Friday, January 22, 2010

Wooden connected to Memorial Stadium


You see all the promos for the new Kansas University Gridiron Club, note how things have changed at that site since 1919 and suddenly recall that basketball legends Phog Allen and John Wooden both figured in the evolution of the old football horseshoe.

Yes, that’s the same John Wooden who won 10 NCAA titles at UCLA. Brief as John’s input was, it’s still part of the fabric, and he’s openly proud of that. Lotta people may not know this.

I’m indebted to Prairie Village banker James Allen, the great-grandson of Phog and a 2008 KU graduate, for some intriguing background. James is the son of Dr. Mark Allen and his brothers are Chris and Chad, all with solid gold Jayhawk pedigrees.

James writes that at the Naismith Awards several years ago in Kansas City, his dad ran into John Wooden and introduced himself as Phog’s grandson. Mark expected a polite “nice to meet you,” but the gracious Wooden told him to sit down and hear a story about his helping to build Memorial Stadium.

While recruiting Wooden, an Indiana native, to play at KU, Phog extended an open invitation for John to come to Kansas during the summer if he ever needed a job, like working in the wheat harvests. Kids did that then. Wooden said that during the summer of 1927 between his junior and senior years in high school, he came here with friends figuring they’d be harvesters.

They got here too early, before the crops matured, and figured they’d have to go home empty-handed. Talent-conscious Phog took the crew over to Memorial Stadium, where, beginning that year, work had begun adding the north end zone (which detractors called “Phog’s Folly”). Wooden and his buddies were put to work pouring concrete into the foundation for the new addition. Wooden proudly told Mark Allen, “You see, I helped build that football stadium of yours.” Then he played college ball at Purdue.

Talk about tradition! Basketball inventor James Naismith KU’s first coach, Phog Allen the father of basketball coaching and iconic John Wooden as a stadium-builder. Says James Allen: “We’re so lucky to support a basketball program that is richer in tradition than any other in the world (he’s so right about that). Wooden’s 99 now, and he still is pleased about his contribution here. That’s worth sharing with the Jayhawk Nation.”

As for Phog’s Folly, he was the patron saint of the current 51,500-seat arena, which could become a 55,000 or 60,000 venue. In 1919, KU initiated a million-dollar drive to build a memorial stadium honoring the school’s World War I fatalities. In 1920, Phog in his only year as football coach led his Jayhawks from a 20-0 halftime deficit to a 20-20 tie with mighty Nebraska. It stunned the world. The next Monday, an Allen-inspired push produced $200,000 to get things started.

May 10, 1920, was “Stadium Day,” and 4,000 students helped demolish the old McCook field environs. In the first game in the new arena, Oct. 3, 1921, KU defeated Kansas State, 21-7, before 5,150 fans in a layout that held 22,000. Then came the horseshoe in 1927 when John Wooden took part in its creation, and capacity was boosted to 35,000.

There has been one refurbishment after another to produce the current layout. Miracle man? You betcha! What didn’t Phog Allen do for KU and Lawrence in his 39 seasons on Mount Oread, including luring fellow immortal John Wooden to town to help with the stadium?

Little wonder the Allen family, near and far, are so intensely proud of their namesake.


100 10 years, 1 month ago

Great article, Bill.

You got a lot of it right but you left the most amazing part out.

Wooden wanted to play for KU (grew up listening to teams on radio as a kid).

His Dad Joshua was sick & had lost his farm back in Indiana, so Wooden agreed to go closer to home to Purdue.

Also upon first stepping foot on campus, Wooden & his state champion buddies seeked out the person they most wanted to meet -- Dr. James Naismith.

Woooden decades ago claimed him to be one of the greatest men besides his father he's ever met.

Luckilly for the state champs Phog's office was directly under Naismith's, so quickly they got some work orders.

For the two weeks there, Wooden interacted with Phog & Naismith several times -- interestingly enough, in the end Wooden used Phog's offensive rebound & go/ cutting/ passing sets along with Harp's full court press to win all ten of those magical Memorial Stadium NCAA basketball trophies.

actorman 10 years, 1 month ago

Let the criticism begin!!! After all, what's a Mayer column without the usual torrent of smug a-ho**s who talk about how no one wants to hear about history, he should retire, blah, blah, blah.

I enjoyed this column a lot, and I always love learning new facts about KU history. Although I sometimes have a problem with Mayer when he criticizes current players, this is Mayer at his best, when he shares his historical knowledge.

actorman 10 years, 1 month ago

Nice extras, 100. It just goes to show that even where people think KU didn't have an influence, it did. Can there be any question as to which school has the greatest basketball tradition? It's not even close.

Mike Kendall 10 years, 1 month ago

actorman-- The answer to your question you pose is a resounding, "NO!" Great article Bill. When people walk in and around Memorial Stadium, it is hallowed ground, just like walking into AFH. Enjoyed the history lesson!

jayzcubed21 10 years, 1 month ago

I read with great interest, what an amazing history. Naismith to Allen to Wooden, could it be any more intriguing. As a kid growing up in a New Mexico urban area, i had no idea about the wheat harvest. As a 19 year-old college sophomore, i traveled to Kansas, largely on a whim to work the harvest, what an amazing thing that was. My son graduated from KU in '05, my daughter is a student there now, and i have told them of my Kansas harvest experience many times, after the first time, i am sure i had too much to drink. You can just hear my kids, "Oh no, here we go again." But over the years, i have traveled to Lawrence/OP no less than 30 times and enjoy it very much. Getting to sit in Memorial Stadium, watching the graduates come down the hill, including my son was a tearful, memorable event as well as the tailgate parties on Maine St. and the football games. Rock Chalk Jayhawk!!! John K. Albuquerque,NM.

DCJayhawk0208 10 years, 1 month ago

Hey, 100, just wanted to jump into this thread and offer my apologies for claiming you were wrong when you made this claim on a previous claim. I had been under the impression it was an urban legend, but I clearly was misinformed.

So, hat's off to you, Sir/Madam, and that's a terrific sidestory that Wooden WANTED to go to KU!

Can you imagine? Rupp, Smith AND Wooden could all have been at KU??? Good grief.

NH_JHawk 10 years, 1 month ago

Over the past couple of years there have been other articles referencing Wooden's small role in helping to construct Memorial Stadium. This piece by Mr. Mayer, however, fills us in on some of the missing details. Or as Paul Harvey would say "now you know the rest of the story."

Great stuff, Bill! This is when you are at your best and I really enjoyed reading it.

63Jayhawk 10 years, 1 month ago

Thanks, Bill. As a '63 grad of KU, I have enjoyed your stories for a long time. I'm glad you are still writing them.

10 years, 1 month ago

I concur with the above posters. Outstanding article providing us with priceless insight into some of the rich history and tradition of KU. Thank you, James Allen and Bill Mayer.

b_asinbeer 10 years, 1 month ago

Great article. I've always been a little sketchy on the details, but now I know a little bit more about this. Thanks! crow.

100 10 years, 1 month ago

No problem DC Jayhawk.

There are really so many truly amazing things that happened in the first 40 years of KU basketball that to truly write it all we'd need a lot of inks & a lot of ghosts.

Thank goodness for Mayer. I'll tell you my favorite part: Naismith was along for the KU ride for nearly forty of these years. Four decades!

In fact 41 years to be exact (of course two of these he volunteered for WW 1 & 1 year he volunteered to help in Mexico, so for all intents, 38 years at the games).

To put that in perspective, for any of you young folks who grew up watching Carl Henry play -- KU Basketball wasn't much more than 80 years old at that point.

Naismith was part of half of that. Look at what Brett Ballard does on the sidelines currently. At the bare minimum Naismith was doing that every game for the Hawks even after he passed the head Coaching reigns to his favorite pupil, Forrest.

Another amazing thing really was how long Naismith stayed here in Lawrence with us. It's not like he "just started the basketball program" and left town.

He was here for 41 years, more than half of his life. He was born in 1861 & died in 1939. The man knew about the civil troubles in America we were all healing from.

That's why he loved Lawrence -- first man he met when he showed up in town? Colonel Eldridge at the Free State Hotel (now called the Eldridge). The Colonel befriended James & his wife & young kids (2 of them at the time) & educated the Doc what it meant to be in Lawrence, specifically why we stood up against Slavery (Lawrence was the Free State capital of the world) & why Missouri had signed off to be a slave state (had filed paperwork just before the war started).

Naismith was a profound intellectual who fell in love with Lawrence that night, sleeping for three nights in the hotel that, like all of the other buildings on Mass, had been burnt all the way to the ground. Except, as Eldridge showed Naismith, for one burnt cornerstone.

That burnt limestone block on the base of the Eldridge hotel is the cornerstone that rebuilt Lawrence.

"You have burnt our buildings, but you have not burnt our spirit. Let's build this Free State downtown bigger & better than it was before. This burnt block will be the cornerstone, so we shall never forget our people they killed."

ironically years later, after Naismith had discovered Phog in KC, he asked Phog to visit Lawrence. What stuck out most to Phog? The wide paved streets with pristine hopping storefronts. He compared it to Columbia's narrow muddy roads in the middle of their boarded up rotting downtown buildings. That was enough for Phog. And Naismith had reeled in his first HUGE recruit, the "best goal thrower" in the World (at the time).

Without Naismith: No memorial stadium. No Allen Fieldhouse. No National championships. No Orange Bowl.

It all trickles down....

And no KU/ John Wooden folklore to pass down to our Grandkids...

gatorhawk45 10 years, 1 month ago

I love this-it's like a chapter out of the KU scrap book that just keeps growing with the comments that follow. I have been around people all over the country who are amazed at what was started with a peach basket at KU. Naismith, Phog, Dean, Wooden, Roy, Rupp, Brown, Manning, Pierce. . . and many, many more.

Thanks for the info Mr. Mayer!

Gil Ek 10 years, 1 month ago

How cool to put a lifesize figure of Mr. Wooden as a teenager holding a shovel in the north end of Memorial Stadium. The history just keeps impressing......

jmjonesatc 10 years, 1 month ago

I was told this story back in grad school at KU by Bob Frederick in a Facilities Management class. If I remember right Wooden not only worked on the stadium but lived there also. They had some barrack type facilities in locker room areas. Great Story!!!

nobody1793 10 years, 1 month ago

Ok, Mr. Mayer, let's see you connect Kevin Bacon to KU athletics...

Rick Arnoldy 10 years, 1 month ago

Nice article but didn't he already write about this previously?

100 10 years, 1 month ago

eku, the future statues around the Fieldhouse is amazing to think about.

Naismith, Chamberlain, Phog, Manning, Miller, White, Endacott, Pierce, Lovellete, Collins, Rupp, Smith, L. Brown, Bill Self, R. Williams, McClendon & others...

And by the football stadium -- Naismith (invented forward pass & football helmet) & Wooden!!!!

milwaukeeJAYHAWK 10 years, 1 month ago

neat article. I thought I read somewhere that Wooden and friends hitchhiked to Kansas, and their Indiana State Champions letterman jackets were what attracted people to pick them up.

Am I misremembering this, or did this happen?

Commenting has been disabled for this item.