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"A Pasture for the Broncos" -- A short history of early Bronco fields and stadiums

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I can see the OBNUG tailgate! Is that Crissie?

Last week, boiseblues posted a fan shot about Bronco Stadium’s inclusion in "must-see" football stadiums.

Best College Stadiums

The discussion that followed raised some good questions about the earlier days of Bronco football, and I thought it might be appropriate to pen a brief history. Jump with me into the past.

I was fortunate to be a friend of the family of Dr. Eugene B. Chaffee (1905-1992), the man who guided Boise Junior College/Boise College as President for over three decades until, upon his retirement in 1967, he became Chancellor.

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Dr. Eugene B. Chaffee in 1940 (Courtesy: Boise State University Library Digital Collections, Historic Boise State)

Dr. Chaffee was a member of the original faculty when BJC was founded in 1932, and he became its president in 1936 at the princely salary of $1,500 per year (remember, it was the Depression). Upon becoming Chancellor, his primary task was to write his story, which he titled An Idea Grows: A History of Boise College. He presented me with an autographed copy of the book, which forms the basis for the information below. A few tidbits are from my own memory.

The chapters of Dr. Chaffee’s book used here are "XV. Championship Football for Two Decades," and "XVI. A Pasture for the Broncos." I believe the book is available in Boise State’s Albertsons Library, and I recommend it for any true-Blue Bronco.

To begin, I find it appropriate that Boise State University has created Dona Larsen Park on the old East Junior High property along Warm Springs and Broadway Avenues. The land has come full circle during the history of the college. It was originally named Old Cody Park (a private venture), and was purchased by the Boise Independent School District in 1930, when it was renamed Public School Field. Boise Junior College was allowed use of the field, including football games, until the college moved from St. Margaret’s Hall to its own campus in 1940.

The Junior Chamber of Commerce sponsored the purchase of lights for the Public School Field in 1935, and these lights accompanied the Broncos’ move five years later. Football Coach Harry Jacoby oversaw their installation by workmen who "focused the lights on the new Boise Junior College football field and prepared them for the first night practice of the Broncos" on September 24, 1940. According to Dr. Chaffee, after two nights of practice under the lights, the Broncos marked the first night home game on the new campus, playing Carroll College of Helena.

The on-campus field, seating 1,000, was located just north of the present-day Student Union Building, between it and the Communications Building (which was the original Student Union). If additional seating was needed, bleachers were borrowed from Boise High School.

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The first on-campus field. Note the Administration Building in the top left, and the Music Auditorium (now the Hemingway Center) above the field.

World War II had virtually shut down football at BJC, as it became difficult to find enough male students to fill out a team, and most contests were intramural. Indeed, in 1943-44, the college did not even hire a football coach. Coach Jacoby returned from the war in 1946 and, assisted by Lyle Smith, "developed a small but rugged football team averaging 169 pounds which scored a total of 78 points to 57 points for the combined opponents."

The following year began the football dynasty of Coach Lyle Smith. A Navy veteran (!), Coach Smith was at the helm of the Broncos for twenty years until he became athletic director after the 1967 season. His record was an amazing 158 wins, 25 losses, and 6 ties, and included winning the National Junior College Athletic Association Championship in 1958. Incidentally, that 22-0 victory over Tyler College of Texas was played in Bronco Stadium, the only time a national championship has been played in Boise. The Broncos outscored their 1958 opponents 389-67, spread over nine regular games and the national championship.

Dr. Chaffee writes: "By 1949, the Broncos had won 30 consecutive football games and played in the Shrine Potato Bowl in California where they defeated Taft College. This excellent record, plus the constant demand of the alumni of the University of Idaho that it play at least one football game in Boise every year, brought about the building of Bronco Stadium during the summer of 1950. Year after year, alumni groups of the University (of Idaho) talked about constructing a stadium in Boise, but took no steps to bring this about."

Not wishing to use tax dollars to fund the structure, "Bronco Stadium, Inc." was created to issue non-interest-bearing debenture bonds. Its articles were drawn up in 1949, and the corporation’s term was 50 years. (I assume it no longer exists, but I don’t know.) About the same time, the college was offered 500,000 board feet of surplus timber from the Hanford Atomic Energy Station (federal government). The Idaho Daily Statesman (yes, there used to be an Idaho Evening Statesman, too) contributed $90,000 and Idaho Power Company gave $10,000 to build the stadium through the bonds. The college made up the remaining $45,000 for the athletic field, locker rooms, ticket booths, and concession facilities.

The University of Idaho alumni association, long clamoring for a stadium in Boise to show off its "vaunted" Vandals, was asked to assist. Except for $50 contributed privately by one member, the association was silent, refusing to put their money where their large mouths were. Nothing much has changed in the last 61 years.

Summer of 1950 marked the beginning of construction on a site near Broadway Avenue and Campus Drive (today known as Caesar Chavez Lane, on the south bank of the Boise River). The football field was laid directly over the runway of the old Boise airport, the birthplace of United Airlines (Varney Airlines at the time), and where Charles Lindbergh had landed in 1927. Some of you were curious about the orientation of the stadium, and Dr. Chaffee explains: "It was set at an angle of 45 degrees for the purpose of presenting the two teams on the field with the sun at a right angle to the playing field. Had it faced either directly east and west or north and south, one team would have been blinded by the sun. The angle at which the field was set was determined by the College architects, Hummel, Hummel, and Jones. Calculation was made so that by 3 o’clock in mid-October, the sun would be at a direct 90 degree angle to the field of play. This date was taken as a mid-point in the usual football season that the Bronco teams had traditionally used for years, the season starting in the middle of September and ending in the middle of November." There you have it.

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This photo was probably taken around 1950, as you can still see the old football field on the right as well as the new Bronco Stadium at the top (looking toward the east). Note that College Boulevard (now University Drive) had a gentle curve around the old field. It was straightened to a right-angle intersection at Lincoln Street when the new Student Union was built. (Courtesy: Boise State University Library Digital Collections, Historic Boise State)

In non-bowl games the Broncos had traveled the Western United States, and as far east as Michigan to play Grand Rapids. They faced Long Beach City College in Pasadena’s Rose Bowl (dubbed "The Little Rose Bowl" for the occasion) in 1950, coming up on the short end 33-13 before a crowd of 47,500, and breaking their win streak of 40 straight games.

Continuing on with Dr. Chaffee’s narrative: "Between 1947 and 1968 the Broncos usually ranged in the first ten junior colleges in the nation. Never has a community been so enthusiastic in its support of a college and never has that college football team deserved greater support. [Emphasis added.] In fact, the success of these teams was directly responsible for the building of Bronco Stadium in 1950 and the support of the Idaho Daily Statesman and its manager, James L. Brown, in particular."

I ask you, Nuggies, and especially you non-believers, who today can say that Boise doesn’t have tradition? Top ten for two decades, and right back there again. This is nothing new to us.

Bronco Stadium was formally dedicated on September 22, 1950. I find it appropriate to quote part of Rev. Frank Rhea’s address: "This stadium is now dedicated to our splendid youth with all of their qualities of mind, body and soul. Here is a field of honor upon which our youth will contend, not in hatred and strife, but in earnest rivalry, with strength that will contend with strength, skill with skill, in sportsmanship and mutual respect." These are timeless words.

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Another sell-out crowd at Bronco Stadium, ca. 1950s. The parking lot was dirt, of course. Dad's car is third from the left. Or was it the right? It's difficult to see, but, in both of these photos, Broadway Avenue crossed the river on a steel girder bridge. (Courtesy: Boise State University Library Digital Collections, Historic Boise State)

Capacity of the wooden stadium was 10,800 plus whatever portable seats could be put in the end zones. During the years of the annual Borah High-Boise High Veterans Day classic, as many as 2,000 seats were added, due largely to accommodate the junior- and senior-high school marching bands and drill teams during Henry Vonderheide’s musical extravaganza/salute to our veterans. This was always the highlight of autumn in Boise, and it was in those games and for that reason that I first set foot on the grass field in 1959.

I remember, marching for Borah, that the goal line did not have the current breakaway orange plastic pylons at the sidelines of the field. Rather, there were red cloth flags mounted on low wire holders stuck into the turf. During one game, Jerry Oram, our fantastic trumpeter, got caught in a wire and ripped his band trousers to the crotch. It’s evident why those wires were eventually replaced.

Just as today, Bronco Stadium was the only large gridiron in the region, and at least 25 football games from college on down to Optimist youth championships were played every year during a two-month season. The community used it for a variety of events besides football. I vividly remember watching the Shrine Circus perform there each summer, and how we watched the Mode (8th and Idaho) burn when returning home from the circus one year.

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This is more-or-less how the campus looked when I matriculated. The brand-new Library Building sits to the east of the "U" drive in front of the Administration Building. The "U" was later removed to make way for the Business Building. The sidewalk coming out of the Music Auditorium (Hemingway Center) towards the Ad Building was known as the "Hello Walk," complete with a hanging sign designating it as such. It was under that sign that I worked up the courage to ask a girl out on my first college date. She accepted. (Courtesy: Boise State University Library Digital Collections, Historic Boise State)

The current Bronco Stadium, made of concrete and oriented parallel to Broadway Avenue, has a well-documented genesis, and is not the subject of this post. The old wooden stands were razed after the 1969 season, and the new facility, seating 14,500, opened for its first game on September 11, 1970.

Dr. Chaffee had thoughts about the transition to the new Bronco Stadium, and wrote: "It is now time to build another, more comprehensive stadium. Unless it is built off the present campus to give more space for regular academic buildings, it should be placed in the present identical position. This would save two hundred thousand dollars in capital costs, with the least expenditure of actual campus grounds, and it will place the competitors on the field in the most comfortable and errorless position primarily reducing eye strain and promoting better performance than would a stadium where one team or the other looks into the sun." So much for that. As I watched the Wyoming game on TV last Saturday, I heard one of the announcers continually comment about receivers losing the ball in the afternoon sun. But, then, it’s past mid-November, isn’t it, Dr. Chaffee?

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The first year as Boise State College (1968), and the next-to-last year of the wooden Bronco Stadium. By this time the Liberal Arts Building was one year old, built just east of the Administration Building where the T-1 building used to sit. (T-1 and T-2 were "temporary" surplus World War II wooden buildings, and housed KBJC Radio. Obviously, there was a lot of wood on campus in those days.) (Courtesy: Boise State University Library Digital Collections, Historic Boise State)

Our beloved Bronco Stadium and its famous Blue Turf is the fourth facility in which the proud Broncos have played, and, as we all know, plans are underway to expand it once again. It is, and will be, a "field of honor . . .in sportsmanship and respect." But, regardless of where the Blue-and-Orange-clad warriors compete, their truest home will be in our hearts, which will always bleed Blue. GO, ORANGE! GO, BIG BLUE! FIGHT, FIGHT, BSU!

And thank you for your "idea," Dr. Chaffee.

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The inside cover of the 1966 Les Bois, the Boise College yearbook. Were we ever that young, this college and me?

This content was not created by OBNUG and therefore may not meet our standards. On the contrary, it probably exceeds them.

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