By Rich Myhre Herald Writer
For more than 90 years, old Husky Stadium was a place of great scenery, great traditions and, very often, great football.
But in the end, old Husky Stadium was simply that — old.
It was never too bad for coaches and players, but for fans, there were nagging issues of comfort and convenience. Among them, old wooden bench seats in some areas that were hardly cozy. A running track that left many spectators far from the field. And restrooms that were too few, too rustic and, by late in the season, too cold.
Though the stadium had a rich history, not to mention a spectacular setting along Lake Washington, “there were a lot of antiquated things that we had to deal with,” UW athletic director Scott Woodward said. Likewise, “there were some failure issues and some safety issues that we were very concerned about.”
For all those reasons, the need for a new stadium “was acute,” he said. “And in my mind, failure was not an option.”
On Saturday, the hard work done by Woodward and many others will be realized when Washington opens a new Husky Stadium with a game against Boise State. The $250 million reconstruction project took more than 21 months to complete, and the result is a more modern, intimate and fan-friendly venue, and one that should be among the finest in college football.
Indeed, Woodward said, the new Husky Stadium “will be second to none.”
Added UW head football coach Steve Sarkisian: “I truly believe it will be the best setting in all of sports, not just college football.”
For Sarkisian, the game-day experience will be just one of the new stadium’s benefits. Equally important, he said, are the improved facilities for coaches and players, including new locker rooms, a weight room, meeting rooms and staff offices. It is, he said, “going to affect us directly on a day-to-day operational basis.”
Of course, the new stadium’s true splendor will be showcased on game days. Fans in every seating location will be closer to the field, and there are now luxury suites, patio suites and club seats. Adding to the sensory thrills, the audio and visual displays “are going to be fabulous,” Woodward said.
“This is obviously an amazing facility,” Sarkisian said. “And I really can’t put into words just how much it’s going to mean to our program.”
The journey to a new stadium had its genesis during some of the darkest days in Husky football history. Under previous coach Tyrone Willingham, Washington went 11-25 for three seasons and then plummeted to 0-12 in his fourth and final season.
Those four years roughly coincided with Woodward’s arrival at the school as a special assistant to the university president and his subsequent hiring as athletic director, beginning with nine months as an interim AD. One of his early tasks was to develop a financing plan to renovate the stadium, and there was, he admits, some tough sledding at the outset.
A state bill that would have provided half the money for a then-$300 million project — the public money would have come from taxes on hotels and motels, restaurants and rental cars — never got sufficient legislative support and eventually died.
It was a discouraging setback, “but we didn’t fold the tent once we didn’t get the answer we wanted,” Woodward said. “A lot of people I respect disagreed with the way we wanted to fund this stadium. So we went another route … and, in the end, I think we’re going to end up in a very good place.”
The current project totaled $250 million, all of it private money, with the first $50 million from alumni and other donors. The remaining $200 million will be funded by 30-year bonds, with a projected yearly debt service of $14.3 million. To meet that annual cost, an estimated $1.25 million will come from stadium naming rights and the rest from premium ticket sales, primarily the suites and club seats, and additional season-ticket revenue.
In short, the stadium is being funded from the deep pockets of fans who love the Huskies. And they, like Woodward and Sarkisian, see the new stadium as an important stepping stone to the program’s continued revival.
“When I was here on an acting basis (as athletic director), I would look up in the stands and see that people were hanging in there,” Woodward said. “They hung in there during the 0-12 season … and even with a bad product on the field, they believed that things would get better. This (new stadium) is a reflection of that.”
According to Sarkisian, eight other Pacific-12 Conference schools undertook football upgrades over the last 18 months, creating “a sense that this arms race of facilities was ramping up quickly.” It is, he added, “a sign of the times,” both in the Pac-12 and throughout college football.
Sarkisian said he expects the new stadium to boost Washington’s recruiting efforts, “though just how much that happens remains to be seen.” The university and the football program have other selling points, he said, “but I still think kids are going to want to come (to Seattle), they’re going to want to see Husky Stadium, and they’re going to want to check out the atmosphere and the facilities we have.”
When he showed the unfinished stadium to recruits over the past year, “the wow factor was tremendous. And there just aren’t many other words to describe the feeling you get when you see it. Because with this stadium and with the quality of the games, I think it’s going to be the best building in college football.”
Husky Stadium timeline
1920: Husky Stadium, initially called Washington Field, opens in its current location (the football team previously played at Denny Field on the upper campus). The Huskies defeated Dartmouth 28-7 in the Nov. 27 inaugural game.
1950: An upper deck with two distinctive spiral ramps is added to the stadium’s south side, raising the seating capacity from 40,000 to 55,000.
1968: The stadium’s playing surface is changed from grass to AstroTurf. Also, an additional 4,000 seats are added above the north stands.
1987: An upper deck is added to the stadium’s north side, increasing the seating capacity to 72,500.
2011: On Nov. 5, Husky Stadium hosts its final home game before renovation. Oregon defeats Washington in the finale, 34-17, and the renovation project begins days later.
2012: Washington plays its home games at CenturyLink Field, home of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, as Husky Stadium is rebuilt.
2013: Husky Stadium reopens Saturday for a game against Boise State.