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Ready for Kickoff

Less than 10 months after work began, the gates of the University’s $90 million showpiece are open. Does it signal a new era for football?

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

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By Roy S. Johnson

Stanford Stadium had to go and just about everyone knew it. The place was 84 years old, and deteriorating so badly that former athletics director director Ted Leland began to fear Santa Clara County officials might close it down. “We spent $200,000 every year in upgrades and repairs, but were having a hard time keeping up,” says Leland, PhD ’83, who resigned last year to become vice president for university advancement at the University of the Pacific. “I was always afraid something was going to cause the county to say we’d neglected the place so long it just wasn’t safe.”

The aged stadium was also the 601,128-square-foot elephant in the middle of the University’s long-standing football woes. You can argue whether it’s the Thunder-less Chicken or the egg, but Stanford Stadium long ago ceased being “the place to be” on Saturday afternoons when the Cardinal is in town. There have been 19 winning seasons and 11 bowl appearances in the past 40 years. Crowds have diminished to such a degree they could hardly be called, well, crowds. The few thousand faithful who regularly attended did so largely out of loyalty or habit—or they were related to the Tree. The game-day experience for fans and players—on both sides of the field—bordered on embarrassing. “Teams weren’t excited to play here,” says Cardinal senior wide receiver Evan Moore. “Teams like Oregon, which have crazy loud stadiums, would come in here and say, ‘What is this?’”

Head football coach Walt Harris, who is beginning his second season on the Farm, adds: “I’m not sure it’s been loud in this place in a long, long time.”

Don’t even mention the bathrooms. A stadium with a capacity of 85,500 had 154 women’s toilets. Do the math. Senior associate athletics director Ray Purpur, the facilities and finance czar, did just that, crunching the numbers in myriad ways. “It affects drink sales,” he says, “when you know you can’t go to the bathroom.”

On September 16—less than 10 months after construction began—the 2006 Cardinal will charge from a tunnel tucked beneath the southeast stands to christen the leaner, cleaner and infinitely more bladder-friendly Stanford Stadium, against Navy. Fans will immediately notice two similarities to the old stadium: Stanford Stadium II sits inside the same 18.4-acre dirt bowl and the field features the same natural grass surface. Otherwise, SS II (which cost close to $90 million) bears no resemblance to the massive structure that sat in its place since 1921.

The most striking difference is the number and configuration of seats. The colossus that seated as many as 94,000 spectators (Big Game, 1935) has been replaced by a cozier, more intimate setting with capacity for 50,000. The two-tier design creates a smaller “bowl,” which brings everyone closer to the action. The nearest fans are only 45 feet from the sideline.

The 50,000 figure was conceived by athletics department officials to create more demand for tickets, and to pump up the home-field advantage that a full house produces. Leland acknowledged that Stanford’s facility was influenced by Oregon’s 54,000-seat Autzen Stadium, where sellouts are the norm and raucous, mind-bending noise rattles opposing teams.

Fans won’t need to scrunch together, either. Seats in the new stadium are three inches wider and have six more inches of leg room than the old venue provided. All seats between the 15-yard lines have armrests and backrests.

New conveniences and amenities are abundant. There are three additional tunnels for easier access, huge geeked-up video scoreboards at each end, up-to-code disability access and a ninefold increase in seating for the disabled. The Family Fun Zone behind the north end stands features a grassy play area and a well-equipped playground. And remember the flimsy tables and dumpy trailers that passed for concession areas in the old stadium, where buying a hot dog was a lesson in frustration? Well, SS II has more than 200 concession stands and a 1,800-square-foot souvenir shop.

And, yes, there are way more toilets—240 for women. Drink up!

How the stadium came together—especially the speed with which it was constructed—is a tale of patience, perseverance and passion that should be credited to many people, including administrators, public officials, former Cardinal players and other alumni. But one man was the catalyst: Palo Alto developer and longtime Stanford benefactor John Arrillaga. The billionaire’s contributions to Stanford extend far beyond the buildings that bear his family’s name—the Frances C. Arrillaga Alumni Center (named after his late wife), the Arrillaga Family Sports Center and the recently completed Arrillaga Center for Sports and Recreation. Last spring he made an unrestricted gift of $100 million to the University.

“There was a lot of ‘what if’ talk [about a new stadium], but nothing was dead serious until John Arrillaga got involved,” says former Stanford head coach Bill Walsh, who served as interim athletics director when Leland departed. “When that happened people began to believe it could happen.”

Leland approached Arrillaga, ’60, with the stadium proposal over lunch in San Jose in the fall of 2004. By then Leland and a committee of other University officials and alums had quietly run through a number of ideas. They considered building a multiuse 90,000-seat complex in conjunction with a bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympics. Sharing an off-campus stadium with the San Francisco 49ers also was discussed. Both ideas eventually were scuttled due to cost. Leland acknowledges that at $90 million, the new stadium was hardly inexpensive, but notes “a 90,000-seat stadium costs a lot more.”

“In all probability, if I had to raise $300 million to build a new stadium, I would have had to ask [President John Hennessy] for permission to go to traditional donor families and ask for money for a football stadium, and that was an unlikely prospect,” says Leland.

This was Leland’s pitch to Arrillaga:

  • $30 million would be provided by the Department of Athletics, Physical Education and Recreation (DAPER) Investment Fund, which was seeded with $1 million in 1982. Through investments in various venture projects, it had grown as high as $120 million. The fund usually offers a 5 percent payout to the department to fund construction projects. The payout was renegotiated to provide the one-time contribution.
  • $30 million would be raised from other donors.
  • $5 million would come from athletic department reserves.
  • Arrillaga would contribute the rest.

Leland did not get an immediate response. “This was very difficult for him,” he says of Arrillaga. “It required a huge commitment of John’s time, energy and philanthropy. [Provost John Etchemendy, PhD ’82] and the president helped encourage him to do it. The timing had to be right for him.”

It was. Arrillaga committed to provide whatever amount was needed to complete the project. “One of the websites called me John Arrillaga’s cabana boy because of all the projects we worked on together,” Leland says with a laugh. “But what he did, what he does, for Stanford is extraordinary.”

In addition to replacing the dilapidated old structure, the plan also was driven by a compelling need to increase football revenue. Successful football teams at major universities typically generate enough profit to partially subsidize other sports programs. It’s partly a function of scale—whereas one football game might attract 50,000 spectators, many sports cannot sell that many tickets in multiple seasons. When Leland arrived at Stanford in 1991, football ticket sales generated $4 million and accounted for 18 percent of the athletic department’s overall income. In 2005, football still earned just $4.2 million in ticket sales, which represented only 7 percent of all funds. Stanford athletics has weathered the Cardinal’s middling financial performance because it has a huge endowment (the largest of any athletic department in the nation) and, oddly, because of the success of two-time national champion USC, among others. As a Pac-10 member, Stanford gets a share of revenues generated by the Rose Bowl and Bowl Championship Series whether or not it qualifies for either. Whew.

Whether success on the football field translates to positive developments for a school more broadly has been hotly debated for years. Scholars have noted that the damage caused by programs at some schools—recruiting scandals, criminal investigations and sketchy academic requirements—can offset whatever good comes from the visibility of a winning team. But that hasn’t been the experience of Harris, who led the University of Pittsburgh to five consecutive bowl games during his tenure there. He notes that student applications and donor giving rose in lockstep with the success of Panther football. “When your primary sport isn’t doing well, everything suffers,” he says.

Athletic department officials believe their investment in the new stadium will boost revenue through increased sales of tickets, concessions and licensed products. By late July, 36,000 tickets had been sold or accounted for (student, faculty and visiting-team allocations, etc.), three times the number at this point in 2005. During the past 10 years, Stanford season ticket sales ranged from 9,000 to 12,000, and so many seats were left unsold that there was little incentive to buy in advance, officials say. They expect that to change now that availability is limited. However, any long-term financial effect will depend on the Cardinal’s fortunes on the playing field. The new venue will be a boost for recruiting, officials say, and the game-day experience will be significantly better for the players. “Guys love playing in stadiums where the fans are so close you can hear what they’re saying, see the expressions on their faces,” says senior quarterback Trent Edwards.

Former quarterback Jim Plunkett, ’70, the school’s only Heisman Trophy winner, served on Leland’s steering committee. He says the program’s demise was hastened by the old stadium’s overcapacity. To disguise its empty sections, Stanford covered thousands of seats with a massive red tarp. “If Stanford had a great program, the old stadium would have been a bigger draw. Instead it was kind of a hindrance.”

That was never more apparent than last season. The Cardinal played an early-season game against Navy at the Academy’s 34,000-seat Jack Stephens Field before a boisterous standing-room-only crowd of 35,570. Leland and other University officials toured the stadium, then watched the Cardinal earn a thrilling shootout win, 41-38. The next week Stanford returned home to play UC-Davis, a Division II team that had lost the previous week to Portland State. The crowd of 31,250 mostly Cardinal-clad fans was only slightly smaller than the Navy crowd. But inside cavernous Stanford Stadium, it was as if no one were home. “It felt like a Saturday afternoon at the park,” Leland recalls, “and we played like it.” The Cardinal suffered one of the most disheartening defeats in its history as the Aggies erased a 17-0 deficit and won on a last-minute touchdown, 20-17.

Arrillaga, one of the most prominent real estate developers in the Bay Area, is known for attacking building projects with zeal. But his plan for the stadium was more staggering than his financial offer. He wanted to build it in nine months. Stadiums of the size Stanford was proposing typically take at least 18 months to build, and often up to two years. But that would have forced the Cardinal to spend at least one full season as nomads, playing home games at various Bay Area venues.

Arrillaga’s proposal was mad-genius stuff: hire two complete and separate construction crews, allowing work to continue virtually around the clock, six days a week. “I listened to him. I understood what he was saying. But I was still skeptical,” says Leland. “Just to be able to do that, and do it efficiently, is incredible.”

The more it was discussed and studied, the less outrageous it seemed. “If we’d done it the conventional way, on an 18-month schedule, the overhead savings [for labor] are obvious,” says Purpur, the facilities czar. “But add the cost of renting another stadium, as well as other costs and headaches associated with having to play a full season elsewhere, then you’re not really saving all that much. The faster we complete the stadium the sooner we start making money.”

Anyone who toured the facility during construction can attest to the sense of mission on display by the crews, directed by the general contractor, Vance Brown Builders of Palo Alto. Bob Bowlsby, Stanford’s new athletic director, was still unpacking boxes in July during his first week on the job. “When I first visited the construction site in April, I said, ‘We’ve got a long way to go.’ In May, I said, ‘They’ve made a lot of progress.’ In June, I said, ‘Wow.’ Last week, I said, ‘I have no doubt this’ll be done on time.’”

Arrillaga declined to be interviewed for this article but he offered the following statement: “Stanford Stadium is by far the single largest construction project in the history of Stanford athletics. I am extremely proud of the progress and the work that has been done by the construction crew to keep the project on pace. I look forward to opening the stadium gates on the evening of September 16 to a sold-out crowd, and a win over Navy.”

The project endured a tragedy on June 22 when 26-year-old Michael Carter, a construction worker from Stockton, Calif., fell 23 feet from an erected structure and was pronounced dead at the site. Carter reportedly was shifting his position on an unmoving beam when he slipped. The Santa Clara County sheriff’s office ruled the fatality an accident, and a full investigation was turned over to California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health. As of August 1, no further ruling had been made.

Politically, perhaps the most delicate aspect of the project involved the proposal to require some season-ticket buyers to make a donation to the University before being allowed to purchase season tickets. Such seat “licenses” are common at major football programs, but because it wasn’t a Stanford tradition some feared the notion might be perceived as punishing loyal season-ticket holders or, even worse, indicate an uneasy tipping of the precarious balance between athletic pursuit and academic excellence upon which Stanford prides itself. There was precedent for the idea: in 1921, more than half of the funding for the original Stanford Stadium (which cost $200,000) was derived from the sale of $100 seat licenses.

Leland’s committee recommended license fees of $250 to $750 per seat between the 35-yard lines, depending on the location. The committee felt those prices were modest. “We were trying to get as many people back into the stadium as we could,” says Plunkett.

The Board of Trustees went further, requiring contributions of $1,000 to $5,000 per seat for the right to purchase seats between the 45-yard lines and in the new skybox. After announcing the ticket plan, the athletics department hired several people to respond to telephone calls from angry fans. But the anticipated backlash never came. “We got about 700 calls and, by and large, people wanted to either move or identify where their seats were going to be,” says Walsh. “About 30 people cancelled.” Meanwhile, blocks of seats were designated for alumni, faculty and staff, as well as parts of five sideline sections for students, who can attend for free this season.

The official unveiling in September will include several pregame events, beginning with a Wednesday rally in Lytton Plaza in downtown Palo Alto. Navy is getting into the spirit, too. They’re bringing a full battalion. During the pregame pomp and ceremony, Navy jets will execute a precision flyover and the U.S. Naval Parachute Team—the Leap Frogs—will perform a free-fall jump from 12,500 feet above the stadium.

Then the truest test for the Cardinal faithful arrives: kickoff. “People don’t realize how much the stadium can do for the program,” says Edwards, the senior quarterback. “But it all starts with the players making plays.”


ROY S. JOHNSON, ’78, is a journalist living in New Rochelle, N.Y.

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