Tulane Stadium left mark on New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS — It’s quaint, narrow, this stretch of Willow Street, lined with colorful houses and dotted with puddles. A stray cat will scamper across if you wait long enough. The pavement buckles in spots, sinks in others, just as all roads in New Orleans are wont to do. There are too many of those stubborn, ancient live oak roots, with the ground more like swamp, after all, and so sometimes a line of cones and flags will say you simply cannot proceed. Not over that crack, you can’t. And so you turn around and find another route. It’s not like there’s too much traffic on Willow Street, anyway.

Audubon Boulevard is majestic. It’s old New Orleans, the Old South, each house grander than the next, with columns and porticos and picture-book flowers. The neutral ground – or median, to New Orleans neophytes – is green and lush, and if you close your eyes and there’s a break in the traffic, it could as easily be 1940 as 2013.

The two roads meet, inconspicuously these days, on the edge of Tulane University’s campus. It’s another intersection, nothing noteworthy, just a line of fence behind the houses on the east side of Audubon. 

The fences are old. No one’s sure how old, not really. The wood is battered and mossy, but in New Orleans, that means little; new wood looks that way after a summer. Still, they must have been replaced, people say, since then. But maybe not. It’s only been 33 years. Maybe not.

Thirty-three years ago, Tulane students could walk by the pile of rubble just beyond that intersection and pick up shards. Plenty snatched bricks and such, took them home over break to New Jersey and California, to Baton Rouge and Mobile and who knows where else. By 1980, the steel had been sold and the bricks were being hauled away, and that was all that was left of Tulane Stadium, the building at the northeast crook of Audubon and Willow, the behemoth that had once been the largest stadium in the South.

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As fans flock to New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII, the city’s first since Katrina in 2005, they’ll slurp hurricanes at Pat O’Brien’s and queue up outside Galatoire’s in hopes of snagging a table. They’ll buy beads and mugs and nameplate key chains and tote them from sticky-floored bar to sticky-floored bar. On game day, throngs of 49ers and Ravens jerseys will push toward the Superdome, the home to seven Super Bowls, without a thought to the other three, the first three. Maybe they remember the Chiefs upsetting the Vikings in 1970, or the Cowboys beating the Dolphins two years later, or the Vikings again losing, this time to Pittsburgh, three years after that. It’s unlikely, though, that they remember where all that happened. 

From the Superdome, hang a right, then a U-turn, head three miles uptown, and you’re there. Or at least, you’re where it was, but in its place you’ll see a small field, a rec center, some students jogging. You’ll wonder where on earth, how on earth, there was ever a stadium, much less a Super Bowl.

Tulane Stadium opened in 1926 on the heels of the Green Wave’s undefeated 1925 season, and over its 53-year life it was home to 49 Tulane and nine New Orleans Saints seasons, 41 Sugar Bowls and those three Super Bowls. The 35,000-seat concrete structure rose up at the edge of Tulane’s campus, growing over the years to a capacity of 80,985. Its expansion was propelled by the 1934 birth of the Sugar Bowl, the New Year’s Day game named for the old Foucher plantation, where sugar was first refined and upon which the stadium squarely sat.

With the bowl game growing in prominence each year, the stadium grew along with it, to the point that it was the biggest stadium in the South and smaller only than the Rose Bowl, the Los Angeles Coliseum and Michigan Stadium. The Sugar Bowl pushed Tulane and New Orleans to prominence with the teams it brought in each Jan. 1, and from it the stadium took its alternate moniker, Sugar Bowl Stadium. The building saw its share of spectacle over the years, from the inaugural Sugar Bowl in 1935, a 20-14 Tulane victory over Temple, to the Tulane-LSU rivalry. From early NFL exhibition games to the Saints’ opening day, a 27-13 loss to the Rams in which rookie John Gilliam ran the opening kickoff back 94 yards for a touchdown.

And here’s the thing: Without Tulane Stadium, there would have been no John Gilliam, at least not with the Saints, no kick return that old men are still jawing about today. There would have been no team, not without the preexisting stadium in which to install it, and college football might have died out in the city years before. There’d have been none of the unique culture that the Saints bred, and the passion the city heaps upon its beloved teams would have been directed elsewhere. (In fact, when the Superdome became reality, it talked first to Tulane about becoming tenants, rather than to the Saints. It was a symbolic gesture, of course, an acknowledgment that Tulane made professional football possible in New Orleans by providing its stadium.)

Knowing what we know now, seeing the fierce love and joie de vivre of New Orleans sports, it would have been a damn shame. Longtime New Orleans Times-Picayune sportswriter and Sugar Bowl historian Marty Mulé puts it like this: “If it weren’t for the stadium, we’d all be out watching volleyball matches.”

Instead, and fortunately, New Orleans got the Saints; the team was officially created on Nov. 1, 1966 and began play in 1967. It had been a long audition for the city; Tulane Stadium had hosted exhibition games (with record crowds to boot) throughout the 1960s, and its presence was a deal too sweet to pass up for the NFL. There was little more than the idea of the Superdome when the Saints arrived, only a stadium commission in place, and it was Louisiana, after all, where nothing political is ever easy, so the NFL knew it would be years before a new home existed.

“The Saints came with just the gleam, and the promise, and the talk of all that,” said Darryl Berger, a New Orleans developer who’s lived 61 of his 65 years within four blocks of the old stadium. “But it was years.”

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In the spring of 1970, Steve Barrios was a sophomore receiver at Tulane. He and his teammates were going through reps at the stadium when a well-dressed man stopped by their workout. He approached the team and asked the players a question none expected: Would y’all like to play in a domed stadium someday? Wouldn’t that be fun?

“I remember that like it happened yesterday,” Barrios said. “It was like, who is this crackpot, you know?”

The crackpot in question was Dave Dixon, the father of the Superdome and the man most responsible for bringing the Saints to New Orleans. He’d spent years wrestling with government to get antitrust legislation passed, which ultimately landed him the Saints and paved the way for the NFL-AFL merger. But even knowing that, figuring out who Dixon was and the lengths to which he would go for the Saints, Barrios still thought the man was nuts. This was his stadium, his and his teammates’, and by that point it was the Saints’ too. Tulane was accustomed to practicing after NFL games on Sundays, sharing the field with pros. Barrios and his teammates had just months before snuck into Super Bowl IV through the Tulane coaches’ offices, entering through an unmanned tunnel and scattering to find seats throughout. 

They didn’t see anything wrong with their home. It was theirs, and in New Orleans there’s a sense of history and ownership like no other, a sense of place and pride. How else does a city built in such a fragile fishbowl of a place rebuild after a devastating hurricane, with pride and tenacity to spare? In a way, Tulane Stadium shared that same improbability as New Orleans, that same sense of being squeezed into a space it shouldn’t have been squeezed. Instead of Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi, there was Audubon Blvd. and Claiborne St. for the stadium, houses and schools and narrow streets upon which the whole thing seemed poised to overflow.

Back then, the tight confines and lack of parking mattered less if you knew the right people, and really, of course you knew the right people if you were going to the game. Berger parked cars in his parents’ driveway, charging commensurate with the caliber of the game. Everyone had their favorite spot, their friend who had a corner of his lawn reserved and a Bloody Mary waiting. Tailgates were cocktail parties, and afterward there was hardly the crush out of Uptown you’d expect; everyone went back to finish off those drinks and pour a few more. 

“It was literally this huge stadium just right in the middle of the neighborhood,” Berger said. “Yet that was part of the charm and part of the event. … Gosh, the closer you lived to the stadium, the more privileged you felt. All the friends would come to your house. Your uncle so-and-so and your daddy’s best buddy so-and-so would get together and park in your driveway.”

Elliott Laudemann attended Tulane, and his uncle, F.D. “Hap” Reilly, was one of the inaugural Sugar Bowl members. Laudemann frequented games at the stadium from its early days to its last, from Tulane tilts to NFL exhibitions. He went to parties at his uncle’s before and walked over, navigating through the Uptown streets until they gave way to what the Times-Picayune called in 1975 “sports Camelot.” 

“It was (crowded),” Laudemann said. “But it worked. It worked because it had to.”

The same could be said for New Orleans, and where the Superdome is looming, shining, metal glory, Tulane Stadium was a product of its place. The Superdome provided a home to refugees for days, damaged but still mostly dry, the beacon of an underwater city. Tulane Stadium was never that and never could have been. It was squeezed and smushed and sardined into a neighborhood, and it took on the flavor of that neighborhood, of New Orleans, creating a tight-knit football society that still exists to this day.

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In 1981, nearly two years after Tulane Stadium was torn down, a cherry tree split in two near Tiger Stadium on LSU’s campus. According to Mulé, it was the result of some Tulane students who’d snuck up to Baton Rouge, a lock that was apparently too easy to pick and one giant, freed tiger by the name of Mike. He was Mike IV, more specifically, the live jungle cat that lived on LSU’s campus and for many years and traveled with the football team to road games. In the wee hours of Nov. 28, the Tulane students had let him out of his cage and then run, leaving the police to eventually tranquilize him and get him back behind bars, but not before he hopped up into that cherry tree and shattered the thing.

In 1981, the Green Wave and Tigers had achieved some parity, rare in the years after Tulane left the SEC in 1966, and that night, LSU lost at the Superdome, 48-7. It was Tulane’s second win in three years in the rivalry and just eight years since it broke its 25-year drought against LSU in a 14-0 rout at Tulane Stadium. That game set college football attendance records for a night game and for any game played in the South, drawing 86,598 fans, and when it was all but over, the Tulane faithful are said to have urinated onto retreating LSU fans off of the upper deck.

No one thought much of it. That’s just how the rivalry went, and even tampering with Mike wasn’t a first. In 1950, before a 14-14 tie, Tulane students stole Mike I while his cage was left unmanned outside Ye Old College Inn, a popular restaurant around the corner from Tulane that exists to this day. His handlers had gone in for a bite, and the students capitalized on the moment, hiding Mike under the stadium and painting his cage green before eventually returning him. To this day, no one will concede to having been the perpetrator, short of vague murmurs and knowing glances. “I know a couple of people to this day who will not admit it,” Mule said, “but they’ll kind of wink at you.”

New Orleans is best characterized by a mix of tradition, which that rivalry brought in spades, and utter nonsense. Some things just don’t make sense, like the notion that stealing a tiger is a good idea or the conspicuous lack of road striping, while others have been ingrained in to the culture such that they must make sense. That’s everything from Tulane hating LSU even now, when one has been terrible and the other a perennial SEC contender for years, to Mardi Gras krewes to the little plastic Jesus babies they wedge into king cakes. The stadium was the same way. It didn’t teach the city its piquant tradition – that’s been there since long before 1926 – but it built it, bit by bit and sometimes through stories you couldn’t make up if you tried.

Today, the biggest name among football bigwigs in New Orleans is Tom Benson, the owner of the Saints and the NBA’s Hornets. Benson is also a donor to the new, 30,000-seat stadium that Tulane is about to erect just off the footprint of the old one. That seems strange, you’d think, because what does Benson care about a struggling team about to enter the turmoil of the Big East, but it’s more complex than that. Look at the documents from the original Tulane Stadium, back when it broke ground, and you’ll notice a familiar name: Benson. It’s Herbert Benson this time, Tom’s great uncle, who was the architect of the original stadium and a president of the Sugar Bowl in the 1930s. So yes, it makes sense, Benson’s donation, because this thing, this notion of football in New Orleans and the community it builds, spans decades and generations.

Darryl Berger’s father was one of the many businessmen in the 1930s to purchase Sugar Bowl bonds. They were sold to increase the size of the stadium – Tulane wasn’t about to front the cost – and by buying them, purchasers were guaranteed certain perks, like seats to the Sugar Bowl every year. The Bergers got 12 prime spots in Tulane Stadium, and when the show moved to the Superdome, their real estate was just as good.

“To this day, I still go to the Sugar Bowl every year, and … I call those my daddy’s seats,” Berger said. “There are hundreds and hundreds, thousands of others, that have the same sort of deep connection. That’s back to the roots of Tulane Stadium.”

The same holds for some Saints tickets, though the history is shorter. Laudemann, who was in his 30s when the NFL came to New Orleans, purchased seats in the upper deck of Tulane Stadium. He and his friends, about 300 of them, he said, all got seats together, and they’d split into groups before and after for cocktails, dinner and more cocktails at someone’s house nearby. Things changed, obviously, when the Superdome came into play, but Laudemann still has those tickets. He’s had them since Day 1, and to suggest he might have gotten rid of them – well, to him that’s borderline ridiculous.

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The Saints now are a regional phenomenon. Fans come from Baton Rouge, from Houma, from Lake Charles, trucking across the state for those games. At the beginning, though, that wasn’t the case; in 1967, the NFL in New Orleans was a whole different beast. Gilliam’s kick return was fun, sure, but the Saints lost that game, and most of the ones after it. They didn’t have a winning season in Tulane Stadium, not for 20 years after their inception, not until 1987. They were the lovable losers, Berger said, but boy, if the games weren’t fun. No one puts it better than Marty Mulé: “The game,” he said, “it was not just a football game. It was a happening.”

Al Hirt, a famous trumpeter and minority owner of the Saints, would lead the whole place in song, and it wasn’t uncommon to see an ostrich race or a woman paraded out on a camel at halftime. (The Times-Picayune described one such camel sighting as a “zoological triumph.”) Before the 1970 Super Bowl, a balloon containing the Vikings mascot went up, and then all too quickly down, crashing near the stands without actually injuring anyone. Then, at halftime, performers reenacted the Battle of New Orleans, and the whole thing went awry when a cannon misfired, blowing off one man’s hand. That caused the horse carrying the fellow playing Andrew Jackson to bolt and, by proxy, the British to win, rewriting fake history. Then, to add insult to literal injury, the man with the bloody hand was almost run over by one of those very ostriches and the small chariot it pulled.

“I have to say that was far more entertaining than the game,” Laudemann said of those early halftime shows. “And for whatever reason, that kind of discontinued.”

For every cherished football moment in the old stadium, there’s a commensurate memory of the weird. It went beyond just those halftime shows, beyond even the Super Bowls, although the 1975 contest set an auspicious record for the most pockets picked at a sporting event, according to the Times-Picayune. (They estimated 4,500 total.) The weird goes all the way back to the origins of the stadium in the 1930s, when the newspaper housed homing pigeons in a specially constructed cage on the sideline and then used them to fly film of games back to the office to be developed. The pigeons were in large part owned by the New Orleans Racing Pigeon Club, and the paper saw fit to run three long feature articles on them in a decade. 

Then there was the underneath to contend with, where plaster casts of Mayan ruins were stored for decades. Tulane was a leader in excavations in Central America for a time, and when it ran out of space, the casts were simply shoved next to the football dummies. There were Tiffany windows, too, which were found with little damage and later installed on campus. Same goes for two ancient Egyptian mummies, Got Tothi Ankh and Nefer Atethu, who beginning in 1955 spent 23 years in a room under the bleachers. They’re still in fine shape today, especially the female, Nefer Atethu, although she’s been relocated to a specially outfitted room where the mummies’ curator, John Verano, is all too happy to bring her out and poke gently at her “crispy” skin. 

It’s surprising but almost not. The stories around the place have piled up over the years, from cannons to mummies to tarps frozen to fields – that happened in 1964 – such that they’ve almost ceased to shock. It’s New Orleans, after all, and it was a different time, and now we know where to put mummies and to have Beyoncé sing at halftime, and we’ve put a roof over the thing, too.

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After Tulane and the Saints moved to the Superdome in 1975, Tulane Stadium stayed open on a limited basis. In 1978, the Broncos practiced in it before the Superdome’s first Super Bowl, and high schools played there until just weeks before demolition began at the end of 1979. When the decision was made that the place had to come down – the steel upper decks had already been condemned and were unusable – Tulane organized a sort of funeral for the place, charging $5 for admission. About 15,000 fans showed up for a colorful program that included a narrated slideshow of the building’s history. 

At the end of the program, two Tulane greats were present: Lester Lautenschlaeger, the quarterback of the undefeated 1925 team who was an assistant coach in 1926, and Roch Hontas, the 1979 quarterback. Lautenschlaeger was 75 at the time, Hontas in his senior year of college. The two clinked wine glasses, generation to generation, and the thing was over, the eulogy finis, the stadium abandoned to be disassembled. 

You could do that back then, bring in the man who was there for Day 1 to smile and pose with the current golden boy. You can’t do that anymore. That first game, Tulane-Auburn, was played nearly 87 years ago. People are dying and memories are fading, and when you walk across that small quad where the stadium used to be, you don’t hear the rattling of steel that the place was famous for, not even faintly. You can no longer picture hundreds Cub Scouts clustered in one end zone, stomp, stomp, stomping, finished with their drink- and program-selling and there to make the place sound like it was jam-packed full, even if the draw was only 30,000. The fences may remain, but the memory is nearly gone. 

When Katrina hit, the Sugar Bowl offices flooded. The bowl’s artifacts and historical documents were kept there, and Laudemann remembers going back in after the storm and seeing old photos waterlogged and ruined. After that, the members learned their lesson, putting it all in offsite storage, but to even think about what was lost and looted is staggering.

When Darryl Berger was a kid in the 1950s, he’d wait by the Tulane tunnel after games. The players were cleared to give their chinstraps to the waiting throngs of children, and everyone’s goal was to come back with one, no matter how dirty, how smelly, how much your mama wanted you to throw it away. Berger’s collection sat on the shelf in his room for years until someone trashed it or put it in storage, and so many of those chinstraps, too, must have washed away in the floods.

But this is more than just Katrina. This is time and age and an obsession with the modern. When Tulane’s new home, Yulman Stadium, opens in 2014, it’ll sit just northeast of where the old one was situated, but no matter its amenities, it’ll never be as imposing or magnificent as its predecessor. The school saved the stone archway from old Tulane Stadium’s façade, though, and it plans to install it over the entrance of the new one. It’s a beautiful tribute to a long-gone era, and maybe, just maybe, the echoes of the old stadium will return, however faintly, in its shadow.

Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.