A BEAUTIFUL MESS, THE SWAMP WILL BE IN FINE FORM THIS SATURDAY
Ben Hill Griffin Stadium
Home the University of Florida Gators
The crowning jewel of the Florida football world – unless you’re from Tallahassee – Ben Hill Griffin Stadium (born Florida Field aka “the Swamp”) is an 88,000-seat on-campus facility that is considered by many the toughest place to play in the country. Its history is not an unfamiliar one for SEC football stadiums and the gradual expansions and upgrades have led to an absolute gem of a ballpark.
Ben Hill Griffin was built in 1930, following what is known as the Golden Era of Florida Football that extended from the end of World War I through the 1920’s. During that stretch the Gators won sixty percent of their games and established themselves as one of the nation’s prominent college football teams. This stretch culminated with a 20-6 Gator victory over the Oregon Ducks before 20,000 fans in the first game at Miami’s Madison Square Garden Stadium in 1928.
New University President John J. Tigert and ten prominent UF Alum, capitalizing on over a decade of successful seasons, financed the construction of a new, 21,000-seat stadium at the north end of campus. Designed by University Architect Rudolph Weaver, the new building was very much in keeping with the brick campus buildings, which he also designed. Weaver’s most significant decision was to align the three-sided stadium with the sidelines and end zone, not in the more common elliptical or horseshoe shape seen in stadiums like the Yale Bowl. This decision would bring spectators close to the playing field and lay the groundwork for the hostile, boisterous stadium that exists today.
Another significant early decision was to dig the field twenty rows beneath ground level as the site chosen was a natural ravine. During construction water began flooding into the site and culverts had to be built to take the water to nearby Graham Pond, presaging its future nickname, “the Swamp” coined by Coach Spurrier some 70 years later.
The years that followed the opening of the new stadium were bleak ones for Florida football. Spanning the 1930’s and 40’s, through the Great Depression and World War II, Florida football was stuck in such a funk that it didn’t even field a team for the ’48 season. This changed in 1950 as, following the war, thousands of young potential Gators – GI Bills in hand – flooded the Gainesville campus. Seeing the potential in this dormant football power, new Athletic Director Bob Woodruff led an effort to expand Florida Field. 11,000 seats and a new press box were added to the west side of the stadium and a subsequent expansion in 1965 brought attendance to 56,000. With the expansion came a subtle if iconic feature of the current building.
To add 10,000 seats to each of the stadium’s sidelines new concrete structures were built with canted end zone seats to provide optimum viewing angles. Triangle-shaped elements of the new structures were left exposed at each of the stadium’s four corners and form a surface onto which today is written: “This is…GATOR COUNTRY”, “Home of the…FLORIDA GATORS”, “This is…THE SWAMP”.
The 1965 expansion also saw the construction of Yon Hall beneath the newly expanded east side. Yon Hall was originally built as a new residence hall for male student athletes. Along with 112 bedrooms, Yon Hall featured dining facilities, classrooms and offices for athletic staff. Yon Hall was revamped in the mid-90’s following an NCAA decision to ban housing exclusively for athletes. Today it is home to the University health center and Engineering classrooms.
Unlike the years following the original construction, the period following these expansions were good ones in Gainesville. Legends like Steve Spurrier and Larry Smith and the integration of the team to include African-American players in the 1968-69 season returned the Gators to the national stage. University enrollment continued to grow and demand to see the Gators heightened. The momentum gained during this era led to further stadium expansion, this time enclosing the south end of the stadium with permanent seats. This project brought the capacity to 72,000 and marked the end of Florida Field – the complex was renamed to honor citrus-magnate and big donor Ben Hill Griffin.
In 1991 the north end zone got its now familiar upper decks, bringing capacity to 83,000. Additions in 2003 of new club seating and luxury boxes brought the ballpark to its current capacity of 88,548.
Though the interior retains a harmony in its nearly symmetric layout, the exterior of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium is a mess – kind of like the backside of an old Hollywood movie set. The concrete circulation ramp reveals itself on the south end like a parking lot and the luxury box building on the east is very much par for the SEC stadium course and will not be winning awards anytime soon. There are nice moments, such as the north side where a colonnade of palm trees leads excited fans through a bucolic grassy lawn to a glassy greenhouse entrance. A new football operations area was added to the southwest of the stadium and it is the most contemporary moment around.
Despite its ramshackle exterior, the wonderful thing about these big college football stadiums is precisely their messy quality. In an era when new stadiums seemingly pop up every day, cohesively designed façades, highly engineered retractable roofs and all, college football stadiums are studies in slow growth. They are a series of renovations – start small and build on as need be – the direct result of programmatic force and human demand. Although the size and grandeur of these buildings are at times shocking and make one question their ultimate educational value, their ad-hoc nature and ability to evoke such human passion is kind of thrilling. Empty, yet full of potential energy throughout the year, they spill over on Saturday afternoons, sometimes forcing their small towns to a standstill. Even though they are not used enough throughout the year to justify their value, college stadiums are better used than most. Ben Hill Griffin is opened to students throughout the year to work-out or just have a sit, and University offices sit beneath the stands.
By no means a perfect building, or a perfect sports venue, Ben Hill Griffin is hot and messy and a quintessential college football stadium. It’s also home to the upstart No. 2 ranked Gators and will be awfully swampy this Saturday afternoon.