Going five downs with Memorial Field
By Varun Ravishanker, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Monday, April 18, 2011
While the Hanover Planning Board recently approved the installation of stadium lights at Memorial Field, likely giving Dartmouth its first night football games in its history, the famed sporting venue has been a staple of Big Green sports since it was first constructed in 1893. Through nearly a century of Hanover winters and rowdy Dartmouth spectators, undefeated National Championship teams and that unfortunate losing seasons, Memorial Field has endured name changes and refurbishments, but continues to be a place where Big Green sports fans can celebrate team pride.
The beginnings of the venue go back to the construction of the Alumni Oval football field in 1893. The field assumed the name Memorial Field in 1923, when the signature brick west stands were built and dedicated to the memory of Civil War and World War I veterans.
While the field has remained since then, it has undergone several changes since its construction. The first change came in 1968, when Dartmouth altered the seating on the east side of the stadium, according to former Dartmouth Sports Information Director Jack Degange.
“Physically, the west stands date from ’23 and the east side was football bleachers that were moved in and then removed,” he said in an interview with The Dartmouth. “The east stands, which had been roughly 3,000 bleacher seats, were replaced in 1968 with 9,000 seats of east grandstand.”
This addition, which increased Memorial Field’s capacity from 15,000 to approximately 20,400 attendants, came at a time when Dartmouth football was succeeding in Ivy League play. During legendary head coach Bob Blackman’s tenure from 1955 to 1970, the team won seven League titles and was twice recognized as the East’s best team with the Lambert Trophy in 1965 and 1970.
“Basically you would have at least one 19,000 to 20,000 attendance-game a year and that continued into the ’80s,” Degange said.
The addition represented a vested interest by former College President John Sloan Dickey to increase the number of Dartmouth home games, especially its marquee matchups.
Harvard University, Yale University and Princeton University never played on Memorial Field in its early years, according to Degange. Princeton’s first game in Hanover was not until 1964, with Yale and Harvard making the first trip in later years.
Memorial Field was often featured in televised games during that time, notably in a 1971 matchup against Cornell University when the Big Green — then the defending League champions — was coming off a loss against Columbia University that had snapped a 15-game undefeated streak. Dartmouth faced off against a then-undefeated Cornell team that featured the nation’s leading rusher and Heismann Trophy runner-up Ed Marinaro.
“Cornell was clearly the frontrunner,” Degange said. “This was the ABC TV regional game of the week. It basically covered almost half the nation.”
Along with featuring nationally televised games, Memorial Field also played a part in a unique piece of college football history, as it is the stadium at which the only NCAA game to be decided off the field was played, in what is known as the Fifth Down Game.
In the 1940 contest, Dartmouth — again facing a heavily favored, nationally-ranked Cornell team — took a 3-0 lead deep into the fourth quarter. Cornell played four downs from inside Dartmouth’s 10-yard line, but failed to score. Cornell was inexplicably awarded a fifth down by the referees that was not forced to turn the ball over to Dartmouth after the failed fourth down play. Cornell went on to score and win the game on the field.
Cornell decided to concede the game the next day, however, and Dartmouth accepted the victory off the field.
“It’s the only time in the history of intercollegiate football that a score was reversed afterwards,” Degange said. “It’s historic.”
Degange added that it may not have been the outcome that Cornell expected.
“Cornell, whose president in those days was a Dartmouth alum, said, ‘We’ll offer it but Dartmouth won’t accept it,’” Degange said. “Well, Dartmouth accepted it.”
Recent renovations to Memorial Field in 2006 include the addition of field turf to replace the natural grass on the field, and the demolition of 6,000 seats on the east side of the stadium to build and integrate Floren Varsity House into the complex. The decision lowered seating capacity for the stadium to around approximately 15,000 attendants.
This change was representative of a recent transitional period in Dartmouth football, Degange said.
“In context of where Dartmouth plays today [it] is a reasonable configuration,” he said.
Degange said several factors have contributed to the declining interest in attending Dartmouth football games, including the team’s recent losing seasons. The creation of Floren and the addition of field turf are important steps in turning Dartmouth football’s team around, evidenced by last fall’s winning season, according to Degange.
Degange also noted that the creation of the Football Championship Subdivision — and the League’s subsequent inclusion within it — has caused a decline in football attendance across the League. Degange said, however, that there are benefits to Dartmouth joining this new division grouping.
“If you’re playing football at Dartmouth today and you’ve got 15,000 seats, you put 8-to-10,000 people and hey, that’s a good crowd,” he said. “There’s buzz as opposed to putting that same crowd at the Yale Bowl, and it just ain’t the same.”
In spite of the changes to the stadium over the years, players still feel a connection to past teams when they step onto Memorial Field, especially with the alumni in the stands, quarterback Conner Kempe ’12 said.
Kempe said the structure itself holds a special significance to the players.
“You definitely look up to the press box area and just the oldness of it and the age takes you back and that’s pretty cool,” he said.
Co-captain Charles Bay ’11 said the venue is “extremely important” as a home field. “It’s your home turf,” he said. “You want to have your fans to support you there and you want to defend it.”
As the field undergoes renovations to keep it in line with the technological requirements of a modern football stadium, the field will always hold its signature, traditional feel within the Dartmouth community.