History runs deep at Williams-Brice Stadium
09/19/2009 12:00 AM
06/17/2011 3:04 PM
Jim Shealy has worked at USC for 26 years, or roughly one-third the lifetime of Williams-Brice Stadium, which this season celebrates its 75th anniversary as the home of the Gamecocks. As the athletics department's director of facilities, Shealy knows how deeply rooted the stadium is in the school's history.
Literally how deep, in fact.
Not long after coming to Columbia in 1983, Shealy helped in the removal of the stadium's aging Astroturf. "We started pulling it up the Sunday after the (season-ending) Clemson game," he said. "Sarge (Frye, USC's late grounds chief) wanted to see how much trouble he was going to have."
Answer: plenty. "You had four to six inches of asphalt (under the Astroturf), and then six inches of crushed rock under that," Shealy said. "It was like a roadbed."
Then he laughed. "When we pulled all that up, you still could see the 'Carolina' in the end zones where it had been painted all those years," he said. "The paint had gone down into the ground."
In three-quarters of a century, the former Carolina Stadium has played host to hundreds of thousands of USC fans, from Depression-era crowds of 10,000 to the school-record 85,000 who squeezed into the 80,250-seat stadium to see the Gamecocks defeat Clemson in 2001.
A facility that cost $21.1 million to build and maintain during its first 48 years required $33 million from 1995-2006. Once a field sitting in "a wooden bowl," according to 1930s documents from the school's South Caroliniana Library, it now is a towering concrete-and-steel structure that dominates the southern Columbia skyline.
Athletics director Eric Hyman remembers his first impression when he arrived at USC in 2005.
"What I loved was the 'bones' of the stadium," he said. "I loved the lines of it." Recently, Hyman has sought to soften its monolithic look, adding high-tech graphics honoring past teams and players and lots of garnet-and-black trim to cover all that concrete.
In 2008, Williams-Brice ranked 17th nationally in average attendance and 13th in total attendance, and consistently ranks in the top 20 in part due to USC's ardent fans and the school's membership in the SEC. The stadium sold out before the start of the past seven seasons.
Yet before the SEC, before "Black Magic" in 1984, before even George Rogers' Heisman Trophy season, the 20.17-acre property abutting the S.C. State Fairgrounds was recognized as crucial to USC's future. If not for the stadium, there might have been no "Big Thursday" (the USC-Clemson game prior to 1960) - and, perhaps, no State Fair.
IN THE BEGINNING
The 1930s were hardly a good time to consider building a football stadium. The nation was gripped by the Great Depression, which, according to an early history of the stadium, had "destroyed (the) feasibility" of borrowing money via bonds for construction.
Still, the need seemed clear. USC played home games on Davis (later Melton) Field, located to the south of Green Street between Sumter and Bull streets - a former parade ground for Gen. William T. Sherman's troops during his 1865 occupation of Columbia. Wooden stands seated a few hundred.
Thus, the annual USC-Clemson game was played on State Fair property, near the intersection of Rosewood Drive and Bluff Road, in conjunction with the Fair's annual visit. "The Fair Association depended largely on the revenues generated by this football game," school historian David W. Robinson wrote in 1975.
In February 1933, the Columbia Chamber of Commerce assembled a committee of citizens to revive efforts to build a stadium. Robinson was charged with obtaining funding via the federal government's Reconstruction Finance Act, and in August, the city sold $82,000 worth of bonds to finance the project.
Municipal Stadium was built to include 17,500 seats by W.A. Crary and Son, but because $82,000 wasn't enough, "all architectural features were eliminated," Robinson wrote. The Works Progress Administration built the wooden wall around the stadium - apparently no one had thought one might be needed - and it was dedicated Oct. 6, 1934, during USC's 22-6 win over Virginia Military (the team won its first game in the stadium a week earlier, 25-0 over Erskine). Gov. Ibra Blackwood and governor-elect Olin Johnston were among 10,000 who braved rain to be there.
In May 1935, the city got out of the stadium business, deeding the property to USC. In 1939, the State Legislature appropriated $150,000 to pay off the stadium's debt, and in 1941 it was renamed Carolina Stadium.
Over the next 25 years, the stadium added seats in both end zones (to a total of 42,238) and a press box. Still, it was basically the same WPA bandbox. Then, in 1966, Paul Dietzel arrived. And everything changed.
Dietzel, 85, remembers the stadium he inherited as USC's coach and athletics director as "not very attractive" and badly in need of seats. "I think it seated 43,000, and if you stood up you'd better sit back down quickly, or your seat was gone," he said.
With support from USC dean Harold Brunton, Dietzel - a master salesman - set out to bring Carolina Stadium into the second half of the 20th century. He replaced the old wooden fence with an aluminum shell, but he had grander plans.
"We had a model made of what we thought we should have," Dietzel said. "We took it around to show in all kinds of weather, and being made of cardboard, it got all beat up. But it was a fine-looking model.
"The problem was: Where was the money coming from?"
Enter Sumter's Williams and Brice families. William Brice ran track at USC, and his brother Tom Brice played football in the mid-1920s; the Williams family owned a furniture factory that became Southern Coating and Chemical and later was absorbed by Georgia Pacific. In 1972, Martha Williams Brice left $2.75 million to USC for its stadium and its nursing college.
"I remember my uncle Tom Brice told me there would be something important in the future for the family, but he didn't tell me what it was," said Lois Brice Hall, daughter of Martha Williams Brice. "After he died, I realized what it was."
"They both loved Carolina a lot," said Columbia lawyer Tom Brice Hall, Lois Hall's son and William Brice's grandson. "I can't drive by the stadium without thinking about my grandfather. It's an honor to have the name up there."
There was one problem, Dietzel said: Under U.S. law at the time, much of the gift would be eaten up by taxes. Dietzel sought help from Sen. Strom Thurmond and powerful Rep. L. Mendel Rivers to get the donation a "grandfathered" tax break.
"I remember Strom asked Rivers, 'How do we get this through?' " Dietzel said. "And he said, 'Well, we'll stick it in this bill, and no one will pay attention.' And that's how we got it."
By the 1972 season, Williams-Brice Stadium had added the upper deck on the west side and had 56,400 seats. It also had - unfortunately - an Astroturf field, installed in late 1970.
"It was a big deal, and a lot of teams were putting it in," Dietzel said. The coach chose to make a pitch to fans to fund the project on his Sunday TV show one day after a 42-38 loss to Duke.
"(Broadcast host) Bob Fulton told him, 'Coach, I don't think this is the time to try to sell this,'" former Columbia Record sports editor Doug Nye said. But the "Carpet the Cockpit" campaign - fans could buy "squares" of Astroturf and receive certificates for display - sold out.
In retrospect, Dietzel said, "I made the horrendous mistake" of installing the plastic turf. "The traction was so good, it was easy (for players) to twist knees." The asphalt base also caused temperatures on hot days to soar on the field. "It had to be 110 degrees," Dietzel said. "The only thing that saved us was playing games at night."
Though Dietzel resigned under pressure in 1974, he had had helped bring Williams-Brice up to speed. The addition in 1982 of an upper deck on the east side boosted capacity to 72,000. And there it stayed for more than a decade.
KEEPING UP IN THE SEC
Shealy's favorite memory of Williams-Brice in that interim is the 1983 USC-Southern California game, the first big home crowd for the new upper deck. That night, as USC won 38-14, fans in the new addition felt the earth move - again, literally.
Safety officials confirmed the swaying of the upper deck but insisted that was by design (later, braces were added to mitigate the movement) and perfectly safe. Shealy never bought it.
"The engineers said it didn't move more than two inches," he said. "That's crazy. Looking at it (from the field), it seemed to be at least a foot. People were kind of scared."
The stadium's reputation grew as a loud, rowdy place to play, a major home-field advantage. Then in 1991, USC joined the SEC - and came face-to-face with big-time reality.
John Moore, a top athletics department administrator for finances from 1975-2003, remembers talking to then-commissioner Roy Kramer, an old friend, the day USC was accepted into the SEC. "I'm walking down the ramp with him, everyone extremely happy and giddy, and Roy says, 'Do you know what your No. 1 challenge will be? (It's) your facilities.'
"He said, 'They are woefully lacking, and it's going to cost a lot of money to bring them up to the standards of the SEC,'" Moore said.
That fact greeted Mike McGee when the former athletics director at Southern Cal arrived in 1992. "That was an eye-opener," he said. "Traveling around the conference, it became increasingly relevant to upgrade, to bring the stadium (up to speed) with the rest of the conference."
In 1995, USC completed a $9.9 million project, adding club seats, high-end suites and a new press box to the stadium's west side. But the biggest upgrade for Williams-Brice came a year later, when its south end-zone project boosted capacity to 80,250.
Besides an upper deck, the school offered "The Zone," a premium club for big-dollar donors. McGee said the trick to selling previously less-desirable seats was making those seats, the closest to the field of any in the SEC, seem like a special deal.
"You had a tremendous vertical view, and we talked about the importance of the end-zone perspective," he said. Upscale dining, escalators from the parking lot and other amenities soon found willing buyers.
"The Zone turned out to be an easier sell than most of us thought," McGee said.
One of McGee's final acts was the 2005 addition of the Crews Building, which cost $3 million and houses USC's weight room and meeting rooms. Since Hyman's arrival, changes to the stadium have been, for the most part, cosmetic - at least, the ones fans can see.
Hyman said immediate priorities were the stadium's infrastructure. "The electrical room hadn't been touched in 30 years, and it cost $500,000 to get it fixed," he said. Waterproofing the stadium ($3 million), upgrading lighting and rest rooms, installing TV fiber optics for the $1 million video board all cost money - lots of it.
"If we didn't do (those), it could've been a major catastrophe," Hyman said.
That doesn't mean there won't be more visible changes to Williams-Brice. McGee said his plans included a possible enclosure of the north end zone that would add between 6,000 and 13,000 seats. Hyman also has a long-range master plan - though this year, his emphasis has been on upgrading the inside-stadium experience for fans.
"That's what our focus has been, what we've tried to do: accentuate that this is Gamecock Country," Hyman said.
Down the road, he said, are plans for a concourse ringing the stadium and removing parking immediately adjacent to the stadium. "You're talking 20-plus years," Hyman said. "We want to make it look spectacular."
With current economic realities, Hyman said his objective now is to enhance and maintain the Williams-Brice Stadium that USC fans expect. Beauty, after all, is more than skin deep.
"The stadium is like an iceberg," he said. "Eighty percent of it, people have never seen."
Jim Shealy, who has seen more than most, can attest to that.
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