Two years ago, I had a series of entries called “Countdown to the NHL Winter Classic”, showcasing some tidbits hockey fans might not know about the host venue or the traditions of the host team. Here’s part one of this year’s countdown, giving you an introduction to The Big House.
The 1920s began a golden age of college stadium building. Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Memorial Stadium in Minneapolis, Pitt Stadium in Pittsburgh, Husky Stadium in Seattle, Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville, and Ryan Field in Evanston were some prime examples of university-built sports stadiums that had a capacity of at least 50,000-plus built in the first half of the decade. With the spectacular rise in football’s popularity after World War I, Michigan football coach and athletic director Fielding Yost was determined that Michigan should have a stadium that was second to none. After all, their home field at the time, Ferry Field (current home of Michigan Track & Field), would seat at least 42,000, with every game selling out and demand for tickets far exceeding what was available.
In the spring of 1924, Yost prepared an ambitious plan for the development of Michigan’s intercollegiate and intramural athletic and physical education programs. Couched in the middle of his list of eight “immediate and pressing needs” was “increased seating capacity of football stands.” Instead of remodeling and completing the concrete stands at Ferry Field, Yost had in mind was the construction of a new stadium with a capacity of at least 80,000. The new stadium was the key element in a plan of “Athletics for All.” The increased ticket revenue would pay for the stadium and finance the rest of his proposal; including a new gymnasium (Yost Ice Arena), 50 tennis courts, an improved intramural athletic field, improvements in women’s athletic facilities, and the building of the UM golf course.
The stadium construction proposal was presented to the University Senate in May 1925. To Yost’s dismay, the Senate tabled the proposal and instead recommended appointment of a committee to make a thorough study of all aspects of the athletic situation. In January 1926, the “Report on University Athletics” aka the Day Report was released. The Day Report is probably the most significant single document in the development of Michigan’s modern athletic program. The document incorporated much of Yost’s 1924 proposal but went much further in developing plans for intra-mural athletics and physical education and in reforming the structure of athletic administration. The report called for construction of a stadium designed with “the utmost simplicity. No attempt should be made to give it the form of a monument or memorial.” Yost agreed with the Day Report’s call for a simple design, but there was some dispute over how big it should be. The report projected a stadium seating of 70-75,000, while Yost argued for a much larger facility, foreseeing a day when crowds of 125,000 to 150,000 would need to be accommodated. After much argument over the university’s obligation “to provide accommodation for all who wish to attend the games and are willing to pay a reasonable price of admission,” the plan was approved by University Regents, which included Yost’s proposal that the stadium’s footings be constructed to permit future expansion to over 100,000 seating capacity.
At its July 1926 meeting the Board in Control of Athletics appointed a Stadium Building Committee consisted of Professor Ralph Aigler (Law and chairman of the Board in Control), Professor Clarence T. Johnson (Geology) and Yost. The committee was empowered “to appoint the General Engineer for the building of the stadium and to let contracts for the excavation, placing of abutments, drainage, etc., so that work may proceed immediately.” The Osborn Engineering Company of Cleveland, Ohio was selected to design the stadium with, Bernard Green (UM Eng. 1891) as chief architect. Osborn Engineering had designed some of the most iconic stadiums in sports history, such as the original Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds, Braves Park in Boston, Tiger Stadium in Detroit, and the original Comiskey Park in Chicago. Osborn had also designed Michie Stadium in West Point, Memorial Stadium in Minneapolis, the original Mountaineer Field in Morgantown, West Virginia, Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, and McLean Stadium in Lexington, Kentucky. Yost and Green had been exploring stadium designs, early on agreeing that a bowl type stadium, devoted exclusively to football would provide the largest capacity at the least cost.
The site of where Michigan Stadium would be built across the railroad track from Ferry Field. The site formed a gentle slope from the valley of the old Allen’s Creek (long since diverted underground) rising to the level of South Main Street. The area had a very high water table and much of the low-lying ground was swampy, necessitating extensive drainage works. The plan approved by the Regents called for Michigan Stadium took advantage of the natural characteristics of the site. Three sides of the stadium would be completely below grade, with the playing surface fifty feet below grade. On the west, north and south sides, the entrance to the stadium at the top row of seats would be at street level. Though modeled in part on the Yale Bowl, Michigan Stadium would not be a true oval. Instead, the seating along the sidelines would be parallel to the playing field, bringing the fans as close as possible to the action. The stadium would consist of 44 sections with 72 rows seating 72,000. A cement concourse would ring the stadium. The first concrete was poured in sections 22 and 23 on May 9, 1927. The last of over 11,000 yards of concrete were poured September 1 on the concourse surrounding the stadium. Some 440 tons of reinforcing steel and 31,000 square feet of wire mesh were used to build the concrete bowl. In early June the first of more. than 22 miles worth of redwood plank seats was installed. Sodding of the field began on June 3. A four-leaf clover is supposed to have been planted in the 360 x 160 foot playing surface.
With completion of the press box and locker rooms and the painting and numbering of the seats, Michigan Stadium was ready for opening on October 1, 1927. A less than capacity crowd of 17,483 braved a heavy rainstorm to witness the Wolverines 33-0 victory over Ohio Wesleyan. If opening day was disappointing, it didn’t shake Yost’s faith. In anticipation of the game against Ohio State that year, Yost had secured approval for construction of wooden bleachers on the stadium concourse seating 10,000 more fans. Construction began after the first game and was completed for the dedication game October 22. A crowd of 84,401 packed the stadium for the dedication game against Ohio State, a 21-0 Michigan victory. Navy drew 83,650 and the first homecoming game in the new stadium, a game against Minnesota, attracted 84,243.
Due in large part to Yost’s attention to every detail of construction, the stadium was finished on time and within budget. Overall, Aigler calculated the total cost of building The Big House was estimated at over $1.1 Million.