Memorial Stadium was built in 1923 as a memorial to Illinois men and women who gave their lives for their country during World War I. Their names appear on 200 columns that support the east and west sides of the stadium. In May of 2002, the University Alumni Association began a campaign to fund a veterans’ memorial project which recognizes the 1,087 who have lost their lives in battle in World War II, the Second Nicaraguan Campaign, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Lebanon and Desert Storm.
Donations of approximately $1.7 million by more than 200,000 students, alumni and other friends of the University made the construction of Memorial Stadium possible. The Athletic Association (now known as the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics) later allocated $509,805 to the project for the construction of the south stands and other stadium additions. The drive was needed to add spaces for the over 30,000 fans who were turned away from games.
The stadium opened Nov. 3, 1923, when Illinois defeated Chicago, 7-0, in a Homecoming victory. The stadium was dedicated officially Oct. 18, 1924, a day that Illinois not only defeated Michigan, 39-14, for a Homecoming victory, but Harold E. “Red” Grange accounted for six touchdowns in what remains the single greatest performance in Memorial Stadium history. In the first 12 minutes of that game, Grange ran for a total of 265 yards and scored four times. He had his hands on the ball only six times and left the field before the end of the first quarter.
In the third quarter, Grange returned and ran 13 yards for his fifth touchdown, and in the final period he passed to Marion Leonard for his sixth score of the day. In 42 minutes of playing time, Grange gained a total of 402 yards, carried the ball 21 times and also completed six passes for 64 yards. Legendary coach Amos Alonzo Stagg called it “the most spectacular single-handed performance ever delivered in a major game.”
The 1994 season represented the 70th anniversary of Memorial Stadium’s dedication and the historic Illinois-Michigan game. To celebrate the event, Red Grange’s wife, Mrs. Margaret Grange, attended the Fighting Illini’s Oct. 22 game against Michigan. She helped dedicate The Grange Rock, which sits at the north end of Zuppke Field near the Illinois Locker room, as a tribute to her husband. The rock came from the same Indiana stone quarry that produced the granite columns of the stadium.
During the 1980s, Memorial Stadium saw 27 consecutive sell-outs. The single-game attendance record is 78,297 for a 1984 victory over Missouri.
Installation of the first artificial turf and a new lighting system was made possible through a 1974 Golden Anniversary campaign drive. The lights have made games and practices possible after sunset. Even though the field is lit only from the towers on the four corners of Memorial Stadium, the light intensity is easily sufficient for major network telecasts of night games.
Other stadium improvements include the 1967 installation of a press box, located at the top of the west balcony; construction of the Ray Eliot Varsity Room, a training table and trophy display area at the southeast corner of the stadium that was built with funds donated by friends of the Athletic Association; a million-dollar stadium renovation project in 1972, which included the addition of aluminum seating and other improvements; and a 1977 renovation of the varsity locker rooms and training facilities.
In April 1985, $7 million worth of improvements began. Out of this project came installation of new artificial turf and expansion of the football headquarters in the northeast corner of the stadium. AstroTurf was installed in the stadium in 1985 and the portion of it between the goal lines was replaced in the fall of 1989 after vandals burned a 40-yard swath in the middle of the field in the early-morning hours of Sept. 24. Employees from AstroTurf Industries began removing the destroyed pad and turf on the 26th, and worked around the clock to install a new surface in time for Illinois’ scheduled Oct. 7 game against Ohio State.
An air-tight vacuum dome completely covering the field of Memorial Stadium, more commonly known as “The Bubble,” was inflated for the first time in December 1985 for the purpose of practice during the winter months. It was used for the last time during the spring season of 2000 when the Irwin Indoor Practice Facility was completed.
In 1986, Memorial Stadium was nominated among 62 other sites to become a national historic landmark which included Soldier Field, Wrigley Field, the Rose Bowl and Yale Bowl.
Memorial Stadium underwent major renovations between November 1991 and August 1992. The $18 million project included the replacement of all the concrete bleachers in both upper decks, as well as the replacement of the top 25 rows of the main stands. The stadium’s electrical and drainage systems were also brought up to code and new restroom facilities, for both men and women, were installed in the corner towers and great halls. The project was financed through the issuance of revenue bonds by the UI Auxiliary Facilities System.
Before the start of the 1994 season, a new color matrix scoreboard was added to the north end of Zuppke Field. That board was replaced with a state-of-the-art video-replay scoreboard in 2002. Renovations to the stadium surface came in the summer of 2001 with the replacement of the field’s AstroTurf with AstroPlay, an artificial surface with a grass-like, non-abrasive, polyethylene fiber matrix which is filled with special rubber granules. The Illini played on the new surface for the first time in the 2001 home opener against Northern Illinois. Construction took place in the winter of 2002 on the expansion of the football complex. Locker rooms and meeting rooms were expanded and a new sports medicine facility was built on the first floor of the Irwin complex.
Memorial Stadium has been the site of many other events, including the first-ever “Farm Aid,” the IHSA Football Championships and home of the 2002 Chicago Bears. Farm Aid was organized by Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson and was held on September 22, 1985, before a crowd of 80,000 people. It raised over $7 million for America's family farmers. Performers included Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, B.B. King, Loretta Lynn, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and many more.
Since 1999, the University of Illinois has played host to the Illinois High School Association’s Championship games during Thanksgiving weekend. In 2002, Memorial Stadium served as the home field for the Chicago Bears while Soldier Field underwent major renovations.
In 2008, the University of Illinois unveiled a completed Memorial Stadium renovation project that encompassed two years of work and over $116 million. The renovations to the North Endzone were completed in August of 2007 and the West structure, along with refurbishing of the East Great Hall. Among the renovation on the west side was the addition of luxury suites, indoor and outdoor club areas and a refurbishment of the concourses. An outdoor club space, the Colonnades Club, was added under the west balcony and allows for indoor game day hospitality, as well as outdoor chair back seats for contest viewing. In the west balcony, a three-level structure was built to house two floors of suites and an indoor club space, as well as a new press box for media seating and game day operations. The indoor club, which seats 200, has been named the "77 Club" to honor the retired number of Illinois gridiron legend Harold "Red" Grange.
Also added underneath the newly enclosed north bleachers, the Illinois football complex got an expansion and refurbishing of the weight room, training facilities and meeting space. The entire project was conducted keeping the stadium in a functioning capacity for the Illinois football team during the time of construction. The architectural firm HNTB of Kansas City, Mo., designed the renovation and Hunt Construction Managers handled the construction. HNTB is credited with many of the most recent athletic facility renovations, including Purdue's Ross-Ade Stadium, Ohio State's Ohio Stadium, Iowa's Kinnick Stadium and Denver's Invesco Field. Hunt has been in collaboration on many of the same facilities, as well as Detroit's Ford Field, St. Louis' new Busch Stadium, and Citizen's Bank Park in Philadelphia.
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