Rice-Eccles Stadium, Rice Stadium, Ute Stadium. Although the name has changed, the University of Utah football team has played their home games at the same address since 1927.
But oh how it has changed.
Since I came to the University of Utah from Canada in 1974 on a football scholarship, I’ve seen almost every home game played in that stadium. Even played in a few.
I don't remember the exact number but I've missed fewer than ten home games during all those years. And I saw almost all of those on TV.
I’ve seen a lot of great games. Amazing games. And many absolute stinkers.
The history of Rice-Eccles Stadium … and its predecessors … is long and storied. It should be since it’s been the home of Ute football for 86 years as of 2013.
All the way back in the 1920’s, an explosion of interest in college football ... and the subsequent revenue from ticket sales ... made it a no-brainer for some schools to build large stadiums to accommodate those fans.
These large concrete stadiums were made possible by new innovations in construction techniques fueling the boom. And the booming economic times of the Roaring 20’s.
Ohio State … the Buckeyes … started the rush in 1922 when they built a stadium seating 66,000 fans. Unheard of at the time.
And the University of Minnesota wasn’t far behind. They built one in 1924 that seated 52,000 fans.
Northwestern built a stadium seating 45,000 fans in 1926. And … in 1927 … Michigan built the first Big House seating 72,000 people!
What an amazing experience it must have been to be the first fans to walk into those places.
Ute Stadium (1927-1971)
The University of Utah played its first football game in 1892. And continued to play on old Cummings Field through the mid-1920's.
After they had to turn fans away for their final game of
1925, the talk about a new stadium started in earnest. But the idea of a new stadium was actually conceived in 1924.
The final plans called for a horseshoe or U-shaped design seating
20,000. And if future growth demanded
it, plans allowed for an additional 10,000 seats.
Ute Stadium was built on the current site of Rice-Eccles Stadium. On the extreme south side of the Utah campus
along 500 South across from the Mount Olivet Cemetery. The
cost? An estimated $125,000.
The Utes hosted their first game ever at their new stadium on October 1, 1927 against Colorado Mines. A 40-6 drubbing of the visitors. It was legendary coach Ike Armstrong’s third year at Utah.
Ute games have been played at
the same location since then. Through
the years in:
10,000 seats were added in the north end-zone in 1947 completing the horse-shoe. Before this, old photos show a pile of dirt there.
Today, that end-zone … because of the exuberance of the fans … is a nightmare for opposing teams. It’s where I have my season tickets. The things I’ve seen and heard while sitting there.
The seating capacity remained at 30,000 from 1947 until the next expansion and renovation in 1972.
Rice Stadium (1972-1997)
After the 1947 expansion, the stadium didn’t change much through the years. Until the early 1970’s.
In 1972, Robert
L. Rice … a local businessman and Ute supporter … donated $1 million to help upgrade the stadium. It was definitely showing its age.
The stadium had been constructed of wood and concrete with some earth fill. Quite cost-effective but not the most attractive design. And there wasn’t much you could do with this look without a completely new stadium.
Artificial turf … Astroturf … was installed. A Scholarship Box was added on the east side. The press box was expanded.
Seating capacity was increased to 32,500. And the name was changed to Rice Stadium.
Contrary to a couple items I’ve read … a Wikipedia article and a book about Utah football history … the track wasn’t removed at this time. The field wasn’t lowered.
And the south end zone seats weren’t added then either. Obviously written by someone too young to have spent any time in the stadium during those years.
I came to Utah in 1974 on a football scholarship. Along with most of my teammates, I hated the turf. It was like playing on concrete with a rug over it. In fact, that’s what it was.
It caused ugly, painful, slow-healing rug burns. And was usually 10-15 degrees hotter than grass. There was no give.
When you planted your foot, the only thing giving way was usually a knee or ankle. I blew my knee during spring practice on that turf.
The running track was also rock-hard. When you walked on it with cleats, you had to be careful. Or you’d end up on your butt. Or worse. Old-school football cleats just didn’t work on it.
There was a covered and heated seating area atop the east side seats called the Scholarship Box. For boosters who donated larger sums of money to the program. Before the The Crimson Club. With a great view of the field.
Even back then, they played the Utah high school state football championships at Rice Stadium every year. Some of us Ute players would work the games for a little extra cash.
Our job was to keep exuberant kids from jumping the fence trying to get in free for the games. We were often allowed up in the Scholarship Box where high school coaches from around the state were allowed to watch the games.
They almost always had a great spread to feed the coaches. And if we were lucky enough to get up to the box, we were allowed to grab a plate or two ourselves.
During the renovation, some of the bleachers were replaced by red plastic chair seats. But not enough. Most of the old, wooden bleachers … slivers and all … still survived.
It was a significant improvement over old Ute Stadium. But still a long way from what it would become.
I remember when the U hosted the WAC Track and Field Championships in 1975 or 1976. There were incredible athletes from UTEP (a track powerhouse at that time), Arizona State, BYU, Arizona, and others.
It was a fun experience as so many of the athletes were from other countries. And were already or soon-to-be Olympic competitors. But I remember thinking how horrible the track was.
In 1982, another upgrade occurred. The field was lowered more than nine feet. New seats were added along the sidelines. And a whole new south end seating structure was built.
The south end addition was named
after Spence Clark who donated much
of the money to build it. A former Ute
and father of Ute All-American Steve
Clark. A former teammate
of mine. It’s the only part of the old
stadium that still remains in Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Talk to any Ute who played
during these years and ask them what they think of the Astroturf. Most of them will tell
you how much they hated it.
I believe it did give the Utes an advantage against slower teams because it made fast guys even faster. And we tended to have a lot of speed.
Many of our best running backs played on that turf. Popcorn Rogers, Carl Monroe, Eddie Johnson. And All-American KR/WR Steve Odom got the benefit of a couple years playing on that turf.
But linemen like me hated it. Our coaches would water it before practices to avoid injuries. They believed it lessened the traction making it safer.
avoided practicing on it at all whenever possible. I saw a lot of knees go on that crap. Mine included.
In 1994, a new surface was installed. SportGrass. A mixture of natural grass and artificial turf. I never played on it so I can’t comment on it.
Looked nice but didn’t last long. It seemed to wear down and wear out much too quickly.
Rice-Eccles Stadium (1997-present)
I’ve sat in many different sections of Rice-Eccles Stadium. And Rice Stadium before that. On the 50-yard line 15 rows up on the east side. In the south end-zone. The north end-zone. The west side in a variety of locations.
And after attending games in old Rice Stadium, I’m not sure my family and I … along with other long-time fans … had any idea how fantastic a whole new stadium was going to be.
It seems to be easy lately for the local Salt Lake City media hacks and so-called fans of fewer than 10 years to bash Chris Hill, Utah Director of Athletics. But Chris Hill is directly responsible for so many of the fantastic things happening at the U right now.
He hired Rick Majerus who took the Utes basketball team to the national championship game. Hired Ron McBride and Urban Meyer. Then Kyle Whittingham. And got us into the Pac-12.
But back in 1996, Dr. Hill dreamed up the campaign to raise funds to blow up Rice Stadium and build a brand new stadium ... Rice-Eccles Stadium ... on the same site where Ute football had played for 70 years.
With a $10 million gift from the George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Foundation, the plan was put in motion. Former Ute All-American skier Spence Eccles was the man who got it going.
The timing was perfect. With the 2002 Olympic Winter Games coming to Salt Lake City, a new stadium would be the perfect venue for the Opening Ceremonies.
Hard to believe now looking at Rice-Eccles Stadium that the total cost of construction was only $50 million. Of course, we’re now going on 15 years.
$20 million came from private donors. $10 million from bonding. $12 million from the university. And $8 million from the Salt Lake Olympic Committee.
My wife and I … and several of my kids … went to all the home games in 1997. Some of the work had already started. But right after the season … a couple days in fact … it all came down. Old Rice Stadium was no more.
I remember driving up 5th South and looking at the carnage. At least we’d seen artist’s renditions of the new stadium and they looked fantastic. But I remember thinking that there was no way they’d have the new stadium completed before the next football season.
But they got it done with lots of time to spare. The new Rice-Eccles Stadium was ready to go. For the next season and beyond.
For the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. RSL soccer games. Even a Rolling Stones concert.
A beautiful stadium. Well-designed. No real bad seats. Seats close to the field. And officially seating 45,017.
Ute fans are proud of Rice-Eccles Stadium and they now fill it for every game. With the stunning backdrop of the Wasatch Mountains on the east side.
The panoramic Salt Lake Valley on the west side. Especially fantastic on late summer and early fall evenings. And sunny fall afternoons.
With the amazing array of weather conditions and temperatures we’re used to. The emergence of The Muss. The Third Down Jump. And the crazy loud north end-zone.
In 2003, a record crowd of 46,768 packed Rice-Eccles Stadium as Alex Smith led the Utes over the Aaron Rodgers’ California Golden Bears. And 46,522 showed up for the Utah-TCU game in 2011. I was there for both. The former much more fun than the latter.
Utah has averaged more than the stated capacity in attendance every year since 2008. Standing-room only crowds are now the norm at Rice-Eccles Stadium even with the mediocrity of the last couple years.
The stadium box … as it is called … on the west side of the stadium can be seen throughout the valley. 14 stories high with a glass front, it supports two BCS Bowl game and undefeated season banners. 2004 and 2008.
Top Rice-Eccles Stadium Crowds
(I was there for each game.)
1. 46,768 2003 California
2. 46,522 2010 TCU
3. 46,488 2008 BYU
4. 45,730 2010 Pittsburgh
5. 45,666 2008 TCU
6. 45,634 1998 BYU
7. 45,599 2008 Oregon State
8. 45,588 2009 Louisville
9. 45,587 2008 UNLV
10. 45,528 2005 Arizona
11. 45,419 2004 Texas A&M
12. 45,412 2011 Washington
13. 45,333 2009 Utah State
14. 45,330 2006 BYU
15. 45,326 2004 BYU
Rice-Eccles Stadium Season Attendance Averages (capacity 45,017)
1. 45,585 - 2008
2. 45,459 - 2010
3. 45,155 - 2009
4. 45,149 - 2011
5. 44,112 - 2004
6. 43,279 - 2006
7. 42,593 - 2007
8. 41,536 - 2005
9. 41,478 - 2003
10. 39,249 – 1999
Rice-Eccles Stadium Records
Tickets to Ute football games … since we’ve joined the Pac-12 … are hard to come by. At least at face value. Season tickets … if you don’t already have them … are almost impossible to get.
And fans are clamoring for stadium expansion. There’s no doubt it’s going to happen. Only a matter of time.
Football pays the bills but to compete in the Pac-12, other facilities have to be upgraded. Including the new football center.
Preliminary plans are in place to expand Rice-Eccles Stadium by at least 10,000 seats. There’ve already been discussions as to where to move the Hoberman Arch … centerpiece of the Olympic Medals Plaza.
The arch now sits at the south end of Rice-Eccles Stadium. It would have to be moved for any stadium expansion as the additional seats would be added in that end-zone. All Ute football fans are waiting for the expansion announcement.
(Since I originally wrote this page, the Arch has been dismantled and ... I believe ... has disappeared).
But I do agree that a sellout crowd in a smaller stadium is much better than empty seats in a much bigger stadium. And … if you look around college football … you’ll see that there’s been somewhat of a movement at some schools to reduce seating and fill their stadium. While making their stadium more attractive.
Stanford and Cal are perfect examples. With old, large (80,000+) stadiums often half-full, they’ve downsized to smaller, more modern buildings they can fill.
On the other hand, take a look at UCLA. They put 60,000 fans in a 105,000 seat stadium (the Rose Bowl) and it looks empty. And USC at times. They seat 90,000+ at the Coliseum but often have thousands of empty seats.
As I walk up to Rice-Eccles Stadium for games … or even just drive by … I often think back to what this place used to look like. And how far the program has come.
The 10 Best Games I’ve Ever Seen At Rice-Eccles Stadium
(and Rice Stadium)
I’ve been watching Ute games at home since 1974. And missed fewer than 10 (maybe a couple more if I include the year I moved away).
Since I played and even coached a little … as a graduate assistant for Ron McBride … I have a pretty good perspective on the best games ever played at home since 1974.
I applaud the enthusiasm of so many young and recent Ute football fans. But they have no idea of the history … and the absolute misery … so many of us went through for years.
They might look at some of the games below and wonder what the hell I’m talking about. But there’s a reason for all of them.
A game that stopped a long losing streak. A game that won a championship. A game that got us ranked. A game where we beat a ranked team.
A game that got us into a BCS bowl game. Or simply another game where we beat TDS (The Team Down South). BYU.
My list. Not yours. From oldest to most recent.
1. November 18, 1978. Utes 23, BYU 22. My senior year. I sat out the game due to a herniated disk in my back. But I was on the sidelines. Our gutsy little QB … Randy Gomez … led us to a 4th quarter comeback win over Jim McMahon and his Cougars. Huge in that they had kicked our ass for five straight years.
2. November 19, 1988. Utes 57, BYU 28. After another decade of getting beat by them, Scott Mitchell three for 394 yards and 3 TD’s. BYU was ranked 19th. The Utes force 8 turnovers. We stood the whole game in snow as there’d been a huge snow dump a couple days before. It was still piled up between the wooden bleachers. We didn’t care as we stood the whole game.
3. November 19, 1994. Utes 34, BYU 31. During one of our best seasons ever. With one of our best teams ever. BYU took the lead with just over two minutes left. The Utes marched right down the field and Charlie Brown scored on a 22-yard reception to retake the lead. All-American Luther Ellis forced a fumble on John Walsh to end the game and the goal posts came down. We finished that season ranked in the Top 10.
4. October 21, 1995. Utes 22, Air Force 21. An absolutely incredible ending. With 1:11 left in the game, the stadium was all but empty as the Utes were down 21-7. The Utes proceeded to score a TD, get the 2-point conversion, recover an onside kick, and score another TD on a 50-yard pass to Kevin Dyson. The winning extra point was kicked with 31 seconds left. My sons wouldn’t give up and wouldn’t let us leave.
5. September 11, 2003. Utes 31, Cal 24. Not so much a classic as Cal really wasn’t that tremendous a team. It’s what this game led to. Alex Smith started his first game for the Utes. Aaron Rodgers led Cal. Cal ended up 7-5 but did beat #3 USC later that year. The biggest Rice-Eccles Stadium crowd ever attended this game. We went on to a 10-2 season and the MWC Championship.
6. September 2, 2004. Utes 41, Texas A&M 21. The first game of Urban Meyer’s second year. Our first BCS year. The Utes went up 27-0 on ESPN and never looked back. All season.
7. November 20, 2004. Utes 52, BYU 21. ESPN’s College GameDay visited Salt Lake City and the Utah campus for the first time. This game climaxed our undefeated season, won the MWC, and sent us to the Fiesta Bowl. I remember walking around on the Rice-Eccles Stadium field after the game with my son and soaking it all in. A couple days later, Urban Meyer was headed to Florida.
8. October 2, 2008. Utes 31, Oregon State 28. During our undefeated season of 2008. With 2:18 left, the Utes trailed 28-20. In fact, many fans were filing out of Rice-Eccles Stadium. But Brian Johnson led us down the field for a TD and a 2-point conversion to tie it. The defense forced a 3-and-out and then the offense moved down the field again for the winning Louie Sakoda field goal.
9. November 17, 2008. Utes 13, TCU 10. Yes, a kick-ass defensive battle. And it all came down another Brian Johnson-led drive as he hit Freddie Brown across the middle for a TD with 38 seconds left. Our undefeated season continued.
10. November 23, 2008. Utes 48, BYU 21. Just like in 2004, this win gave us the MWC Championship and sent us to a BCS game after an undefeated season. BYU was 10-1 and ranked 14th going into the game. The Utes forced six turnovers including five picks off Max Hall. And Paul Kruger tripped on the 5-yard line trying to run a pick into the end-zone.
* The Best Game I Never Saw:
November 4, 1972. Utes 28, Arizona 27. The Utes were down 27-0 after the first three quarters. As the Salt Lake Tribune reported, most of the fans were headed for the exits. With Brownie Van Galder at QB and Steve Marshall returning an interception 68 yards for a TD, Utah won the game with 10 seconds to spare. The greatest Ute comeback ever.
There’ve been some other great games. And great endings. The crazy blocked field goal by Brandon Burton to beat BYU 17-16 in 2010.
The equally crazy ending in the 2012 BYU game as the Utes prevailed 24-21 after BYU was allowed to attempt two field goals in the last couple seconds.