Photos by Cory Sims, Stadium Journey
Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 3.43
Memorial Stadium 1017 W 11th St Lawrence, KS 66044
Year Opened: 1921
Towering Toward the Blue
Memorial Stadium at the University of Kansas is one of the oldest stadiums in the country, and is the third oldest college football stadium west of the Mississippi. Built in 1920 as a memorial to University of Kansas students who died in World War I, it has been the home to the Jayhawks football team for nearly 100 years. One amazing bit of history about the construction of Memorial Stadium is that John Wooden, future genius basketball coach at UCLA, briefly worked on the building crew during his journey west.
Although the Jayhawks are not famed for their football prowess, NFL Hall of Fame players Gayle Sayers and John Riggins both suited up in the Crimson and Blue and played their homes games in Memorial Stadium.
Though the school is proud of its stadium’s history, Jayhawks are not focused solely on the past. In recent years, new practice fields and workout facilities have been built just outside Memorial Stadium to keep KU football features on par with the other schools in the Big 12. Prior to the 2014 football season, the track around the field, long grumbled about by KU fans who thought it was an eye sore, was removed and replaced with green turf.
This is the first bit of upcoming stadium renovations to take place in the next few years, the details of which are yet to be released. Until then, success-starved Jayhawk fans will just have to speculate what’s in store in the future, while enjoying a respectable stadium built long ago.
Food & Beverage 3
My thought on food at college football games is that if you’re waiting to eat until you get inside the stadium, you’re doing it wrong. I promise that at almost every stadium in the country, there is better food being cooked by amateurs in the parking lot then there is at the long-lined concession shacks inside the gates. And this is certainly true when seeing a Jayhawks game at Memorial Stadium.
That being said, Memorial Stadium has a lot of options for the fan who missed tailgating. Hot dogs, nachos, and pizza can be had at several spots in the concourse, but more importantly there are a lot of local restaurants that have set up shop within the arched walls of the stadium.
Salty Iguana, a local Mexican food chain, serves several types of burritos and tacos. Biggs BBQ serves pulled pork sandwiches. You can even buy cookies and caramel apples from some mom-and-pop places in town. Memorial Stadium serves Coke products, and does not serve alcohol, except in suite seats.
The atmosphere at Memorial Stadium can best be described as pessimistic. This is a fan base that 5-6 years ago was watching a perennial bowl team, an Orange Bowl champion level team with a QB that was a dark horse candidate for the Heisman (seriously, Todd Reesing was amazing). Then, coach Mark Mangino was accused of player mistreatment, the AD at the time wanted someone new, and two bad hires and an interim coach later Kansas fans are saddled with a football team that’s won two conference games in four seasons.
Even with a historically bad team, the area surrounding the stadium is festive. The unofficial slogan is, “Win or lose, we’ll still booze.” All the parking lots around the stadium are full of tailgaters hours before game time, although the absolute lack of RVs would be off-putting to any SEC fan. White tents are erected all the way up Campanile Hill, a green area on the south side of the stadium. The great thing about tailgating here is that one can see inside the open end of Memorial Stadium, and theoretically be able to watch the game from outside the stands. A larger HD screen now blocks much of the view, but on any given Saturday one can still find fans who spend the entirety of the game on the hill, enjoying the day with family and friends while their dogs chase rubber footballs on the lawn.
The stadium itself is set at the bottom of Campanile Hill, just off Jayhawk Boulevard, the main street of campus. Across the street from campus and the stadium are several blocks of old “student ghetto” houses that undergrads live and party in, especially on game days. I can say from first-hand experience that at many of these student tailgates five kegs can be drained before kickoff. The lawns of these homes are full of parked cars, their drivers having paid a entrepreneurial undergrad who undoubtedly puts that money into the keg fund.
There are a few college bars within walking walking distance of the stadium, most notably The Wheel, which has been around for generations, and also The Nest, an outdoor bar on the top of The Oread hotel. From The Nest, patrons can watch the stands fill up at Memorial Stadium, although they rise so high it’s impossible to see the action on the field.
About a mile east of Memorial Stadium is Massachusetts Street (“Mass Street”), the heart of downtown Lawrence, named for the origin of the abolitionist founders of the town. If it wasn’t already apparent, Mass Street makes it obvious that Lawrence is the perfect college town. Dozens of local restaurants (don’t miss The Burger Stand at The Casbah), bars (The Sandbar features an “indoor hurricane” a couple times a night), and boutique stores (get your KU gear at Jock’s Nitch) are nestled in between concert venues and independent theatres. On game days, the sidewalks are smothered in crimson and blue clad fans killing time before kickoff, but even on non-football days it’s a great place to spend a few hours shopping, dining, or, of course, drinking. Oh, try to get a reservation at Free State Brewing Company, the first legal brewery in the state of Kansas.
This is a basketball-loving fan base, no ifs, ands or buts. However, they will support even a mediocre football team with sell-out crowds. The largest crowd in Memorial Stadium history was a season opening game against Northern Colorado in 2009, and that was following a year in which the team won the Insight Bowl, a game that doesn’t even exist anymore. Any little bit of success is appreciated, as evidenced by the goal post destruction following their win over 2-7 Iowa State.
Laugh if you want, but these fans have (mostly) shown up to support a team that’s given them very little to cheer for. Average attendance is around 35,000, not bad for a stadium that holds roughly 50,000. If their next coach gives them a team to be proud of, expect these fans to be filling the house as early as the 2015 season.
Do not buy a ticket to a KU game prior to arriving, because more than likely you can find someone giving them away before game time. I have seen the athletics department offer tickets on Groupon for $15, which is still more than you should expect to pay. There is plenty of pay-parking in the front and back yards of houses near the stadium, but if you don’t mind walking you can likely find a street spot within half a mile, even if you arrive an hour or less before kick-off.
Return on Investment 3
The investment is minimal, and the product is probably better than what you would expect. The stadium is cool, historic, and scenic. It’s right off campus and near enough to downtown that you could take a walk through both before the game and still have time to tailgate. The atmosphere around the stadium is not what you would expect for a historically bad team, but the crowd inside the game is. Fans of Oklahoma, or Baylor, or the other good teams in the Big 12 should certainly make it up for a game in Lawrence, because it will cost basically nothing and they can see their team whoop up on the dregs of the conference. And after the game there are plenty of fun bars and restaurants to visit, in one of the nation’s best college towns.
People like to knock Kansas for being flatter than a pancake, tornadoes, and the Wizard of Oz, but a day in Lawrence at a KU football game should give any visitor something else to remember about the Sunflower State. Lawrence is anything but flat, and the views from the top of Mount Oread (the hill on which campus was built) down to Memorial Stadium, and northeast to Mass Street are really something. For an even better perch, don’t miss the vista from The Nest bar in the Oread Hotel.
In the Fall, the weather is normally crisp and sunny, and thoughts of tornadoes will slip from your mind, pushed out by the gentle prairie winds. The only “ruby red slippers” you might see someone wearing are crimson cowboy boots with Jayhawks embroidered on them, and everyone knows the Wizard is men’s basketball coach, Bill Self.
There’s a joke in there somewhere about the football team playing like a tin-man (no heart) or lion (cowardly), but the Memorial Stadium experience is about more than football. It’s about Kansans and guests taking a day of rest from their jobs in the fields or in an office, and spending that time together, socializing, empathizing, and fraternizing outside a coliseum that has stood for nearly a century, and will for many more decades to come.