Sign Up Twitter

“…Kansas Must Have A Stadium!”

November 11, 1922


Though it may not be immediately obvious to the casual observer, KU’s imposing athletic stadium was the University’s first major war memorial, built in the years following the First World War to commemorate the 130 students and alumni who died making “the world safe for democracy.”

Thus, fittingly, on the four-year anniversary of when the guns fell silent in Europe, nearly 18,000 people packed the KU Memorial Stadium on Armistice Day, November 11, 1922, and fell silent themselves, if only briefly, to witness the stadium’s formal dedication and the University’s salute to the honored dead. The proud feelings and positive energy that pervaded that day were not enough, sadly, to rally the Jayhawks to victory in the game that followed. In what by then had become (and indeed remains) an almost routine occurrence, Kansas fell to Nebraska, 28-0.

After four years of human and material devastation unparalleled to that point in world history, there was no question of whether a World War I memorial was to be built on campus, but rather what kind and how soon. That KU could claim 130 of the fallen as its own, including America’s first officer killed-in-action, Lt. Dr. William T. Fitzsimons (’12), made the University’s desire to pay its proper respects all the more pressing. What resulted was a plan to launch the ambitious Million Dollar Drive, officially begun in the fall of 1920.

There was, however, no immediate consensus as to what form the memorial should take; among the many suggestions, according to KU historian Robert Taft, were “an auditorium, a health building, a student loan fund, and a tower and chimes.” The two leading contenders were a new stadium and student union, though admittedly, this was due more to the University’s perceived need of such structures, rather than to their intrinsic memorial value.

Even before the actual inception of the Million Dollar Drive, there were many on campus urging that a new athletic stadium be the centerpiece of any war memorial effort. (Incidentally, this concept of building utilitarian structures and affixing the adjective “memorial” to them was indeed quite popular at universities nationwide in these years, and would remain so after the Second World War as well.) A new stadium at KU, however, would be more than a mere luxury. Considering the dilapidated state of McCook Field – the University’s original outdoor athletic grounds – it was something approaching a necessity, as civil engineering professor Clement C. Williams pointed out on March 23, 1920, in the Oread Magazine.

McCook’s 25-year-old wooden bleachers had served the University well enough, allowed Williams, during “the days of small beginnings,” but time and increased attendance now made them wholly inadequate. “The present bleachers are not only unsightly and hazardous as to fire and decay, but they are exceedingly uncomfortable.” Williams also claimed he had “witnessed several instances when women have been compelled to leave the game because of the cold, and many cases of illness attributable to this exposure have been reported.”

These conditions, coupled with a steady rise of alumni and student interest in KU football, made construction of a new, permanent stadium a top priority, and if it also served a commemorative function, then so much the better. Additionally, as Prof. Williams pointed out, such leading universities as Princeton, Harvard, Yale and Michigan, had all recently built giant stadiums, so there were a number of different facilities KU could emulate.

The man running point in the early stages of the stadium construction project was Dr. Forrest C. “Phog” Allen, the University’s director of athletics. In 1920, he recommended that KU’s new stadium be modeled after Princeton’s after returning from an inspection tour of eastern universities. The dual-purpose football and track facility would sport a U-shaped design and have a maximum capacity of around 32,000.

Although Allen’s recommendation was eventually followed by the stadium’s designers, KU architecture professor LaForce Bailey and the aforementioned Clement Williams, one exhortation was not: Allen had originally lobbied to have the stadium named after the late KU football and basketball great Tommy Johnson (the University’s first All-American), but that idea was vetoed in favor of memorializing the University’s war dead.

World War I affected and changed the world in countless ways, and according to KU Chancellor Ernest H. Lindley, “One result of the great war is a nationwide recognition of the commanding importance of physical education.” Even before opening the University’s Million Dollar Drive, Lindley was reminding potential donors that “all authorities agree that the best form of physical education … is to be found in the outdoor sports,” and “this calls for large grounds and ample equipment.” And moreover, a new stadium would truly be “a wonderful agency in the development of unity and spirit,” for it would “bring together all the sons and daughters of the University” not only for athletic contests, “but for many other University functions” as well.

In a very detailed and attractive brochure, dated September 1920, the University addressed the question “Why we need a stadium” by reiterating the inadequacies of McCook and the advantages and long-term economy of building a permanent reinforced concrete structure. Not only would it be “much less an eyesore than the average, dingy, rickety wooden bleachers,” but will “have an attractiveness and dignity” that will “justify on our part an attitude of pride.” It was important to realize as well that “other schools throughout the country are rapidly swinging into line,” and thus imperative that KU students, faculty, friends and alumni not allow their University to be “a laggard.”

Perhaps the most impressive part of the promotional brochure was a six-page section of comments from prominent citizens and University people on why KU should have a new stadium and, more specifically, why one should make a generous donation to the Million Dollar Fund. “Yale is famous for its bowl, Harvard for its stadium. Why not K.U. too?” asked C.E. McBride, sporting editor for the Kansas City Star. Basketball inventor and KU legend Dr. James Naismith told alumni that they “must act at once by backing the stadium project with their financial as well as moral support.”

“Rome had her Coliseum. Kansas must have a stadium!” cried “Phog” Allen. The final page contained an “In Memoriam,” in which KU structural engineering professor H.A. Rice first mourned the death of the McCook bleachers, then heralded the birth of Memorial Stadium. “Nobly they served their purpose, and now death has overtaken them, may they rest in peace. Rising from their ashes will be the great Stadium – a giant replacing a pigmy – beautiful, commodious, a monument to the past and an inspiration to the future.”

After months of hyping and organizing the Million Dollar Drive, the University finally opened its campaign on November 18, 1920, which was, fortuitously as it turned out, just a few days after the big homecoming football game between KU and the heavily-favored Cornhuskers of Nebraska. The outcome was an astonishing 20-20 tie! So miraculous apparently was this non-loss, that it galvanized the student body and all others connected with the University to do their utmost in support of the University’s fundraising plans for a new stadium and student union. “How vital was that deadlock … on old McCook Field?” asked Lawrence Journal-World columnist Bill Mayer. “It created Memorial Stadium – that’s how important it was.”

The “real victory,” claimed the Graduate Magazine, belonged to KU, for within two weeks, students and faculty had pledged nearly $225,000 and a “new spirit” had enveloped the campus. According to the University Daily Kansan, not losing to Nebraska was just the first sign that the University had entered “a new era of growth” that would end with KU becoming “the biggest and best in the Middle West.” They would accomplish this “by every single student in the school boosting all the time, doing every thing he can to increase fellowship, to promote loyalty, to develop a sense of responsibility among students, to encourage wholesome reaction, to raise scholastic standards, and to create fair, worth-while student activities and class spirit.”

And indeed, the early results of this new spirit were most impressive, especially in terms of how much money students themselves pledged to the Million Dollar Drive. Out of a total enrollment for 1920-21 of 4,226, the students pledged more than $190,000, an average of around $45 each – a remarkable amount of money, really, from students of any decade. Posters adorned campus with slogans such as “Every Student a Giver”, “The Alumni Are Watching Us Now” and “Another Way to Beat Missouri.”

Faculty members compounded this magnificent expression of school spirit and generosity by pledging $35,000 of their own, leading everyone to believe that nothing could slow the Million Dollar Drive’s momentum. Indeed, as KU historian Clifford Griffin has noted, once the Lawrence community, the state of Kansas, and alumni nationwide had been canvassed, pledge totals were rocketing towards the magic million-dollar figure. “By May, 1921, total pledges had reached $550,000; by October they had passed $600,000; by the late fall of 1922 they were over $850,000.”

KU never actually received $1 million worth of pledges; it fell $35,000 short when the Million Dollar Drive came to an end in 1925. However, this was the least of the University’s problems. Pledges, after all, are not payments, and to the consternation of the Memorial Corporation (set up to direct the fundraising efforts), only $655,000 of the pledged $965,000 was ever actually received, and it took until September 1931 to collect even this amount.

It seems that the intense flurry of enthusiasm that followed the Nebraska game led many to promise more than they were willing or able to deliver. Any since most agreed to fulfill their pledge through semi-annual payments over a period of up to four years, time and distance naturally wore down many people’s generosity. All this meant that the stadium would take much longer to build, let alone finance. (It would not be fully paid off until 1947.)

“Yet in the spring of 1921,” wrote Griffin, “with over $500,000 pledged and hopes of payment high, construction of the new stadium began with the destruction of the old.” Just as Prof. Rice had spiritedly, if melodramatically, foretold the year before, death was indeed about to overtake the bleachers of McCook Field. And to perform the ritual, Chancellor Lindley declared May 10, 1921, to be Stadium Day, and turned loose hundreds of male students and faculty who proceeded to physically tear down the bleachers in only 78 minutes. It was “one of the greatest events in the history of the school,” according to the Kansan, “a grand and howling success.” Some 4,000 people participated in the destruction, which was followed by lunch, speeches, and games. The festivities were then capped by the unforgettable sight of the University’s chancellor, “clad in overalls,” plowing a “straight furrow” across the former McCook Field, the intended site of Memorial Stadium.

Actual construction of the new stadium, estimated to cost a half-million dollars upon completion, began on July 16, 1921. But with only a quarter-million in the bank, the Memorial Corporation could only pay for the east and west sides; rounding off the U would not be possible until 1927 (when full capacity reached 38,000), and only then after raising ticket prices and floating hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of bonds. None of this really mattered to KU football fans, though, as more than 5,000 crammed into the incomplete, yet sturdy Memorial Stadium for the first time on October 29 to cheer on the Jayhawks as they defeated their arch-rivals from Manhattan 21-7. A month later, at the annual Thanksgiving Day game with Missouri, KU scored another victory before a whopping 15,480 fans.

It was another year, however, before the stadium was officially dedicated. The ceremonies of November 11, 1922, served a two-fold purpose, being both a recognition of Armistice Day and an opportunity to honor the 130 KU men and women killed in World War I in whose memory the stadium was built. The day began with a parade led by the Kansas Department of the American Legion, followed by a rifle salute and the playing of taps. After addresses by Kansas Governor Henry J. Allen and Chancellor Lindley, the assembled sang a memorial hymn:

“Within the light on Oread’s hill
Above the valley’s golden beauty,
Our comrades’ spirit hovers still
The mem’ry of their faith in duty
They died that we might have the peace
For which mankind has ever striven.
Their call to us will never cease:
‘Give ye always as we have given.’”

Of course, there was a football game – against Nebraska again, no less – yet this time the Jayhawks could not even manage a tie.

In the decades that followed, perhaps the most memorable of the stadium’s millions of visitors were the World War II veterans who lived under it, in the makeshift dormitories of what became known as McCook Hall. Faced in the fall of 1946 with an overwhelming 9,100 students (5,600 of whom were male veterans), the University struggled to find any and all possible places to house them. One of these was the area beneath the stadium, which proved room enough for 64 students during the late-1940s until more appropriate, and more spacious, residence halls could be constructed.

Since 1921, Memorial Stadium (which, incidentally, is the seventh oldest in Division I athletics) has indeed undergone a number of serious renovations and additions, from press boxes and luxury suites, new seating tiers and artificial turf, to giant video and scoreboards. Its current capacity is 50,250, that is, according to Journal-World columnist Mayer, “if you use crowbars, shoe horns and Vaseline to cram everyone in.” Something like that happened on October 13, 1973 when 51,574 fans (the all-time attendance record at the time) watched KU roll over K-State, 25-18.

Yet for all its additions and expansions, Memorial Stadium has lost an intangible quality that was once considered quite precious, even essential: its “memorial” aspect. As one archival source notes, “memories are short. ‘Memorial’ was, in the late ‘40s, officially deleted from the [Kansas] Union, and is seldom used in connection with the Stadium.”

Moreover, in 1946, as the University was debating whether to build a “memorial” field house to honor the 276 KU men and women who died in World War II, Chancellor Deane W. Malott vigorously protested: “The Stadium was built as a World War I memorial. [Yet] no one thinks as he sits in it about the sacrifice of several score of young men of this institution who lost their lives in that struggle. We have been determined this time that we would have a memorial that would be truly a memorial, and not merely use that as an excuse to fill a need at the University.”

True to his pledge, Malott and his allies succeeded in building the Memorial Carillon and Campanile, a structure which, although serving no utilitarian purpose, nonetheless reminds students hourly of the sacrifices of those Jayhawks who came before them, so that they might live free.

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: A wealth of materials relating to Memorial Stadium can be found in the Memorial Stadium Building File, located in University Archives, Spencer Research Library. Of particular interest are the following: Oread Magazine (March 23, 1920), pp. 9-12. Graduate Magazine (January 1920), p. 112; (June 1920), p. 271; (December 1920), pp. 5-7; (October 1921), pp. 3-4; (November 1921), pp. 5-6; (June 1925), p. 10.The Memorial Corporation, “The University of Kansas Memorial” (1921). Kansas Engineer (Sept.-Dec. 1921), pp. 60-61. Lawrence Journal-World, October 15, 1995, p. 11C; University Daily Kansan, September 2, 1999, p. 6A; Wichita Eagle, September 4, 1999, pp. 1A, 5A. Also very helpful is Robert Taft, The Years on Mount Oread, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1955), pp. 120-122, 205; and Clifford Griffin, The University of Kansas: A History, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1974), pp. 415-417.]