5. AUTZEN STADIUM

Autzen Stadium at twilight, via ESPN

Autzen Stadium
Eugene, Oregon
Home of the University of Oregon Fighting Ducks

Our tour brings us to Eugene, OR and Autzen Stadium, our first visit to the great Pacific Northwest. Autzen is widely considered one of the loudest stadiums in college football, in one of the most picturesque settings in the country – full disclosure, I attended the University of Oregon, so it holds a special place in my heart. However, although unique in the world of college football stadiums and a fun place to watch a game, Autzen is a building not without its quirks.

Aerial image of Autzen Stadium c. 1968, via Fishduck

Designed by New York-based megafirm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) – architects for Portland Coliseum – Autzen opened in 1967.  Prior to its construction, the Ducks played most of their home games in the historic Hayward Field on the University campus and the big games one hundred miles north at Multnomah Stadium in Portland.  Realizing they had outgrown these facilities and with a desire to have all home games in Eugene, Athletic Director Leo Harris led the University to purchase ninety acres of land north of campus across the Willamette River for future stadium projects.

The site posed problems for the SOM architects as it was bisected by water pipes, making any excavation exceedingly expensive. The solution was to build the entire facility above grade, fitting the stadium bowl within an artificial landfill.  Entry to the stadium is via ramps that traverse landscaped berms. As we have seen with Michigan and Sanford Stadiums, resting the structure on the existing soil reduces the need for exterior ramps and significantly cuts construction time and cost; Autzen was built in nine months for just $2.5 million.  Money was raised primarily from private investors, a model that would serve the University well in the future when Nike’s connection to the UO would help finance major building projects.

Newly completed Autzen c. 1968, via Benzduck

The original Autzen was distinguished by its single-tier, sombrero-shaped bowl (a smaller version of the old Tampa Stadium), its cantilevered roof covering a section of Club seating (it rains here if you didn’t know, and this was before luxury boxes) and its stands built extremely close to the field.  These features all came together to create an intimate and unique stadium with raucous game atmosphere. While I immensely enjoyed going to pretty much every home game between 1996 and 1999, looking back it seems odd the stadium had no inside – you really were watching the game from a hillside. The saying amongst locals that “it never rains at Autzen” is false, it rains often and hard and a lack of shelter inside the stadium for non-VIPs seems short-sighted.

The 1990’s initiated a new era of success for the Ducks, coinciding with an expansion in the University’s sports facilities.  This play and a subsequent appearance in the 1995 Rose Bowl ended a long stretch of losing seasons by the Ducks and established them as a nationally significant program.  Following the construction of the Leonard J. Casanova Athletic Center to the west of Autzen in 1991, the Ed Moshofsky Sports Center indoor practice facility (tailgating center on game days) was built to the southwest in 1999, giving the Ducks some of the best facilities in the country.

Continued on-field success and major investment by University alum and Nike Founder and CEO Phil Knight allowed the University to embark on a significant expansion of Autzen Stadium in 2002. Sports Architects Ellerbe Beckett of Kansas City (Populous’ crosstown rival and now part of the AECOM empire) designed an $89 million expansion with 12,000 additional seats, enlarged wood roof covering 3,200 club seats, 32 new luxury suites and two private clubs to the south side of the stadium.  This expansion brought Autzen’s capacity to 54,000, making it an even louder, more hostile place for opposing teams to play.

Autzen Stadium from above, via La Reina Flickr

The project extends above the original bowl, giving Autzen a front façade for the first time.  Although less dynamic than it could have been, the architectural expression is appropriately progressive, unlike that of Doak Campbell or Michigan Stadiums, matching Oregon’s love of all things new and different. The angled, white stone piers and the new tapered roof above establish the new main entrance for the building, while one can still enter via the original SOM designed ramps.

The newly expanded south side exterior, via Wikipedia
The soaring new wood roof shelters some paying fans below, via Ellerbe Becket

The decision to expand on one side of the stadium only creates an impressive half of the stadium, but the stepped transition between the old and new is awkward. This step in the seating bowl may be temporary and talks of future further expansion matching that on the south side may one day reestablish the originally symmetric seating bowl. However, such an expansion is currently mere conjecture – the University seems pleased with its current seating capacity and its size seems a good match for the school and state. Autzen has sold out every game for the past 13 years, 83 in total, although it took a last minute Groupon deal – a first of its kind – to sell out last night’s victory over Arkansas State.

View of endzone transition between old and new, via Wikipedia

The area around Autzen has now become a complex for Duck sports with the recent construction of four new facilities: the 4,000-seat PK Park (home of Ducks baseball), a lacrosse field to the east, a women’s soccer facility to the west, and the six-story, $68 million Football Center still under construction.  These, together with the Stadium and the existing Cassanova and Moshovsky Centers fulfill Leo Harris’ original goal when purchasing this land back in 1967 to establish Oregon athletic facilities as some of the best in the country. Continued influx of Nike money and Chip Kelly’s inspired coaching should have the Ducks and Autzen at the top of the list for the foreseeable future.

Part of a series on the stadiums of the Top-10 Preseason College Football teams. Next up: No. 4 Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, Norman, OK