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A fitting farewell for U. stadium

Published: Sunday, Nov. 16 1997 12:00 a.m. MST

The smoke had barely cleared after the final gun Saturday when the deconstruction of Rice Stadium began. Students were tearing up planks of bench seating and packing them home for purposes only 19-year-old college students can fathom. Others went to the north end zone and took down the goal post - which must have been the first time in history that happened after someone beat Rice.

The Utes wrapped up their home season with a 31-14 win over the Owls and closed up shop. It was, if nothing else, a fitting farewell to a stadium that has stood in the same place for seven decades. Monday the construction crews will officially start taking it apart, down to ground level, and later they'll build it back up. The next time the gates open, the stadium will be a 46,500-seat monument to what modern technology and a grundle of dollars can do.For anyone who has sat through a game in the past 50 or so years, it will be a revelation to learn there is such a thing as an end zone seat without splinters. There will be plenty of bathrooms, luxury suites and all the amenities a 21st century stadium should include. There will a press box fit to handle hundreds of media outlets from around the world.

It isn't as though there were many tears shed over the demolition of the building. Nostalgia aside, the place had become an eyesore at best, and a hazard at worst. Some of the more memorable moments involved tripping on the splintered wooden steps or standing in line too long at the bathroom.

While the stadium had more than its share of memories, it also served as a boarding house for a number of residents. It was home not only to the Utes, but to various migrations of wasps, mice, dogs and cats. In recent years, pigeons took up residence in the scholarship box, and workers had to scrape droppings away before game days. A snake even took up residence under the building.

In the late 1970s, Rice Stadium became home to a Ute football player, who had entangled himself in so much trouble that he was kicked out of the dorms, off the team and out of school. He ended up bedding down in the stadium for a couple of weeks.

It didn't have room service, but the price was fair and you couldn't beat the view.

Despite its age, the place never really was finished. There were several rennovations, including the most recent one in 1982, in which the field was lowered and the south stands added. But even then, things weren't completed. The Utes' dressing room still has temporary lockers and there is no carpeting. It looks a little like a locker room and a lot like a warehouse.

"In some respects, the building is 70 years old and has never been finished," said Utah assistant coach Sean McNabb.

During World War II the locker rooms were converted into barracks.

The stadium was also home to a certain amount of subterfuge. Fearing the arrival of a speedy UTEP team in 1968, Utah coach Mike Giddings had the field soaked to saturation. The next day it had roughly the same texture as sponge cake. Giddings hadn't taken into account that while it may have slowed UTEP, it didn't do anything to speed up his own team. UTEP left with a 28-8 win.

In 1989, with the Utes on their way to a 4-8 season, it snowed for homecoming. The Utes lost 50-10 to Colorado State. Not to be denied, the student section entertained itself at halftime by snowballing the homecoming queen as she was escorted around the infield.

Nobody ever ran the wrong way for a touchdown in Rice Stadium, but there was the time in 1986 when Utah return man Gerald Johnson knelt down on the goal line, thinking he was in the end zone, and committed a safety on himself. In 1988 a woman streaked to midfield, paused, then ran a fly pattern for the south end zone. Security people tried to herd her out of the way but didn't quite know where to put their hands. Finally someone threw a coat over her and the game went on.

But through it all, Rice Stadium was kind to the Utes. In 70 years, they had a 222-120-10 record in the place. If you attended a Utah home game, you were reasonably sure you'd see a win. Even in the bad years, when the Utes were lucky to win anything, they won at home. In 1974 and 1975, the years the Utes went 1-10, they took comfort in knowing that both wins were delivered at home.

From the start of Saturday's game, it was clear the Utes intended to perform their swan song in style - and they did. The miseries of the current season were, at least for a time, forgotten. By the time game was over and the bleachers were being carted out, even the 1997 Utes were feeling a little sad. Just when they were getting comfortable, it was time to take the place down.

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