Our family truly wants what is best for Utah State because Grandpa always wanted the best for Utah State. He was so devoted to that university, and it was such an honor to have the stadium named after him twice because it kept him and his work alive every time the name of the stadium was mentioned. —Richard Romney
It isn’t as easy to protect a legend as you might think. Richard Romney has been doing it for a decade and, as he discovered, when a legend butts heads with money, even a legend is no match.
Richard Romney is the grandson of legendary coach E.L. “Dick” Romney. For 88 years, USU’s football stadiums — there have been two — have carried his name. Richard’s father — also named Richard — seemed to suspect that those days were numbered. In the last few years of his life, he told his son repeatedly to preserve Coach Romney’s name:
“Richard,” he told him, “do what you can to make sure they know who we are.”
Richard Sr. died in 2004, and since then Richard Jr. has done exactly what his father asked, trying to preserve his grandfather’s name through repeated discussions with USU officials. “Each time I meet with them, I tell them the Dick Romney story,” he says.
He lost the fight this spring. The Aggies sold the naming rights to a convenience store and changed the name of the stadium from Romney Stadium to Maverik Stadium. Utah State not only dumped the family name from the stadium, the family says the school reneged on promises and compromises.
“I tried my best to keep Grandpa’s name in the forefront at Utah State,” Richard says. “After the name change, I wrote an email to my family saying I’m sorry. I feel in a way that I failed something that meant a lot to our family.”
The university initially declined to comment on the issue, but a couple days later responded in an email: “Utah State Athletics,” it began, “has worked with the Romney family over the years, including the new naming of the football stadium, an announcement in which they supported and attended this past April We support the Romney family’s dedication to this great man and we know they are very understanding of the continued growth and viability of Aggie football.”
The Romneys seemed hardly supportive. They were good sports about it, but that’s not the same thing as being supportive. And the Aggies didn’t “work with” the Romneys; they simply told them what they were going to do, over the family’s objections.
“How do you support something you have no choice in?” says Richard. “There were no options Possibly I should have been more vocal to keep Grandpa’s legacy alive. I think as a family, we were all lost between the idea of being good sports and honoring Grandpa.”
Says Richard’s sister, Carol Larsen, “What could we do to stop it? Picket the announcement? Send hate mail to the college? We stepped back and let corporate America take over. We are saddened by this decision but felt we had no options. When money talks, one simple man’s legacy is silenced.”
The Aggies apparently have taken the what-have-you-done-for-us-lately attitude about the legendary coach, the man who carried and built the entire athletic program almost singlehandedly.
In his home office, Richard Romney has an old football that is signed by Pop Warner and Knute Rockne, two of the biggest names in the history of the game. Coach Romney wasn’t just one of their peers, he was one of the game's leaders, and if he had coached somewhere other than in the Mountain West, nobody would be erasing his name from the stadium.
Romney was one of football's pioneers. In the mid-1920s, he began a summer school for coaches. Rockne, Warner, Frank Leahy and other legendary coaches came to Logan to compare notes.
“He reached out to coaches, and they came together to create schemes and collaborate on plays and ideas and take football to a new level,” says Richard. “Grandpa created an environment in Logan for these clinics. He did it for football and basketball. He became really good friends with those coaches.”
When Richard’s father — Coach Romney’s son — was hospitalized as a boy to have his appendix removed, the coach presented him with the signed football that now sits in his grandson’s home.
Romney lettered in four sports for the University of Utah — football, basketball, baseball and track — and became the school’s first All-American in basketball. Immediately after he graduated, Romney was offered a coaching position at Utah State, but he — along with three of his four brothers — went off to fight World War I instead. As soon as Romney returned from the war, he received a telegram — which the family still owns — offering him the job for a salary of $1,800.
The Aggies got a bargain. Romney was a one-man athletic department. He coached football for 29 seasons, basketball for 22 seasons, track for 24 seasons and baseball for three seasons, and he was the athletic director for almost three decades and commissioner of the Skyline Conference for a decade. His won-loss record was 128-91-16 in football and 225-157 in basketball. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954.
In 1940, he told The Salt Lake Tribune, "I was getting mixed up which cap to wear. I had almost to sell the tickets, put on another cap and collect the tickets and then get my teams on the field." He coached for three years before he was able to hire an assistant coach. He claimed he missed only one day of work — to attend the birth of his daughter.
“He was an amazing man,” wrote Larsen in an email.
In 2005, the year after Richard Sr. died, Richard Jr. began meeting with USU officials and did his best to carry out the promise he made to his father. That same year the Aggies began to consider the stadium name as another source of revenue to throw into the bottomless pit of college athletics. According to Richard, Randy Spetman, the athletic director at the time, told him the Aggies were going to change the name of the stadium; as a consolation, Romney says, the school offered to name the actual football field Romney Field.
“He mentioned the naming of the field in Grandpa's name, in exchange for the stadium name,” recalls Richard. “He also mentioned that they would like to do a nice memorial and, in his words, ‘have a nice statue of Grandpa in the main entrance to the stadium.’ I reluctantly said yes.”
That was the last he heard of it. In 2009 — by then, Scott Barnes was the athletic director — the field was named after former USU/L.A. Rams star Merlin Olsen. They also unveiled a statue of Olsen.
“Something happened when Merlin Olsen entered the picture,” says Romney. “The Olsen family and the Rams came up with the money to do that. That’s how they paid for the statue and the field name. We know and love the Olsens dearly and he was remarkable, but they never reached out to tell us they were doing that. I let them know we were disappointed in that whole thing. They told me from that point forward they would keep me in the loop.”
Larsen wrote in an email, “It was a real blow when we learned the field was going to be named Olsen Field. That is when we realized that the athletic department didn’t care much for keeping the Romney name alive. We had no proof of what they had promised. It was all handshakes. So, yeah, I, for one, was hurt. (Coach Romney’s) legacy is gone. Money talks and the E.L. Romney family does not have the money to speak.”
Richard reached out to Barnes. They met occasionally and talked on the phone about Romney’s legacy and name. “We went to lunch and did several things together over the years,” says Richard. “He was very nice and willing to talk.”
Two years ago, Richard says, USU officials asked the Romneys if they would give permission — even though they didn’t need it — to sell the name of the stadium to a corporate sponsor.
“I felt bad because my dad was so invested in this,” says Richard. “But the reality was the family does not have the money they need to do that. All I could do was talk about who Grandpa was and what he did. Scott said the reality is they needed the money.”
Romney reluctantly gave permission — what choice did he have? — with this caveat: He wanted the corporate sponsor to share the name with the family. Earlier this year, USU officials informed him that a name change was coming but didn’t disclose the name of the sponsor. Richard reminded them to seek a combination name with the sponsor. This time he was told that the sponsor had nixed the idea. There would be no Romney-Maverik Stadium; it was Maverik Stadium.
A short time later, in a timely coincidence, he found himself on the same flight as Barnes. “He told me, ‘I promise you we are going to do right by your grandpa,’” recalls Richard. Days later, Barnes officially accepted the A.D. job at the University of Pittsburgh.
“Each time a new athletic director was named, we had to start the process over,” says Larsen. “Nothing was passed down from the old to the new. No one reached out to the family to let us know they supported the Romney legacy and wanted to preserve it. From our viewpoint, no one seemed to care."
With the most meaningful forums — the stadium and field — already taken, the university has made other plans to recognize Romney. According to sports information director Doug Hoffman, USU will constructa “Recognition Point” on the concourse of the stadium, with photos and a “write-up” of Romney’s contributions. “By creating a recognition point all Aggie fans will now have the opportunity to learn exactly what Coach Romney accomplished during his USU career,” USU said in its statement.
That gesture seems small and patronizing at this point. Richard says he has never even heard of Recognition Point. “That’s news to me,” he says. “They still haven’t reached out to me.”
If Maverik wanted to do the right thing, it would share the name. If USU wanted to do the right thing, it would commission a bust or a statue of Romney, who did more for the Aggie athletic program than any single player, including Olsen. At the heart of the matter is the ethics of a school or public institution that withdraws honors and awards that were given by previous generations who believed someone or something was worth remembering for future generations.
“The school does not seem to think it is important to let their students and fans know who E.L. “Dick” Romney was and why he is so important to the school,” says Larsen.
Says Richard, “Our family truly wants what is best for Utah State because Grandpa always wanted the best for Utah State. He was so devoted to that university, and it was such an honor to have the stadium named after him twice because it kept him and his work alive every time the name of the stadium was mentioned.”
It’s small consolation, but Richard has received numerous emails from people who tell him the stadium will always be Romney Stadium to them.
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: [email protected]