LSU’s Tiger Stadium
Tiger Stadium used to be a college dorm. That’s a pretty sweet piece of trivia, but the story behind the greatest dormitory in the history of higher learning — and the effect it had on college football across the country — is even more interesting than that. To learn more about the history of Death Valley, I reached out to Chad Seifried, a professor of kinesiology and sports management at Louisiana State University. He says that the story, growth and evolution of Tiger Stadium reflect the city that calls it home.
“The stadium sets up a convenient meeting place for various social groups who can come together, interact with each other, celebrate and engage in conversation,” says Dr. Seifried. “Over time, it has become a bigger and bigger building. It represents a growing community, a growing state, a more modern state, if you will.”
The stadium first opened in 1924. Before then, the Tigers played football at State Field in Downtown Baton Rouge, where LSU had a campus. Though today Tiger Stadium holds 102,321 people — that’s about 25,000 more people than the Superdome can hold — it wasn’t always that big. Not even close. When first built, Tiger Stadium held a whopping 12,000 people. (For comparison, that’s barely twice more than my high school football stadium. Go Spartans!) At the time, LSU wasn’t trying to dominate football in the Southeastern Conference (mostly because the SEC didn’t yet exist). Rather, the school was trying to compete with Tulane, which was the dominant football team in the state then.
There is a misconception out there that LSU spends all of its money on Tiger Stadium. In fact, tickets and private donors foot those bills, and football has historically infused the wider university with cash. (The failure of the state to support higher education is a different issue, of course.) The alumni model of football fundraising was pioneered by Harvard University in 1903, when it built the first proper stadium in the United States. The idea was to build an arena to represent the institution, which would in turn work as a sort of advertisement, building institutional brand awareness and attracting alumni dollars. A stadium would recruit donors not just for the football facility, but for other campus buildings and student service programs — scholarships, foundations, fellowships and the like. It was always bigger than football: A permanent stadium meant a university was legitimate and would be around forever, a sort of Rome in miniature. The idea worked, and within 20 years, the Harvard model had spread to nine New England universities. By the end of the 1920s, there were 49 schools in the U.S. with permanent football stadiums.
For context, it’s important to remember that in those days, college football was king, and professional football was essentially nonexistent. The NFL wouldn’t play its first season until 1920, and even then, there were no championship games or nationally televised events (or national television at all, for that matter). And while the Midwest and northeastern United States cultivated what would become the National Football League, the South, by and large, was late to that party. Professional teams didn’t arrive here until the 1960s, which is why the region’s college football culture remains so dominant in sports today. Culturally, the Saints — even having won a Super Bowl (and having recently had an NFC championship stolen from them) — still command only a fraction of the eyeballs and emotion on game day that LSU attracts. This isn’t a reflection on the New Orleans team; it’s just that college ball has had an extra 50 years to cultivate personal investment, familial bonds and generational solidarity. And tailgating is just as important an aspect of an LSU football game as the game itself. The tens of thousands of tailgaters are as important, in many ways, as the players themselves. The two events are inseparable.
ABOUT THOSE DORMS
The blessed union of dormitory and stadium came about because of money: Student housing had it, and college football didn’t. In 1928, Huey Long was elected governor of Louisiana, and LSU was part of his plan to build a legacy. He wanted the university to have a world-class medical school, new and renovated buildings, a new baseball field and an improvement to the football field. He associated himself closely with LSU and, by and large, when Long wanted something, he got it (though it often took creative financing to do so). When he couldn’t get money for campus construction, for example, he had the state buy the old Downtown LSU campus and use it to build a new State Capitol. Today, that building stands atop the old State Field.
An enlarged Tiger Stadium proved a greater challenge. Enter Thomas “Skipper” Heard, who was the new graduate manager of LSU athletics. Heard learned that, thanks to Long’s financial efforts, LSU had come into $250,000 to build new dormitories. Well, said Heard, couldn’t you build those dorms anywhere? Like, oh I don’t know, on the east and west sides of the football field? Couldn’t you build them right up to the edge of the field? Then you could just build seating on top of the new buildings!
Well, Long heard this idea, loved it and leaned hard into the president of LSU to make it happen. Smith soon acceded to the governor’s request.
“Long was an avid sports fan,” says Dr. Seifried. “You can see that not just in his interaction with the LSU football team and his efforts to help expand the stadium, but also in the way he would make road trips to follow the team.” Long, he says, was a great advocate for the institution overall — not just athletically, but also academically. “He thought of LSU as a vehicle for his own personal brand, if you will, and so was a great promoter of the institution and its advancements, seeing improvements through not only while he was governor, but also senator.”
For Long, the idea of improving Tiger Stadium and drawing larger crowds for bigger and bigger contests meant more fuel for his political aspirations. If he could make things happen in Baton Rouge as governor of Louisiana, the thinking went, maybe he could make things happen nationally as president of the United States. It was no secret that Long wanted to run the country — and that once he ran, he expected to win. (Another of Long’s construction projects was a better Governor’s Mansion, which he wanted modeled after the White House. It was rumored he said that when he was elected president, he wanted to know where all the light switches were.)
The east dorms of Tiger Stadium were built in 1932, and the west in 1935. They were five stories high and housed 1,500 students. In the process, they increased stadium seating capacity to 22,000. “The dorms that we’re talking about weren’t anything like what you see today,” says Dr. Seifried. “I mean, they were just regular dorm rooms, you know; outlets, closets, lights and that’s pretty much it. They were pretty small as far as amenities go.”
Because of the unique underlying architecture of the stadium dorms, the lower bowl of Tiger Stadium has a steepness that makes seating more intimate while also facilitating some fairly intense acoustics. Yes, the dorms are the structural reason why Death Valley is so insanely loud.
Just as Harvard’s idea for a sports stadium (and how to fund it) transformed college football, so too did LSU’s innovative idea for stadium expansion. “The dorms at the time were fairly revolutionary,” Seifried explains. “A lot of people followed the LSU example. College football-playing institutions frequently referenced LSU as a model for their own cities, and followed suit, building dorms in their football stadiums.” University of Tennessee is one such notable school that took LSU’s lead. Arkansas considered it, as did Texas Christian University. Even those universities that ultimately decided against it still used LSU to drive the discussion on how to think more creatively and urgently about stadium improvements.
For LSU students, there was a level of prestige that came with living in the stadium dorms. Those who lived there quite obviously had a campus living experience that was unique relative to other students on other campuses across the country. And just as LSU football game day is a focal point of Baton Rouge society, so too is the stadium for those students who once called it home. Alumni brought that experience with them after they graduated, and the investment paid dividends by way of donations and goodwill.
Dormitories weren’t the only Tiger Stadium innovation in the 1930s. If Tulane helped motivate LSU to build the stadium in the first place, scheduling conflicts with that school’s football games would be the primary driver for outdoor lighting. Nighttime sporting events were all but unheard of at the time, but LSU (following Loyola’s lead) erected towers of lights 50 feet high on the east and west sides of the stadium. The lights were designed specially to illuminate the field while remaining sufficiently diffuse so as not to annoy spectators. The mid ’30s also saw the installation of an electronic scoreboard, which was just about the height of sports technology at the time, allowing such information as time, quarter, lineups, penalties, ball position, downs and yardage to be posted for all to see.
In 1936, with the completion of the dorm seating and the north side addition of “horseshoe” seating (and more dormitories yet, this time for 1,200 students), Tiger Stadium became the largest football stadium in the South, able to seat 44,000 spectators. The Works Progress Administration, started by President Roosevelt to bring about an end to the Great Depression, kicked in 55% of the costs; LSU covered the remainder. Another Governor Long — Huey’s brother, Earl — later made “closing the horseshoe” a campaign issue. Again, dormitories featured prominently and formed the foundation of the 30,000-seat expansion.
Across 50 years and ending in the late 1980s, hundreds of thousands of students lived in Tiger Stadium. As recently as the early 2000s, signage remained throughout the stadium indicating student housing within Death Valley, and over 500 windows still surrounding the stadium stand as a testament to the place where students worked hard — and played harder.
THE DEATH VALLEY OF TOMORROW
If the history of Tiger Stadium is one of relentless expansion, national trends suggest that its future is one of contraction. “Tiger Stadium is one of the unusual stadiums that expanded over time,” says Dr. Seifried. “If you look at the Pac-12 Conference, a lot of them are now shrinking their football facilities, changing their seating configurations to have fewer seats, but more amenities.” This includes things such as new concession stands and better restrooms to meet consumer demand. Dr. Seifried says that in the future, he wouldn’t be shocked to see the university do something with the north end zone, assuming engineers can overcome the problem of North Stadium Drive. (An expansion or major renovation would obstruct or eliminate that key road, which is the only real access roadway to the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, and absolutely necessary for such things as TV trucks.)
Tiger Stadium is old and enormous — the sixth-largest stadium in the world — so the expansion of amenities isn’t the only construction project in its future. Just keeping the thing standing takes enormous time, effort and money. Preservation and rehabilitation are top priorities for the school. Simple things like painting the concrete are necessary to preserve its structure, but even the replacement of those hundreds of exterior windows in recent years was a necessary investment — not because there was anything to protect on the other side of those windows (there isn’t), but because the old ones were deteriorating and taking the stadium with them. Some parts of the stadium’s plumbing, meanwhile, are almost a century old, and accessing said pipes is nearly impossible, requiring the literal demolition of stadium walls to access the pipes when leaks are discovered.
By and large, the dorm rooms in Tiger Stadium are not used today. Though some have been converted to storage closets, the rooms themselves are unfit for habitation due to the construction materials used decades ago. Still, one can’t help but think how great it would be to live on the best real estate in all the Gulf South.