Remembering Rogers Field

I REMEMBER IT like yesterday. April 4, 1970. A strong wind blew, and a light rain fell. An orange glow in the night sky and wailing sirens drew me across town to the steps leading up to the Union Building. I watched in stunned silence, as huge flames engulfed the press box and swept through the south grandstand.


Rogers Field, home of the Cougar football and track teams for nearly seven decades, was going up in smoke.

Sixty-seven years of Cougar track and football history were here. Lone Star Dietz coached here. So did Babe Hollingbery. Wes Foster, the legendary track man, broke the color line in Cougar sports here back in the 20s.

Inside the walls of the light-gray grandstands that went up in 1926, making Rogers a true stadium rather than just a field, the Mel Heins, Johnny Bleys, Ed Goddards, Keith Lincolns
and Clancy Williams' of Cougar history forever etched their feats into our collective conscience.

With its demise, the Cougars would become college football's orphans for two years, playing home games in Spokane before Martin Stadium would rise up from the ashes in 1972.

To the last three decades of WSU students, the name Rogers Field has meant the intramural field/football team practice field next to Martin Stadium.

But what of the Rogers Field? The Rogers Field that hosted more than 20,000 fans and some of the greatest moments in Cougar history.

Why did it burn? Thirty years after the fire, I set out to search for answers --- and to wake the echoes of the glory that was the Rogers Field.

ON THE NIGHT OF THE FIRE, with spring break starting a day earlier, Pullman was unusually quiet for a Saturday.

Ironically, the only action in town that day was at Rogers Field, where WSU's John Van Reenan, the 6-foot-7 giant from South Africa, barely scratched on a world-record discus throw in a meet with Oregon State.

At about 10:30 that night, long after the Cougs had downed the Beavers, folks heard what sounded like a gunshot at the stadium. Moments later, Rogers Field was burning. Fanned by the strong winds, the fire spread rapidly through the press box and south grandstands.

About 1,000 people watched firefighters battle the blaze until about 2 am.

No doubt about it, the State Fire Marshall concluded, Rogers Field was the victim of arson.

In discussing the fire with people who lived in Pullman that spring, one thing is striking: 30 years later, many remember where exactly where they were and what they were doing that night.

Though the university quickly decided that the burned-out stadium was unplayable for the 1970 season, Rogers Field did not rest in peace. In May, during a ROTC exercise, Vietnam War protesters clashed with police on the field, and later someone tried unsuccessfully to burn down the north grandstands.

During that spring of discontent, an epidemic of arson fires raged across the nation in protest of the Vietnam War. Thirty years later, the now-retired police officer who investigated the Rogers Field fire doesn't recall the details.

BUT THE POLICE file --- discovered on fading microfilm buried in the state archives in Olympia --- reveals a varied cast of suspects: a member of the football team; a professor's college-age son and a terminated university employee, both suspected of setting other fires; a stadium worker who had acted suspiciously; a couple from California who had made threatening comments.

Speculation about motive ranged from protest of the war to a drunken loss of the senses.

One year after the fire the investigation was closed for lack of leads. No one was ever charged. Who set the fire -- and why -- remains a mystery.

In his fascinating book on the history of WSU athletics, The Crimson and the Gray, Dick Fry calls the fire "fortuitous." No one was killed or injured. And the fire provided the literal spark for finally replacing an aging stadium whose time had come and ushered in a new era in Cougar athletics.

In fact, some folks took to calling the blaze "The Sweeney Fire," because head coach Jim Sweeney cheered the demise of the old stadium.

The wooden gray horseshoe grandstand remained partially intact when Martin Stadium was built in 1972, but that too came down nine years later. What remains today of the Rogers Field are only memories:

THE BEGINNINGS: In 1892, farmers using horse-drawn scrappers were joined by faculty and students from the new Washington Agriculture College in carving out and leveling thousands of yards of dirt from an oat field and weedy hillside in the middle of campus. They called it Soldiers Field. It's the site where Martin Stadium now stands.

MAKING TRACKS: The first event at Soldiers Field was a track meet. Over the years, dozens of Cougar stars would ply their trade on the site. Among them were Van Reenan, sprinters Jack Nelson, Wes Foster and Bob Gary; hurdlers Loren Benke and Lee Orr; distance runners Clem Eischen and Gerry Lindgren; and pole vaulter Eldon Jenne.

"AWAY" HOME GAMES: Small crowds and difficulty enticing larger schools to Pullman led Washington State to schedule some of its "home" games away from Rogers Field: 44 in Spokane, four in Portland, and two in Tacoma. One contest, a 7-0 loss to Texas A&M in 1941 that kept the Cougars out of the Cotton Bowl, drew 26,000 fans in Tacoma --- still the largest crowd to watch a sporting event in that city.

UNSCORED UPON: In 1906 WSC football team was unscored upon and finished 6-0. The 1915 team also was undefeated, finishing 7-0 and defeating Brown in the Rose Bowl. That club surrendered one TD all year: a fumble recovery by Montana in the Cougar endzone. Some historians says Dietz's 1917 team was even better than the 1915 club, yielding just one field goal in a 6-0-1 season.

DAMNABLE DAWGS: Prior to 1929, WSC and UW played 20 times --- 16 times in Seattle because the Dawgs were skittish about traveling to Pullman. In 1929; with new grandstands on the north side of Rogers Field the Cougars downed Washington, 20-13, before a then-record crowd of 15,000 en route to a 10-win season. The Cougars would defeat the Huskies five more times on Rogers Field prior to 1956 when WSC moved its home Apple Cup game to Spokane.

TURF OF SILK: Rogers Fields' grass is a story in itself. For many years, a small shack stood in the shadows of the north grandstands; a sign "NOT BUILT AT STATE EXPENSE" hung in front. That was the office of Elmer "Shorty" Sever, the only groundskeeper from 1928 until Rogers Field burned down in 1970 --- ironically, just one week after the school had decided to replace the grass with artificial turf (and to install lights for the first time). Shorty's grass received rave reviews. After his team thrashed the Cougars in 1955, long-time UCLA Coach Red Sanders proclaimed Rogers Field as the "best turf we ever played on." It also was the favorite turf of Keith Lincoln, the star Cougar back in 1960 who went on to stardom on the fields of the old American Football League. "Shorty loved that field and did a great job," remembers Lincoln. Actually, everyone in town helped out: Shorty fertilized with sludge from the Pullman sewage treatment plant.

MISSING PASADENA BY INCHES: In 1957 the Cougars rallied from a 14-0 deficit at Rogers Field to score two fourth-quarter touchdowns against Oregon. But QB Bobby Newman's second extra point attempt, in the game's final minute, hit the goal post and bounced out, handing the Ducks a one-point victory. As it turned out, a tie would have earned the Cougars the conference championship. The Sugar Bowl, however, came calling at season's end but conference rules at the time deemed that only the league champion could partake in post-season play.

OTHER HEARTBREAKERS: Top-ranked California survived quite a scare at Rogers Field in 1951 in front of 17,000 fans. The Bears knocked down Bud Roffler's pass to Wayne Berry at the 13-yard line on the final play to escape with a wild 42-35 victory. Another tough defeat at Rogers Field came one year later when Cougars fell 10-0 to Idaho, ending a remarkable string of 26 games without a defeat against the Vandals. In 1938, a tradition had started of the losing team's student body walking the eight miles between the two campuses. Why Idaho consented to the one-sided tradition is unclear. In any event, following the 1954 defeat, WSC walked for the first time: photographed in Life magazine, hundreds of students and the marching band joined in.

THE UNFORGETTABLE 36ERS: Rogers Field was rebuilt for the final time in 1936 with new grandstands on the north and south sides; horseshoe seating on the east side; a press box above the south grandstands; and at the open west end, the "Largest Clock in the West" --- a round, black-and-white, 60-minute timer with 10-foot long arms, and score and yardage info posted on the face. Except for the giant clock, which was replaced by a red digital scoreboard in 1965, Rogers Field looked as it did when fire hit 33 years later.

On opening day of that 1936 season, before a capacity crowd of 23,500, All-American WSC quarterback Ed Goodard tossed touchdown passes in the first and third quarters against Stanford. The Cougars then stopped the Indians inches short of the goal line with time running out on the new clock to preserve a 14-13 victory. On that day, the man presiding over a halftime ceremony dedicating the field was a well-dressed flour mill owner from Cheney: Governor Clarence D. Martin, for whom a new stadium would be renamed thirty-six years later (when his family donated $250,000 to the project).

THE MASCOT: Between 1919 and 1927, WSC had stuffed cougar mascots, one of which was stolen by UW students in 1920.

Temptation to catnap the mascot ended - at least for many years - on November 11, 1927 when at halftime of a game with Idaho the governor of Washington, Roland H. Hartley, presented WSC its first live cougar mascot. Students promptly nicknamed the cat "Governor Hartley." What the four-legged Hartley thought of being named for a politician is unknown, but the two-legged one was not amused and suggested a new namesake: the diminutive star WSC quarterback and place kicker, Herbert "Butch" Meeker of Spokane. And for the next 51 years six different Butches would be carted around the stadium track in front of a cheering student body whenever WSU scored.

THE TROUBLED DECADE: In Rogers Field's last decade, the Cougars played more often in Spokane than in Pullman. And despite the efforts of several all-time Cougar greats - Lincoln, George Reed, Hugh Campbell, Clancy Williams - the Sixties brought mostly frustration to WSU fans. The most memorable season of 1965 saw the 7-3 "Cardiac Kids" battle for the Rose Bowl until a season-ending loss at Washington. That year, the Cougars at Rogers Field lost 17-13 to a good Idaho team led by All-American Fullback Ray McDonald, but bounced back to trounce Oregon, 27-7, with Ammon McWashington rushing for 102 yards.

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