A Stadium For the Ages

For over a century, the concrete coliseum has served as a reflection of Harvard itself: a lasting institution, a beacon for the surrounding community, and a force for innovation and change.

Courtesy of The Harvard Archives

“DEDICATED TO THE JOY OF MANLY CONTEST.”

This quote hangs over an entrance to the field at Harvard Stadium. Dedicated by the Class of 1879, the words serve as an apt symbol for the titanic centerpiece of Harvard’s athletic facilities. Yet the words understate the true impact that the Stadium has had on the Harvard community since its construction in 1903. Although the Stadium’s benefactors may have intended the structure to be a monument to the “manly contest” of football, the Stadium has since become much more than the sum of its contributions to the sport.

History lives within each step and each column of the horseshoe. For over a century, the concrete coliseum has served as a reflection of Harvard itself: a lasting institution, a beacon for the surrounding community, and a force for innovation and change.

Within the confines of the old stadium, 25,000 students have gathered to protest the Vietnam War in 1969. The walls have shaken as Janis Joplin took the stage for her final live performance in 1970. And on 53 occasions, 10,000 men of Harvard have stood to cheer on the Crimson as it faced off against Yale in the annual playing of The Game.

It is a proper emblem for the university. Just as Harvard has played a pioneering role in the evolution of college education, so has the Stadium in the development of football.

“Harvard Stadium is kind of like Harvard, in a way,” said Dick Friedman ’73, the author of “Crimson Autumns: When Harvard Football was Number One,” who covers the team weekly for Harvard Magazine. “It was built in the middle of so many important developments in the beginning of football. People don’t really remember that, but it was the first, and it remains very important.”

ELIOT’S WAR CRY

Charles W. Eliot, Class of 1853, was not only one of Harvard’s most influential presidents, but was also an icon in American academics who is widely credited with the creation of modern liberal arts education. But one of his first acts as president had nothing to do with academics, and it was something that he would come to regret.

In the mid-19th century, collegiate athletics were beginning to take off, spurred by the growing popularity of rowing and the development of new sports like baseball, rugby, and football. The Ivy League was a hub of innovation, with the first-ever intercollegiate football game occurring between Princeton and Rutgers in 1869.

That same year in his inaugural address, Eliot encouraged Harvard students to become leaders in athletics.

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“There is an aristocracy,” he said. “To which sons of Harvard have belonged, and let us hope, will ever aspire to belong—the aristocracy which excels in manly sports.”

Eliot enjoyed athletic competition—as a student, he rowed in the first Harvard-Yale regatta in 1852—but his words would help set off a development that he would come to oppose.

“Eliot was a believer in sport,” Friedman said. “But he did not like football at all. He did not like any aspect of it. He didn’t like the violence and he didn’t like the big crowds.”

But the big crowds kept coming, and Harvard found itself at the forefront of the development of college sports. 

“To some other institutions, [Eliot’s speech] was a war cry,” said Ronald A. Smith, a former professor of sport history at Penn State. “Yale and Princeton thought [that] if Harvard is going to achieve excellence and try to beat everybody in athletics, it gives us even more reason to beat Harvard at its own game.”

When Harvard first took on Yale in 1875—winning the first iteration of “The Game”—the sport resembled rugby more than present-day football. Yet the developing sport grew more and more popular among Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and other schools in the Northeast. By the mid-1890s, even as Eliot and other faculty members sought to ban the violent game, there was a demand for a suitable space for the football team, which at that point was played in front of spectators standing on increasingly crowded makeshift wooden stands.

“Eliot condemned these hideous wooden bleachers blemishing the campus,” Smith said. “But what he really opposed was the professionalization and commercialization of college sports…. He thought it was taking away from the intellectual aspect of Harvard, which it was.”

But Eliot realized that the sport was too important to the school, and that a more permanent solution was inevitable. By 1901, Eliot announced that the wooden bleachers would be covered with “seats built of iron covered with concrete.”

Soon after, the Class of 1879 donated $100,000 toward a new football stadium, and the deal was sealed—although Eliot made sure to note that Harvard “will not have contributed a dollar to the cost of the structure.” The total project cost $310,000, with the remainder made up through gate receipts.

CHANGING THE GAME

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Work on the structure began in the spring of 1903, and by November—just in time for the Crimson’s game against Dartmouth—a stadium stood at Soldiers Field, the first collegiate athletics stadium in the country.

The structure, a horseshoe-shaped stadium featuring Greek columns and modeled after a stadium in Athens, seated 35,000, more when temporary seating was set up in the open end—making a complete oval-shaped arena.

 And just as the Stadium itself was the first of its kind, so too would it drive changes in the game of football. At the time, football was a sport in crisis.

During the 1905 season alone, 19 college players died due to injuries. That year, Eliot made a final appeal to end football through the Annual Report to the Board of Overseers, noting that “as a spectacle, football is more brutalizing than prize-fighting, cock-fighting, or bull-fighting.” 

United States President Theodore Roosevelt, Class of 1880, gathered representatives from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton at the White House in 1905 to find ways to open up the game. That discussion served as the starting point for the development of the forward pass.

“One thing they talked about was widening the field,” Friedman said. “But a big problem was that Harvard Stadium was built in concrete—literally set in stone—and widening the field was not an option. So one idea they came up with was the forward pass.”

And although the forward pass did not catch on immediately—originally, the penalty for an incomplete pass was a loss of possession—the change made the game safer and ultimately helped galvanize the growth of college football on a national level. Football’s ascension reflected the United States’s increasing status globally.

“Football to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton was arguably more important in the 1890s and early 1900s than football is to Penn State and Notre Dame today,” Smith said. “Football helped make these elite schools...look like strong institutions of masculinity, which was important as America became industrialized and urbanized. Football helped create the image that America was strong.” 

Princeton and Yale took after Harvard by constructing stadiums in 1914, and each of the original Big Ten schools followed with their own stadiums in the 1920s.

Standing Tall
Harvard Stadium was the first collegiate athletic stadium to be built in the United States.
 

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“[The big state universities] wanted to have football that was bigger and better than Harvard, Yale, and Princeton,” Smith said. “By the 1920s, they did.” 

By the 1940s and 1950s, Ivy League schools were moving away from big-time football, after seeing how much money state schools were pouring into their programs. Following the departure of athletic director William J. Bingham ’16—whose emphasis on amateurism and distaste for heavy football recruiting characterized Harvard’s early attitude towards the game—Harvard removed the steel risers that had extended capacity to over 57,000. 

“The money started to get really big, and football became show business in a way for universities,” Friedman said. “Harvard Stadium set the template for all of this. The [state schools] may have built stadiums that easily surpass Harvard Stadium, but it was Harvard, Yale, and Princeton that really paved the way and started big-time football.”  

A NUCLEUS FOR COMPETITION 

Harvard Stadium has always assumed an important position beyond the university and beyond football. Throughout the 20th century, the stadium’s relatively large seating capacity and central location has attracted national and international events.

Between 1920 and 1928, the stadium hosted the US Track and Field trials for three consecutive Summer Olympic Games. In 1984, group stage Olympic soccer matches came to Allston. The stadium’s ability to host large-scale sporting events also proved appealing to a Boston-based team that once lacked a permanent home. In 1960, the Boston Patriots needed a gridiron to call its own.

The football club had bounced around fields at Boston University, Boston College, and even Fenway Park, and began its plea to use the Stadium in in 1968—although Harvard did not budge. Despite a direct letter from Boston Mayor Kevin White requesting that the professional team be allowed to lease the stadium, President Nathan M. Pusey ’28 stood by his belief that introducing a professional sport team into a regular schedule would provide a great distraction to the students and an obstruction of the ideals of amateur athleticism that Harvard wished to uphold. 

In a public letter to Patriots President William H. Sullivan, Pusey noted his concern that the “popular and colorful play” of the “super performers” would make the college kids “second-class citizens on their own campus.”

Despite Pusey’s objections, however, the Patriots held their regular season opener on Harvard’s grounds on Sept. 20, 1970, beating the Miami Dolphins, 27-14, before a crowd of 32,607. Dusty Rhodes, President of Conventures, Inc., a public relations firm located in Boston, got her start selling tickets for the Patriots. 

“People were excited because the Patriots were going to play at Harvard Stadium,” Rhodes said. “All of a sudden, there was a huge demand for tickets, when before you couldn’t even give them away.” 

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After one full season at Harvard Stadium, the team moved to Foxborough, Mass., the eventual site of today’s Gillette Stadium, and officially became the New England Patriots. Since then, the stadium has held other top sporting events.

In addition to the 1984 Olympic teams, an assortment of elite soccer squads, in particular, have played in showcase matches on Soldiers Field. “For as long as I’ve been in Boston, the Stadium has been one of the most iconic places for sport,” Rhodes said. “It continues to be an asset to the community.” 

MORE THAN SPORT

Harvard Stadium’s contributions to the community have extended not just beyond the “manly contest” of football, but also beyond the realm of sport itself.

In 1968, like many universities across the nation, Harvard began to experience the counter-culture atmosphere that was sweeping the Yard. Donald Chiofaro ’68 was a dual varsity athlete at Harvard and captain of the football team his senior year. 

“You couldn’t walk into the dining hall and not talk about Vietnam, or not talk about civil rights,” he said. “It brought all of those issues right into your lap, every night, every day, all the time.”

Multipurpose Football
Harvard Stadium has stood for more than football, housing Vietnam protests and rock stars in the twentieth century.
 

In 1969, Students for a Democratic Society occupied University Hall in protest of the war and Harvard’s influence in national politics, resulting in a week-long boycott of classes. Over the course of this brief yet exciting time, two large-scale meetings took place in the stadium, where more than 25,000 people met, discussed, and voted on the continuation of the strike. 

In addition to its role as a center for political debate and campus unrest, the Stadium has served Harvard in other ways. The Stadium hosted a series of concerts in the 1970s, including Janis Joplin’s final performance and a Bob Marley concert in 1979. A few years later, in 1986, a grand concert within the stadium marked Harvard’s 350th anniversary.

Nearly 30,000 people attended the event, which featured the Boston Pops Orchestra, fireworks, and a number of Hollywood performers.

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The stadium proved perfect for size and acoustics, but temporary lighting had to be brought in, since the lights that brighten the field today would not be not installed for another decade. 

To both Harvard and the greater Boston community, Harvard Stadium has consistently meant a lot more than just a place in which people play football. 

“The more usage you get out of [the stadium], the better,” Friedman said. “It used to be this great edifice to football that sat empty except for six, seven Saturdays a year. Given everything that’s going on at the school and in the community, it’s great that the stadium is being put to other good uses.”

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TRADITION TO DATE

Over the past century, tradition has outweighed change for Harvard Stadium, but the space has been adapted to meet the technological standards of a modern arena. In 1998, construction commenced on the Murr Center at the open end of the horseshoe, and in 2008, a new digital scoreboard and video board were installed atop the Murr. 

Between 2006 and 2007, the Stadium underwent its most significant renovation to date. Permanent lights were installed across the roof of the colonnade, allowing night games to be played for the first time. Harvard installed FieldTurf to replace the grass field, which took a beating every year in the cold Cambridge fall.

Each winter, a large bubble is inflated over Harvard’s turf to provide field usage to varsity teams and club sports insulated from the inclement conditions outside. Despite the changes on the surface, the real heart of Harvard Stadium lies in its history and its meaning to those who have set foot on its hallowed ground.

“With Harvard Stadium, they built an institution that tied football into history and antiquity,” Smith said. “If you look at the colonnade, the columns recall classical Greece. That ties the concept of football within the institution into a historical record people can be proud of.” 

The heyday of Harvard football on the national scene may well be over, but on one Saturday morning in November every other year, every row and section of Harvard Stadium quickly fills, from down on the field to up in the colonnade, and the old stadium shakes as Harvard and Yale face off once more. This Saturday, thousands of fans from Harvard and Yale, alumni from around the world, and even ESPN’s College GameDay will converge at Harvard Stadium. The concrete coliseum will once again be the center of the college football universe, if only for a day. 

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“When you walk into Harvard Stadium and see a great Yale team and a great Harvard team, and then you look around and you see the Harvard championships...you get to understand the tradition,” Chiofaro said. “You sit, you listen to people talk about all their experiences and how they define the different stages in their life by the Yale game…. It’s really a remarkable day.” 

—Staff writer Tanner Skenderian can be reached at tanner.skenderian@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Justin C. Wong can be reached at justin.wong@thecrimson.com. 

 

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