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Saturday
Jun112011

Leo Harris and his monument to tenacity -- Autzen Stadium

Eugene being Eugene, it’s a wonder Autzen Stadium ever got built.

Hayward Field, circa 1930s (U of O Digital Archives)

Hayward Field by the early ’60s was a wreck. The oldest stadium in the conference that hadn’t been significantly rebuilt at some point, it was cramped, uncomfortable, and small. About the only thing you could say good about it was that it was in Eugene, and most of the seats were covered.

Leo HarrisOregon’s Athletic Director, Leo Harris, didn’t mince words.

“It’s the poorest spectator facility of any major football school.. When we play a game in Eugene, after we take care of the students, faculty and press, we can sell only 9000 more seats and that includes season tickets…

“When we bring prospective student athletes to Eugene we attempt to avoid allowing them to see Hayward Field.”

And Harris was tired of dragging his team north to Portland three times a year to play in the larger, but still outdated, Municipal Stadium (now known as Jeld-Wen Field and home of the Timbers). But Washington and the California schools insisted on playing in front of the bigger gate; Hayward was relegated to games against the likes of Idaho, WSU, San Jose State, and the Civil War. Even with the completion of the Pacific Freeway between Eugene and Portland, it was an expensive two-hour-each-way trip.

Leo didn’t want his legacy to be left in the baked bleachers and splintered seating at the corner of 15th and Agate, or limited to a lucky friendship with Walt Disney that resulted in a unique mascot. He envisioned a replacement stadium, to be built on a section of a 500-acre tract of undeveloped land north of the Willamette River, part of which was on a closed landfill called Day Island. Local government agencies, the UO and EWEB were cooperating to develop a large-scale city park stretching from the Ferry Street Bridge all the way to the new Pacific Freeway (aka I-5), and there was support for making a new stadium one of the centerpieces of the park.

So it came to pass that Harris asked his friend Marcus Bessonette, a contractor from Medford, to study stadium designs around the country and come up with a workable plan for a stadium in the North Bank Park. Bessonette, who had designed a stadium at Medford High, told Harris that construction cost could be reduced by grading a “bowl” out of the bare land, dumping tons of infill around the bowl, then building concrete superstructures above the dirt. It was an inexpensive way to build a stadium fast, and the construction technique itself dated back to Greek and Roman amphitheaters. More recently, the method had been used to varying degrees in erection of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Green Bay’s Lambeau Field, the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Falcon Stadium at the Air Force academy in Colorado Springs, and Oakland-Alameda Stadium.

Eugene Register-Guard, Feb 16 1961Harris had his design by early 1961, and although it was a bit odd, with drive-in endzone parking, it was a starting point. And Leo figured the stadium could be built for around $2 million – chump change, in an era of cantilevered steel-frame stadiums running into eight figures.

With cooperation, Harris thought the Ducks could be kicking off in the new stadium by 1965. This was important, because in the early 60s, Oregon had become a “Western Independent” following the demise of the PCC in 1958, which had led to the AAWU – the four California schools plus Washington. Harris desperately wanted back in the big-boy conference.. but the California schools insisted on bigger cuts of the gate, which meant Oregon would need a bigger stadium.

But Harris had the misfortune of being in Eugene, where it seems there has never been a proposal for anything substantial that has not been “processed” and “studied” within an inch of its life.

Worse, in mid-1961, he lost a supportive UO president, Meredith Wilson, to Minnesota. Wilson had been instrumental in approving the purchase of the 93 acres to be used for the stadium (for $90,000, in 1959), and had backed Harris by approving plans, surveys and traffic studies along with model development.

Wilson’s replacement, Arthur Flemming, was coming off a term as Eisenhower’s HEW secretary, and was a bit of a demagogue.

Arthur S. Flemming, UO Pres 1961-68Flemming didn’t think Harris could pull off the funding for a new stadium off-campus, and thought Harris had pulled that $2 million figure out of his hat. And for a long time, it seemed Flemming did everything he could to ensure he would be right. After dancing around the issue for a couple of years, in 1963 he commissioned a study by the national architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrell (SOM), who had recently completed Portland’s Memorial Coliseum.

SOM was asked to evaluate three options – a new stadium at a new location, a new stadium on the current Hayward Field site, or the possibility of expansion and retrofitting the current Hayward grandstands to modern standards. Each option was expected to carry 35-40,000 seats.

Flemming received the report from SOM.. and sat on it. When asked of its status, he would only tell reporters that the study was “incomplete.”

By late September of ‘63, Harris was growing impatient with his boss. Nothing had happened in two years. “There is no good reason that I can see why the stadium plans cannot be started right now,” he told the Portland Duck Club.

Dr. Wilson virtually promised the alumni and Eugene merchants that an adequate football facility would be constructed in the near future. I know President Flemming is a busy man..

A functional stadium.. would cost between $1.5 and $2 million. Nothing fancy, maybe not even finished on the outside. You can make it a monument later.

Finally, under pressure from the media and an increasingly irritated Harris, Flemming released the SOM study. It wasn’t hard to see why he’d hidden it: The report strongly recommended the North Bank site for a new stadium as the only feasible option, considering traffic demands, cost, and facility requirements.

Hayward couldn’t be retrofitted. It hadn’t been built to code in the first place, and there was no way the city of Eugene would permit it to be expanded. There was no room to build a larger stadium at the current site without encroaching on campus space; even if there had been room, the surrounding streets couldn’t handle the traffic and parking that would be required.

***

An experienced politician, Flemming shifted his position with the release of the SOM report. He now “fully favored” the North Bank site – provided it would become a “cooperative venture” with the city of Eugene and Lane County. “Cooperative venture” was code for monetary support through taxation. The UO couldn’t legally float a bond issue to support a capital development, but the city or county could. Flemming still didn’t think Harris could pull off the funding, and he didn’t want the UO on the hook for the whole project. But he didn’t want it to look like he was the roadblock.

Meanwhile, the Eugene Chamber of Commerce, giddy over the possibility of getting all Oregon’s home games in Eugene, got behind the concept of a joint funding venture for the stadium in late 1964, suggesting the City put up $1M via a bond issue. The lone dissenting vote was from Alton Baker, publisher of the Register-Guard, and for whom the North Bank park would eventually be named. “I question the wisdom of taxing the Eugene taxpayer for five football games a year,” Baker said. “I frankly can’t see why the UO can’t go to the alumni and raise $1,600,000 instead of $600,000.” The City Council eventually agreed with Baker, declining to endorse a bond issue; but by this point Harris had finally convinced Flemming the project could be funded solely through existing university funds, donations and sponsor pledges.

While Baker was raising doubts about the funding, others continued questioning the site itself. In mid-1965, amid the fundraising project, the Lane County leaders made their doubts public. Commissioner Frank Elliott, a self-proclaimed land use expert, after studying an aerial photograph of the site, said “there just isn’t room here for a stadium and sufficient parking too. I know the university will need at least 40 more acres.” Commissioner Jess Hill proposed relocating the stadium to a site near the I-5/Belt Line intersection. Commissioner Ken Nielsen, apparently unable to read or understand the very strongly worded and well-researched SOM report, continued to suggest a new stadium at Hayward Field might be practical.

The R-G routinely ran editorials questioning the veracity of the site process. “.. Careful studies must now be made to insure that all questions relating to this project are properly answered,” one such editorial tut-tutted. “It would be sheer folly to plunge ahead before it is determined if there aren’t other sites better suited for a football stadium, sites which would not involve million-dollar-plus outlays for entrance and exit roads.” The R-G editorial staff apparently was under the impression that students couldn’t bother figuring out how to get from the campus to the stadium, that they’d all be driving – despite the minor detail that many students living on campus didn’t have cars.

Other potential sites were suggested. A Eugene lumberman, Henry Eaton, suggested putting the stadium six miles from campus, out West 11th near Danebo Road, on a 125-acre site that he happened to own; the site would have “excellent access when several planned roads are constructed.” (One of these “planned” roads was the West Eugene Parkway, in the planning stages for almost 40 years before it was voted down for good in the mid-2000s.)

And, because some things have never changed, a vocal minority of campus faculty and associates continued to rail on the entire concept of intercollegiate athletics. An English prof, James Hall, said athletes “depress the intellectual level of the classroom.”

***

Prof. Ray EllicksonThe endless kerfluffle incensed Prof. Ray Ellickson, Oregon’s faculty athletics representative. In a 1966 speech to the Oregon Assembly, he pointed out that the very existence of the North Bank Park could be traced to the stadium project:

I was a member of the Eugene planning commission a few years ago.. Howard Buford, the director, came to us with a serious problem. The state had 90 acres in what is now the North Bank Park and was about to put that land on the market. If it were sold to commercial interests, it would be no time at all before the land would be built up and making a park there would be prohibitively expensive. On the other hand, if this one parcel could be held out for non-commercial use, perhaps the city and county could be persuaded to buy up the surrounding acreage.

It had to be done in a hurry, and in just a few days, ‘Met’ Wilson agreed to use of Athletic Department funds to buy the land. I think no one familiar with that bit of history doubts for a moment that there would be no North Bank Park today without Buford’s alertness, the cooperation of the university, and the use of Athletic Department funds.

The suggestion now that the Athletic Department not be allowed to use the land seems to me to come with a bit of ill grace.”

And Leo Harris was starting to get irritated. In an interview published in Oregon’s Daily Emerald, he railed at the impracticality of student leaders, who were saying attendance wasn’t important:

By 1967, if Hayward is still used, its stands will only have room for students, donors and faculty for [its] two games.. You can’t make money that way. Unless we have the new stadium by 1967 only Oregon State and Idaho will play here. Even Colorado won’t play except in Multnomah Stadium.”

Undaunted, Harris launched a capital campaign to raise $1 million in November 1965. It went over the top in less than five months.

But time was wasting. Finally, on March 22, 1966, the county commissioners told the local planning commission they had no intention of trying to change the stadium’s location. Someone had finally gotten them to understand that all the money that had been pledged for the stadium was conditioned on the use of the North Bank site and on completion of the stadium for the 1967 season.

Eugene Register-Guard, 5 May 1966By May, there were tractors and backhoes and graders performing site preparation, even as frantic fundraising continued. President Flemming finally got back on Leo Harris’s good side by personally spearheading a last-ditch effort in the summer of 1966 to squeeze every last dollar out of Portland alumni.

Flemming’s crowning acheivement for the stadium project was convincing Thomas E. Autzen, of Portland’s Autzen Foundation, to pledge the last $250K required to get the funding project completed, in exchange for putting the name of his father, Thomas J. Autzen, on the stadium.

(Although Thomas J. Autzen was in fact a graduate of OSC, Thomas E. Autzen had attended Oregon in the 1930s, the school took pains to note.)

*** 

With funding in place, Oregon’s State Board of Higher Education signed off on the project July 7, 1966. Leo Harris would have his new stadium, albeit bearing scant resemblance to his original concept: SOM was retained to provide the final stadium architecture.

There would be contractor problems, weather difficulties, and the usual last-minute frenzy of activity involved with any large project at a deadline. But on September 16, 1967 – one week before the home opener against Colorado – the university received the keys to its new toy.

Autzen Stadium, early September 1967

The final cost: $2.35 million, remarkably close to the Harris estimate six years earlier. Autzen Stadium contained 13,000 cubic yards of concrete, held seating made of 130,000 board feet of Port Orford cedar – cut from a special stand near Coos Bay – and had 82,000 hot-branded seat numbers and hash marks to define the individual seats. Two acres of stadium turf was planted on a site near the UO physical plant in late 1966, and was transplanted to the stadium bowl after interior work was complete. A set of 135’ glue-lam wood beams supported a wood deck roof over the “sponsors” section.

The only restrooms for public use were in the stairwells at each end zone, behind the sponsors section and under the press box; additional facilities being deemed among several “extras” that would be added “at a later date.” (One of those “extras” – an iron pipe fence around the top of the rim, to keep fans from accidentally stumbling over the edge and tumbling down the 50 degree berm to the parking lot – was added after the Colorado game; the “extra” fence was declared a code violation, requiring immediate remediation.) The parking lot had 8,400 graveled spaces; asphalt was promised “at a later date” that never came.

Some of the cost-driven design compromises were obvious. Single aisles stretching from rim to field level between every section were used in lieu of more convenient crossing aisles with tunnels and convenient facilities. It would be a strenuous journey to the concession stands and toilets for those with seats in the lower areas of the bowl, something Duck fans have managed to live with for 43 years. Using wooden seat boards for all but the pricey sponsor section dropped the seating cost considerably. The original press box, on the north edge of the rim, had no awning or other means to block direct autumn sunlight, a fact regularly reported by the sportswriters. The locker rooms were notoriously cramped and dank. There were no on-site meeting facilities until the 1981 addition of the Stadium Club at the east end. The footbridge for those car-deprived students wasn’t completed until 1970. And Honey Buckets lined the rim every game day until the 2002 expansion.

Still, that an aesthetically pleasing stadium could be constructed for just over $2.3 million, even in the 1960s, without a dollar of public funding, was remarkable.  Woody Hayes, who brought his Ohio State team to Autzen later in ‘67 on what was called “Dedication Day,” was impressed. “I still can’t believe how you people can build a stadium so beautiful, yet so fast and economically. I just wish the people in Columbus could see this.”

Civil War tailgaters, 1967

***

Having secured his legacy, Leo Harris, Oregon’s greatest athletic director, resigned the position he’d held for 20 years in January of 1967. His friend and head coach, Len Casanova, was developing health problems and didn’t think he could handle another season on the sideline. Leo’s resignation allowed Cas to slide into the AD chair; longtime Cas staffer Jerry Frei was elevated to head coach for the first season at Autzen.

Harris, who played tackle at Stanford under Glenn “Pop” Warner in 1925-26 and was a long-time member of the NCAA Football Rules Committee, died in 1990 in Monterey, California at the age of 85.

His name’s not on the stadium, but every passenger vehicle entering the grounds of Autzen does so via the Leo Harris Parkway; and the stadium owes its existence and configuration to Leo’s business acumen, foresight and tenacity.

Autzen Stadium, 22 Sept 1967Alton Baker Pond, 2007 (photo courtesy EugeneOutdoors.com)

 

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Reader Comments (14)

Great article on this history. I remember 'Knot-Hole Gang' seats at Hayward and then the road trips to Portland (especially the emergency debut of Dan Fouts and his bomb thrown right into the hands of a receiver, who of course dropped it, against Cal). So the luxury and natural setting of the bowl is still appreciated and a unique testament to Leo Harris and the other heroes of North Bank.

06.11.2011 | Unregistered CommenterEBinSD

I was a fundraiser on that original fundraising drive to fund Autzen staduim. It was the easiest one I ever served. I was assigned lawyers. The fundraiser assignments and the terms offered donors was published in the Register-Guard before the drive officially started. Immediately after the paper came out calls started coming in to my offcie by lawyers wanting to be included as donors. My entire quota was filled by volunteers. Eugene was eager. It had waited too long. President Fleming was a very unpopular guy, properly blamed for the delay by those that followed U of O football.

06.11.2011 | Unregistered CommenterTom Brownhill

Thank you, BENZDUCK, for writing this interesting historical piece. I grew up in Eugene watching Oregon play at Hayward Field as a part of the "Knothole Gang" As a high school senior we played all of our home games and those away games against other Eugene area high schools at Autzen on the original Astro Turf. (Today's fans and players have no idea how much the turf itself has improved over those fledgling Autzen days!)

My reason for posting to this article,however, is due to the previous poster, Mr. Thomas Brownhill. He properly points out his involvement in fundraising, but this is in fact a very great man in his overall service to the University of Oregon. its athletic programs and more. Several prominant Duck athletes owe a huge debt of gratitude to the legal skills of Mr. Brownhill. I know this, and choose not to share specific names, because my mother was Mr. Brownhill's secretary. She absolutely loved working for this man! She described him once as having the unique ability to be able to talk to anyone from bank robber to University President to judges or to someone serving burgers at a local drive-in at their level of comfortable conversation and in their language. To each he could impart his respect and understanding. To each he could leave them feeling valued and considered.

My mother has been gone now for twelve plus years. I am so very happy to find that Mr. Brownhill is still with us and still delivering value to those interested in Oregon athletics !

06.11.2011 | Unregistered CommenterChuck Hodges

Wow, Benz, that is an incredibly good article, brilliantly researched and concisely written. You are the absolute authority on Oregon football history, and when they win their first national championship I will be shocked if you don't get a book deal, that is, if you would entertain the option.

Really enjoyed reading this, and wish you continued success with the site.

Best wishes,

Dale Newton

06.11.2011 | Unregistered CommenterDale Newton

I was a student in the mid 60's. I remember the cramped and limited seats at Hayward Field and I remember having to drive up to Portland To see the Ducks play the Huskies when I was a freshman. I am from Grants Pass and Tom Sparlin from GP was the starting QB for UW, why we didn't play in Eugene I didn't know until today. A year later we played at Autzen stadium and I now know why. Great story and now I have a great appreciation for Leo Harris. He should be remembered in perpetuity at the U of O. BTW, a year later Tom Sparlin from GP played against Tom Blanchard, also the starting Oregon QB from GP at Autzen. We lost both games. We've come a long way.

06.11.2011 | Unregistered CommenterRoguevalley duck

Very well done, indeed.

06.11.2011 | Unregistered CommenterSG Dawn

Thank you for reviving this important piece of U of O history. Many fans are too young to remember football at Hayward field and the politics leading up to the construction of Autzen Stadium. Leo Harris was a man of vision, courage, convinction, and tenacity. Without him, the Ducks (and the Beavers, too) would probably ended up playing in the WAC.

Here's a footnote to the story involving Bill Byrne, the other Athletic Director who was so instrumental in keeping the Ducks in the Pac-10 and putting many of the pieces in place that have lead to our current athletic success.

For more than twenty years, Leo Harris and his remarkable accomplishment in creating Autzen Stadium for the astoundingly low $ 2.35 million were all but forgotten by the university and Duck boosters. In the late 1980's a group of older Oregon Club of Portland members asked the Oregon Club board of directors to try and find some meaningful way to honor Leo. Several of us met with Bill Byrne and he enthusiastically took on the project, eventually coming up with Leo Harris Boulevard as a fitting and suitable tribute.

It's been almost twenty years since Bill Byrne left Oregon. It's time to honor Bill in a similar manor.

Dick Mimnaugh

06.12.2011 | Unregistered CommenterDick Mimnaugh

I agree with Dick Mimnaugh. I think lots of our success came from the good works of Bill Byrne. He deserves credit.

Fred Hogg

06.12.2011 | Unregistered CommenterFred Hogg

You bet Bill Byrne deserves a ton of credit. Even the crazy dome idea, which he pushed very hard but (fortunately) failed on, showed he was an innovator and wanted to upgrade the facilities. Byrne stabilized the athletic department finances, got the Cas built, made the risky commitments to bowl games that wound up paying off big time, and ended the demoralizing paycheck games that predecessors like Ritchey insisted were necessary.

I consider BIll Byrne one of the saviors of Duck football.

I don't know that Byrne was here long enough to be monumented the way Harris has been, but he should have more recognition and respect. The sad fact is, the farther we get away from the 80s, the more we forget. Which is one reason why I started this site.

Byrne's son Greg -- who attended Sheldon High and used to run around the athletic department -- is now the AD at Arizona, and doing some innovative things himself. Last I heard, Bill was still at Texas A&M, where they just swept the NCAA outdoor T&F trophies, again.

06.12.2011 | Registered Commenterbenzduck

Dick didn't mention he was president of the Oregon Duck Club and all he contributed to it.

06.17.2011 | Unregistered CommenterJim Johnstone

The tale of the stadium has a missing episode. The stadium was to be paid for by "university funds, donations, and sponsor pledges". What were those "university funds"? They were not formal allocations. Over the years, Harris had regularly placed unspent money from Athletic Department operations into the stadium fund. Some thought that his tight-fisted approach to operations hid that agenda. Matters came to a head in June, 1966, when Harris, now at a do-or-die moment in the Stadium campaign, refused to provide travel funding for several eligible track athletes to go to the NCAA championships. (U of O had won or shared the championship in 3 of the past 4 years.) Two of the funded athletes, Kenny Moore and Dave Steen, went over Harris' head to President Flemming. The President and the Athletic Director then met. We do not know what was said in that meeting. We do know the result. Travel funding was restored for the track athletes, and Flemming finished off the Stadium campaign drive. It did look like a deal, but not one for which we should praise Leo Harris.

06.24.2011 | Unregistered CommenterArthur Flemming

Correction has been made. Arthur Sherwood Flemming was actually Eisenhower's HEW Secretary, not HUD.

I had heard of Harris's reluctance to fund the T&F athletes to attend the NCAAs in 66 but did not want to include it as I felt it was inadequately sourced. It's hard to believe that any Oregon AD would deny members of Oregon's signature athletic program for generations to represent the school because of a lack of travel funding. My guess is that Harris was playing a trump card, knowing that not sending Ducks to the NCAAs would get the attention of his boss; we'll never know what would have happened if Flemming had not met with him. It all worked out pretty well in the end, in my opinion.

I have also heard one reason Harris had accumulated substantial athletic department funds to go into the stadium fund, building that $600k war chest, was that he hadn't fully funded all scholarship athletes, especially in football, for an extended period starting in the early 60s, and there was some grumbling among the coaching staffs about this. Harris said he couldn't get the athletes to come to Oregon, so why just give away the scholarships? Again, single source, unconfirmed, so not included. But I wouldn't be too surprised if there were other instances where Harris pinched every penny.

That President Flemming wasn't exactly an enthusiastic supporter of the off-campus stadium, or of Harris's attempts to get it going without public funding, is not in dispute.

With regards to the "crowning achievement".. well, if there was another significant and lasting accomplishment of President Flemming in the nine months prior to his departure from Oregon in addition to the completion of Autzen Stadium, please feel free to share it here, as I want to get the history right.

06.25.2011 | Registered Commenterbenzduck
I find this fascinating. I don't remember much of my Uncle Ray, as I was a young boy when he passed, but good for all those involved. Just the fact they were able to pull it off is amazing in it's own right. Imagine trying to pull this fete off in todays world? I seriously doubt anyone could do it, not to mention a "team" of people pulling it off. To stay within a budget was a miracle. I do remember my beloved Aunt Louine, (Rays wife) and from time to time, get to visit with my cousins (their children) if they are in town. But most of all, I Love My Ducks!!! Thank you to all involved in the Project that has become "Home of the Ducks" not to mention what it has allowed the University to do to Hayward Field. A premier Track and Field facility!! Thank you, Dave Ellickson
03.22.2012 | Unregistered CommenterDave Ellickson
Thank you for an excellent piece on a man I am proud to call my grandfather, Leo Harris! I can say from personal experience that your facts are quite accurate regarding the tenacity required to have that stadium built. While I was quite young during the planning stages of this stadium project I have fond memories of spending summers in the old Athletic Department stuffing donor envelopes to raise funds for the stadium. It was fun to see the hustle and bustle and team effort in that office which was led by Harris. To put things in perspective, that stadium would not have been built without Leo Harris and his vision. It's a shame it had to be so arduous as years later history has proven Harris right. His legacy to Eugene and the UofO goes much beyond the stadium project.
05.1.2014 | Unregistered CommenterNannette Newbury

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