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Football History, Oklahoma Football

Oklahoma Memorial Stadium: Heaven on Earth

I guess we got ahead of ourselves last time. It’s always best to talk about a stadium before you start discussing how to enjoy a game at the stadium. In our defense, what would you do when the Stanley Cup playoffs are still going on and your team is actually in the finals for a change (we can’t believe it, either!).

Enough excuses, though. We need to let you know about Oklahoma Memorial Stadium or, as we like to call it, heaven.

The Stadium’s Construction

The original design for the stadium/union at OU.

The stadium was an idea born in 1921 by Oklahoma students who thought it would be good to have a stadium/union combination. Bennie Owen recognized it would be easier to raise money for separate buildings instead and proposed a massive fundraising effort for the two facilities. Leading the charge in fundraising, Owen witnessed stadium construction beginning in 1923. The first game played at the site, in October, saw the Sooners fall to the Washington University of St. Louis Bears in front of 500 people sitting in temporary stands. By 1925 the stadium’s west side was complete, a project that cost $293,000, or about $3,651,985.50 today. The original horseshoe design (seen here) didn’t pan out and was replaced with just one side built.

The first game in the new 16,000-seat stadium ended with Oklahoma besting Drake 7-0. By 1929 the east-side stands were added, doubling the attendance.

It would take 20 years before anyone realized more people need to see Oklahoma football and 50 years after that before it became the monument to excellence we recognize and love today.

The Name

Oklahoma Memorial Stadium was named in honor of the Sooner students and alumni who served and died in World War I. It’s the same reason we call it the Oklahoma Memorial Union. Which means Norman, Okla., has two memorials to the WWI soldiers while our nation’s capital still has no national memorial to the same war. They have World War II, Korean and Vietnam memorials but no World War I memorial. Just saying.

In 2002, the Gaylord family bought the naming rights to the stadium as part of a donation to the expansion project for the stadium. Now known as the Gaylord Family – Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, most people just talk about Owen Field instead, since that is the name of the field where the Sooners actually play, named after Bennie Owen.

Why the Stadium is Not Enclosed

Creating a bowl stadium will likely never happen in Norman because of the south end zone expansion in 1957. The end zone was built to prevent destruction of the practice field and baseball field just south of the stadium. So a higher slope than the rest of the stadium was used in the expansion that year. Today, the baseball field is near Lloyd Noble Center and an indoor practice facility is near the stadium and the Barry Switzer Center just south of there could support the reconstruction of the end zone, the Bud Wilkinson practice fields would still be destroyed if it were to happen. So don’t expect an enclosure any time soon.

There has, however, been discussion of expanding the south end zone, but we aren’t sure how that will happen.

The Practice Fields

As we just mentioned, there are practice fields just south of the stadium. They are named after the greatest coach in college football history, Bud Wilkinson. Sporting two full-sized natural grass fields, an artificial turf field and a sand pit, the practice fields provide the players a chance to prepare for just about any situation they will face at home and on the road. The Everest Indoor Training Center (named after Oklahoman publisher Christy Everest) is nearby to provide adequate practice during inclement weather or domed games.

Lights, Camera, Action!

Owen Field and Oklahoma football was the subject of probably the most important lawsuit in the history of college football’s revenue stream. In 1981, OU and Georgia teamed together to file a lawsuit against the NCAA (that’s N-C-A-A, not N-C-double-A because the NCAA doesn’t like to be called that and we all LOVE to please the NCAA) on television rights. Before the lawsuit, the NCAA controlled television contracts for college football, meaning two or three games would be all America could see on any given Saturday. This limited Oklahoma’s exposure, denying millions of Americans the chance to see the greatness of OU football. Surprisingly, the courts sided with Oklahoma and Georgia, expanding the number of games televised each weekend from two or three for the very best teams in the country to all 12 games typically televised for the major conference teams and most of the games for the mid-majors.

Before this all happened, Oklahoma Memorial Stadium didn’t have lights, joining Wrigley Field in requiring day games. When the NCAA regime scheduled Oklahoma for a televised night game, OU would rent television lights. The other games, however, would start in the mornings or afternoons. It wasn’t until 1997, nine years after Wrigley Field installed their lights, that permanent lights were installed, allowing for even more prime-time games.

The Rest

Today, the stadium is home to one of the largest HD screens in Big 12 football, with the entire scoreboard display replaced with HD technology in 2008. The north end zone is no longer a black-and-white LED display but a full-color enhancement. The façade in front of the stadium is also new, replacing the old façade with a design that would match the rest of the university’s Cherokee Gothic theme.

Seating capacity of 82,112, the largest crowd to watch Sooner football comes in at 85,646 for the OU-Texas Tech game in 2008. The game ball for that event, incidentally, was awarded to the fans who boisterously supported the players and helped Oklahoma toppled the then-Number 2 team in the country, paving the way for OU to win the Big 12 Championship and play in the BCS Championship Game.

The Sooners are currently enjoying the longest winning streak at Owen Field with 30 games and counting. It beats out the previous streak of 25 games, played from 1945 to the final home game of 1952 since Oklahoma fell to Notre Dame in the 1953 season opener. Since 1999, every home game is sold out, proof-positive of the level of devotion fans have to the Sooners.

The north facade of the stadium today, taken after the OU-Idaho St. game.

For us, going to watch a game there is akin to a pilgrimage, one that we would partake every weekend as college students but has come less frequently since then (if you can land us season tickets, however, we would be more than happy to change this situation). We’ll get into the whole game-day experience next time, though.

Boomer Sooner!

(c) 2010 by zlékcie, llc and Memorial Day. Yes, it is the unofficial start of summer, but Memorial Day is an important holiday to honor the fallen heroes of our great nation. Without the sacrifices from these men and women, we wouldn’t have the country we have today (and despite everything, this still is a great country). We don’t know about you guys, but there is no other place we would ever want to call home and we’re grateful for those who died to keep it that way.

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About Justin

Justin has many thoughts and opinions - and apparently one of them is not changing his name to something more interesting. From time to time, these opinions contradict each other, but that's okay. He's human, he's supposed to contradict himself. If we can elect leaders across the world who blatantly contradict themselves (praising them as they do it) then he can do the same on his blog.

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