Games People Play: Football at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, 1920s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Virtually every town and city has their major buildings and structures that serve as emblems of civic pride.  Historically, these have been city halls, libraries, religious buildings like churches and cathedrals and so on.  In some cases, stadiums fit into this category, especially if they’re iconic like, say, Chicago’s Wrigley Field, Boston’s Fenway Park, or, in the case of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.  The photo here is one of many in the Homestead’s collection showing this iconic sporting venue during its first decade, prior to 1930.

Conceived as a memorial to local soldiers who fought in the First World War (the centennial of America’s entry is next year, by the way), the stadium, seating about 75,000 persons, was completed in 1923 at a cost of just under $1 million.  Its architects, the father-and-son team of John and Donald Parkinson, were prominent in the city.  One or both were involved in the designs of Union Station, Los Angeles City Hall, the Bullock’s Wilshire store (now Southwestern Law School) and many other notable structures in the area.

The first use of the Coliseum for a major sporting event was for a college football game that October between the University of Southern California Trojans and Pomona College.  U.S.C. was beginning to develop a national reputation as a football powerhouse, having won the Rose Bowl the prior season and, in 1928, won the first of its eleven national championships.  The Trojan football team has called the Coliseum its home ever since.

In 1930, as the city readied to be the host of the 1932 summer Olympic games, the Coliseum was expanded to allow for over 100,000 spectators and the torch atop the peristyle entrance, which sports the Olympic rings logo, was added.  The following year, UCLA made the stadium its football’s team home, remaining there until the early 1980s when it decamped to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena (which is a year older than the Coliseum).

This 1920s view from one end of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum shows what appears to be a capacity (or near capacity) crowd of some 90,000 or so spectators watching the U.S.C. Trojans football team moving in for another touchdown.  The team’s 2016 home opener at the stadium is this coming Saturday.  From the Homestead’s collection.

In 1946, professional football came to the stadium when the Cleveland Rams moved west and the rechristened Los Angeles Rams played its home games at the Coliseum until 1979.  A dozen years later, when major league baseball came to the city, the Los Angeles Dodgers used a strange configuration to fit a diamond in the oval field for four seasons before moving to Dodger Stadium for the 1962 campaign.  For the inaugural season of the American Football League, the Los Angeles Chargers used the stadium as its home, before the team bolted (!) for San Diego, where it has remained ever since, though thay may change.

A mid-1960s remodel of the Coliseum changed the seating and decreased the capacity to about 93,000.  A NFL rule about blacked out televised games in lieu of a sellout three days ahead of game time led to some creative ways to reduce seating capacity to allow for more sellout (and televised) games.  Three years after the Rams left, the Los Angeles Raiders, newly relocated from Oakland, used the Coliseum for its home games.  The stadium became the first in the world to repeat as an Olympic venue when it was the site of events for the 1984 games held in Los Angeles.  A major renovation in 1993 was completed just prior to the Northridge earthquake early the next year, forcing the stadium’s closure due to extensive damage.  By the time emergency repairs were finished, the Raiders moved back to Oakland.

In addition to sports, the Coliseum has been used as a major concert venue, a site for religious revivals, Nelson Mandela’s visit after his release from prison, a papal mass by Pope John Paul II, and the 1976 celebration of the American bicentennial, among others.

Three years ago, U.S.C. signed a 98-year lease to operate the stadium, predicated on significant funds provided by the university to remodel the facility.  Less than a year ago, U.S.C. announced its plans for a $270 million makeover with new seats (including luxury boxes), more aisles, new scoreboards, new concession stands, improved lighting, and the recreation of the peristyle conforming more closely to the original design.  The work is slated to start next year and be finished within two years.

Meanwhile, after over two decades, the National Football League has returned to Los Angeles, as the Rams relocated back from St. Louis.  The team is using the Coliseum for its home games for a few years until a new stadium, likely to cost between $2-3 billion (the costliest ever), is finshed in Inglewood, targeting its opening for the 2019 season.

Los Angeles is also pitching to be the host city for the 2024 Olympic games and, if the bid is successful, the Coliseum would be used as an athletics and ceremonies venue for three games nearly a century apart.  Naturally, more renovations and changes would be made to the stadium to accommodate its use for the Olympics.

As to the photo, it is not known what particular game this was, though it was clearly a U.S.C. contest.  Using a little magnification, though, it can be discerned that the Trojans, who wore dark uniforms, had just executed a play to the right that got it within the “red zone” (that is, within a few yards of a score).  Under Howard Jones, that happened a good deal, as his teams through 1929 were 46-7-2, including that 1928 championship.

Of course, last weekend’s opener against the defending national champs and this year’s #1 team entering the 2016 season, Alabama, was historically brutal for U.S.C., which was shellacked 52-6.  The Trojans are, however, seeking to right the ship this coming Saturday in its home opener against Utah State at the 93-year old grand dame of stadiums, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

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