The new, enlarged, architecturally marvelous football stadium at the University of Utah awaits its unveiling tomorrow night when the Utes play Louisville in what qualifies as a Must Go, I Was There kind of night.
But first, a moment of silence for the old stadium. For the pine trees beyond the south end zone that gave their lives for the new cause. For the splinters. For the beer dogs.I don't know this for a fact, but I wouldn't imagine that the new press box in the new stadium will be serving beer dogs, which was as good as it got at the old Rice Stadium. Perfect autumn night. Leaves changing on the benches. Moon rising over the Wasatch. Utes still in the game. (OK, the game hadn't started). And beer dogs.
Woody, a.k.a. Bruce Woodbury, the Utes' inimitable public relations director, would order beer dogs for the really big games. Utah State, maybe. Depended on the year. UTEP, never. BYU, for sure. The hot dogs had a great taste, ostensibly because they were soaked in beer, and Woody never went light on ordering the beer dogs. Eat all you want. Then eat some more.
When I covered football for a living, I loved going to Utah games. Utah games were easy. Parking was easy. Crowds were easy. You could open the windows in the press box and it was like you could practically reach out and touch the field, mainly because you could practically reach out and touch the field.
The mountain view from the west side of Rice Stadium was/is absolutely the best in the business. Better than Penn State. Better than Alabama. Better than the Rose Bowl or the Orange Bowl. Better than Notre Dame. Way better than Wyoming. Even better than Washington.
Yes, in its own way, it is an odd grand opening.
Usually, it goes in this order: big crowds . . . new stadium.
The Utes now become the first school in America to build a stadium on hoped-for fan response.
Their motto: Someday We're Going to Grow Into This.
The impetus behind the new stadium, of course, is the need for a 50,000-seat stadium for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies at the 2002 Olympics. Which is great. Any excuse for a new ballpark, right? But it still puts the football team in kind of an awkward position when people ask, "Great fan support?" and they have to answer, "Naw, great bid committee."
For the next four seasons, Ute football games will serve as a long warmup act for the March of the Nations, which is something even more boring than Air Force's offense. But after February 2002, the new Rice-Eccles Stadium will join the fraternity of "Olympic" stadiums, and Ute football players will be able to block and tackle in the footsteps of German lugers, Swedish skiers and Czech hockey players.
But will the new stadium change things? Will the laid back days when Woody used to say, "Have another hot dog," disappear? Will traffic become a nightmare? Will Utah fans start to care?
BYU went through just such a transformation when it doubled its stadium. All of a sudden it had chair seats and scholarship loges and carpet in the press box and windows you couldn't open. Sure enough, in the press box they started issuing "food tickets," with people standing around in starched blue aprons giving you that "Don't Even Think About Seconds" glare.
Immediately after the games, what looked like the entire ballroom dance team would be in the aisles with leaf blowers, blitzing through the garbage left by 66,000 fans. The whole place took on a different, no-nonsense air. Kids who tried to go onto the field after the game and throw nerf balls were whisked off to detention homes.
Is that now Utah's fate? Meal tickets? Efficient waste removal? Kids tackled on the sidelines?
Will Utah go where BYU has already gone?
Utes love it when you put it like that.