90 years of Green and White: Spartan Stadium will host its 500th game Saturday
Spartan Stadium isn’t just a building.
Buildings don’t give hundreds of thousands of fans memories to talk about when they drive out of East Lansing on fall Saturday nights.
Buildings don’t bring former head coach George Perles back to the emotional stories of the journey to the 1987 Rose Bowl.
Buildings wouldn’t bring the hearty laugh of TJ Duckett as he recounts the hard days of summer practice on the hot turf.
Spartan Stadium isn’t just a building — it’s a landmark.
Born in 1923 with a plot of grass and a set of 14,000 wooden bleachers, the Michigan Agricultural College, or MAC, Aggies logged their first season on a field with no name.
Three hundred and thirty-six home wins, 30 All-Americans and six national titles later, the grounds of Spartan Stadium will host its 500th game tomorrow. It will be the 500th time roaring fans and the men in green and white will be creating memories that could last a lifetime.
“Just talking about it right now, I am getting goose bumps,” former running back Jehuu Caulcrick, who played with the NFL’s Buffalo Bills in 2010 said when talking of Domata Peko’s 74-yard defensive touchdown against Michigan in 2005.
That was loudest Caulcrick ever heard the stadium roar, with the energy of years of construction, remodeling and the passionate fans all coming undone in the moment.
Nearly a decade before he strapped on the green Spartan helmet, former running back TJ Duckett walked into Spartan Stadium with wide eyes. Watching his brother, former running back Tico Duckett, who wore the green and white 1989-92, and a sea of green pour out of the stadium’s tunnel, the memories of TJ Duckett’s would-be stomping grounds started when he was 9 years old.
“When I was just a kid, (the stadium) was huge,” TJ Duckett said. “Seeing the big guys run out of the tunnel, seeing the band, seeing the student section, and seeing the alumni, it really looked like (the) Colosseum with the gladiators.”
With the fans raised so high off the playing field, Duckett observed the stadium looks like the Roman Colosseum with the fans looking down at the battle between the lines.
One of 12-year head coach George Perles’ fondest memories came from being barreled over by overzealous fans in 1987, after the Spartans clinched a Rose Bowl bid with a 27-3 win over Indiana.
“That is when we had the 3-foot wall from the stands,” Perles said. “I got knocked down and I got trampled by everyone, and someone picked me up and that was the most chaotic it has ever been.”
That somebody was his defensive line coach, Steve Furness. Without Furness preventing his coach from being run over, Perles might not have witnessed one of his favorite Spartan Stadium memories.
“I was talking to the team (after the win), and Indiana’s coach (Bill Mallory) busted in and motivated our guys said how we will beat USC,” Perles said.
And they did. The Spartans took the 1988 Rose Bowl trophy back to East Lansing after defeating the Trojans, 20-17.
But the locker room held more memories than emotional pep talks and post-game celebrations. Caulcrick still gets chills on the back of his neck whenever he remembers the dramatic pre-game routine leading up to kickoff.
“After you warm up, you go into (the locker room) and there is that five-minute period where everyone is silent getting their mind right for the game,” the running back from 2004-07 said. “All of the sudden the band starts playing in the tunnel, and the locker room walls start shaking, and that’s when you know it’s time to go.”
For TJ Duckett, however, his favorite recollections are months before making the first run out of the tunnel during the first week of football season. With the summer sun heating up, the artificial turf — which was ripped up in 2002 and replaced with grass — gave off a distinct smell he still recognizes today.
“Your brothers (were) out there, training when the stadium is empty with nobody watching what we are doing,” the former seven-year NFL player said. “Guys’ characters were tested, wills were broken and champions were made right there, and those are personal moments people don’t see.”
The hallowed grounds
Where Old College Field now lays the MAC Aggies, the nickname prior to “Spartans,” played their earliest football games. In 1924, MAC football changed forever with a $160,000 state grant — more than $2 million in 2013, adjusted for inflation. The location was a decision George Blaha, radio play-by-play voice of nearly four decades, still believes to be the best part of Spartan Stadium.
“The best thing about Spartan Stadium is that it is right in the middle of one of the most beautiful campuses in America,” Blaha said.
The biggest feature the stadium was missing until 1935 was an official name, when it was branded as Macklin Field and the seating capacity was raised to 26,000.
Roughly a decade later, the stadium saw its most drastic change in 1948 when the university nearly doubled the capacity, creating a total of 51,000 concrete-reinforced seats. With MSU football coming into the public eye and enrollment boosting by nearly 5,000 between 1948 and 1956, the seating was increased to 60,000.
One year later, the upper decks were erected on both sides of the stadium, but not without an immense amount of stress coming from administration. In a memorandum from the Office of the Secretary of MSU to the American Bridge Company, the builders of the decks, a slight sense of panic arose as deadline drew near.
“Tickets will have been sold for all the space in the upper deck. It would be a calamity of major importance and untold embarrassment to the University if anything should happen so that the Stadium is not completed by (Sept. 28),” Secretary Karl H. McDonel wrote.
$2.5 million and an untold amount of patience later, the upper decks were completed before the season started. The next big change wasn’t for the bleachers — it was for the playing surface, when MSU opted to ditch the natural grass field for artificial turf in 1969. Vice President for Administration and Public Affairs Jack Breslin calculated it would cost $15,000 to resod the turf every five weeks, thus the decision to spend $250,000 on a field built by Tartan Turf.
After three decades of playing on the soft synthetic turf, MSU made the switch back to natural grass, naming professor of turfgrass management Trey Rogers to oversee the project. For Rogers and many others in the turfgrass program, it was a move that made sense.
“(Implementing grass) was something that for probably for 15 years we were working behind the scenes,” Rogers said. “When you have a turf program that is so highly thought of around the world, especially when you have (artificial) turf in your own backyard, we got a lot of questions from people, especially around the ‘90s.”
It was a decade later when U2 came in for a concert during the summer of 2012, setting steel plates all over the field during the course of setting up for and performing the concert. Unfortunately for Rogers, the grass he, professors, graduate and undergraduate students grew died from lack of sunlight and had to be removed.
In 2012, with the help of Rogers selecting the right farm to replace the grass, Graff’s Turf Farms in Fort Morgan, Colo,. sent 26 refrigerated trucks filled with sod to Spartan Stadium to give the field fans look at today.
“The Spartans have the best grass field in America,” Blaha said. “(Sports Turf Manager) Amy Fouty was in charge of that, and she needs to be congratulated more than she is.”
2005 saw the priciest stadium transformation — $64 million — with the construction of new suites, press boxes and a new facade on the west end of Spartan Stadium. Caulcrick, who played through the stadium transformation, said he noticed the decibels grew as the tall tower kept the crowd noise on the field.
“You go to Michigan and you’re at the Big House, but realistically that place is not loud because they pack the people in like sardines (and) the sound escapes,” Caulcrick said. “That is why we get a louder crowd at Spartan Stadium.”