the closest parallel to the Georgia Tech deal. Though they play a true mixed schedule between Nissan and Hale Stadiums, its not the same. They play in the larger stadium somewhat out of necessity, while they play the smaller out of a different kind of necessity, as well as a condition of the deal to renovate it. Another thought that came to mind was the role of Legion Field for Alabama and Auburn when they would play a mixed amount of home games between their on-campus stadium and Birmingham, but, even though most counted as a home team for one or the other, not a neutral site.

The converse has been true - moving in to college stadiums - in the past for professional teams like the Chicago Bears (Memorial Stadium, University of Illinois), Carolina Panthers (Memorial Stadium, Clemson, SC), Arizona Cardinals (Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, AZ), or even the Atlanta Falcons (Bobby Dodd Stadium, Atlanta, GA) during some Braves games back in their early days.

I’m not going to editorialize on the stadium deal. I think, to some extent, a general feeling is belied with my generally negative view of past moves throughout this column. However, this is very different than those deals. I understand there are some out there that really support playing a game a year downtown, but, as the history guy, I bristle at the thought. Bobby Dodd Stadium has been the home of Tech football for more than a century, and that stadium should never not be true. However, looking at an example of, say, Illinois playing at Chicago’s Soldier Field, sometimes it is beneficial for teams to build the brand and exposure of the program. This makes Tech more accessible, hopefully earns us more money, and, hopefully, doesn’t see any more games moved than what we have. Our venue just happens to be slightly closer to Midtown than Chicago is to Champaign. On-campus football is good for the program, if history has taught us anything. Bobby Dodd Stadium has seen its fair share of history. From the stands growing straight out of the city blocks, to the skyline views, to the walkways and buildings intertwined with its graceful steel superstructure, it is not just historical, but also a great representation of Georgia Tech, and, as the thought goes, Georgia Tech is Atlanta is Georgia Tech. So one can be open minded about the stadium future, but Tech should never stray too far from where it came from.

Really, I can’t think of much more of a Tech trait than staying true to our roots. And thank goodness for that.

A special thanks to Dress Her in White and Gold, Engineering the New South, and the Georgia Tech Archives for any background information and images used in writing this column.

This week, thanks to Wikipedia and all the random websites where people talk about this stuff. Really helpful for this thing that had been on my mind.

If you have any events or ideas you would like to see investigated, leave a comment below and I will be sure to look into adding it to the schedule. What is old is new again, or at least liable to be featured in the future. Thank you for reading this latest edition of From the Rumble Seat’s Rearview Mirror.