J. Brady McCollough, a former reporter at The Michigan Daily, once wrote this of Oregon’s home field: “Autzen Stadium is where great teams go to die.” He penned those words after the No. 22 Ducks upset the fifth-ranked Wolverines, 31-27.
It was Sept. 20, 2003, only the stadium’s 10th game after a massive renovation and perhaps the day Autzen’s legend was first spun.After the loss, Lloyd Carr said it was the loudest place he’d ever been. It was the Michigan coach’s 27th year on a collegiate staff.
From then on, more anecdotal evidence abounds. In 2006, UCLA quarterback Pat Cowan shouts himself out of a voice trying to audible. In 2007, Mark Sanchez throws two interceptions before a crowd that ESPN marks at 127.2 decibels. It was then purported as the loudest matchup ever recorded, but how often decibels are measured at college football games isn’t clear.
So what exactly is the truth behind the words of that pretentiously named writer, one who slotted Oregon’s hostility above that of Ohio State, Florida, LSU? Oregon is a young powerhouse that, until 10 or 15 years ago, had known almost nothing but abject failure; How did Autzen Stadium become the most frightening place to visit, indisputably, on the West Coast and, arguably, in the entire country?
The 2002 expansion upped the official seating capacity to 54,000, and thousands more manage to squeeze into every game. But when it comes down to pure size, Autzen can’t even graze the nation’s heavy hitters.
Michigan Stadium seats an astounding 109,901, more than any other football venue in the United States. It is aptly known as “The Big House.” Five other collegiate stadiums, only one west of the Mississippi, run into six figures. Even in the Pac-12, Autzen is firmly average. Six other teams, including Cal, can potentially cram in more home fans. The Rose Bowl and the L.A. Coliseum both top 90,000, and only three stadiums dip below 50,000.
So then, the shape must be important. The place was originally drawn up in the 1960s by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the same architectural firm responsible for the Willis Tower (née Sears) and Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.
Bowl-shaped doesn’t quite describe Autzen; Pringle-shaped is better, given the way the stands sweep up. The field itself sinks low into the ground, so as to better trap sound. The first row rests only 40-odd feet away, which means that fans are close enough to eavesdrop on players and coaches.
And then there are the sellout crowds that fill Autzen to the brim every time its doors open. More seats could be installed, but not doing so keeps demand high — the sellout streak has been running since 1999. At halftime, fans are let out to drink some more, often at the neighboring Moshofsky Center, the indoor practice facility which also holds a beer garden. When there are five minutes left in the half, a horn blares to make sure fans return to scream some more. In Oregon’s 2009 upset of then-No. 6 Cal, 125 fans were ejected; 59 were alcohol-related violations.
But perhaps the most persuasive evidence is just how few teams willingly travel to Eugene. Only one more traditional power, Oklahoma, has taken a chance on Autzen since the Michigan upset. The No. 11 Sooners, a team that ended up in the Fiesta Bowl, were edged by a single point in 2006. Since then, only one nonconference opponent has risked a national ranking at Autzen: Utah, still a non-Big Six team in 2009, entered as the country’s No. 18 team and exited with a 31-24 loss.
When big money programs play the Ducks now, they do it on either their grounds or neutral territory. Oregon opened this season against LSU, arguably the best team in the country, but lost at Dallas’ Cowboys Stadium. In 2010, Chip Kelly’s team smoked Tennessee in Knoxville; the Vols declined to make it a home-and-home series.
This Thursday, the Ducks will kick off their Pac-12 home slate against Cal. Every team in the conference knows this is a toughest stadium on the schedule — they just don’t have a choice but to play there.