Campus & Community

Harvard Stadium

6 min read


In 1905, just two years after the completion of Harvard Stadium, President Charles W. Eliot threatened to expel – once and for all – the savage game of football from Harvard’s campus.

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A stadium timeline

Along with a growing number of other academic leaders, Eliot viewed the sport – which at the time was more of a cross between rugby, soccer, and a bar fight than today’s strategic power game – as an abomination of the body and mind.

And so, at the conclusion of the ’05 season, with young footballers again suffering injuries more familiar on the battlefield than at an organized athletic event (18 fatalities and dozens of disabling injuries nationwide that year alone), Eliot took a final stand against the hugely popular sport, effectively demanding the ratification of some proposed rule changes, or else.

Fearing that the elimination of football from Harvard would spell doom for the sport as a whole, the Intercollegiate Football Association – the precursor to the National Collegiate Athletic Association – voted to enact 19 new rules to promote player safety, including the forbiddance of tackling out of bounds, “striking the ball carrier in the face,” and tackling below the knee.

Stadium statistics

  • 4.5: Months it took to build the stadium
  • 250,000: Cubic feet of concrete in the stadium
  • 1906: The forward pass debuts at the stadium
  • 22,000: Original seating capacity
  • 57,750: Seating capacity in 1929
  • 30,898: Seating capacity in 2003
  • 387: Football wins in the stadium
  • 211: Football losses in the stadium
  • 34: Football ties in the stadium
  • 4: National football championships since 1903
  • 1919: Last year Harvard won a national football championship
  • 42: Seconds it took to score 16 points to tie Yale 29-29 in 1968

One of the proposed rule changes of widening the field to spread out the action had to be nixed, however, given the fixed (and very concrete) nature of Harvard’s new stadium. As an alternative, the committee agreed to ratify the novel and somewhat controversial forward pass, changing the sport forever. No Harvard Stadium; no Hail Mary.

And though Eliot got his way – and likely saved the sport in the process – it’s not as if the stadium would have remained empty for too long had football ever been axed. Since its quick ascent in 1903 (built in just four and a half months at a cost of $310,000), the stadium – celebrating its 100th year this fall – has near seen it all.

As a National Historic Landmark, one of only three athletic arenas in the country to be designated so (the Yale Bowl, built in 1914, and the Rose Bowl, built in 1922, are the other two), Harvard Stadium occupies an even rarer place as the world’s first massive reinforced-concrete structure (built 28 years before the Empire State Building).

Composed of 250,000 cubic feet of concrete, Harvard Stadium is modeled after the ancient stadiums and arenas of Greece and Rome. At 576 feet wide, the stadium is based on the “stade” – the Greek unit of measurement equal to about 600 feet, the approximate length of the footrace in the earliest Olympic games.

Since its grand opening on Nov. 14, 1903 – a football contest against Dartmouth (Harvard lost, 11-0) – the stadium has played host to 635 football games for an all-time stadium record of 390-211-34 (through the Crimson’s 34-27 win against Lafayette on Oct. 18).

But touchdowns and first downs are only part of the dramatic history of America’s first sports amphitheater. From track stars to rock stars (including Ike and Tina Turner and Janis Joplin), from the politics of “Agamemnon” to the politics of the 1960s, from high theater to M.I.T. hijinks, the venerable venue has proved itself America’s very own cultural amphitheater. For that, one suspects, President Eliot would be proud.

Centennial celebration events

Harvard will celebrate the stadium’s centennial with a special exhibit in the Lee Family Hall of History at the Murr Center. Opening Friday (Oct. 24) and running through Nov. 7, the exhibit will feature a range of artifacts, documents, and photographs from the past 100 years, including football paraphernalia, photos from the stadium’s construction to present day (including a collection of non-football-related events), and official documents such as construction plans, newspaper clippings, memos, and more.

From 3 to 5 p.m., the festivities turn academic with the Athletic Department-sponsored symposium “The Centennial of Harvard Stadium and the Game on the Field.” Also to be held in the Hall of History, the talk will explore the role of the stadium on college athletics. Presenters will include Ronald A. Smith, professor emeritus at Pennsylvania State University; journalist Mark F. Bernstein, author of “Football: The Ivy League Origins of an American Obsession”; and (by video) John Powers ’70, sportswriter for the Boston Globe. Former Harvard running back Dick Clasby ’54 will also participate in the discussion. Dan Covell, assistant professor of sports management at Western New England College, will moderate the symposium. The talk is free and open to the public.

The 2003 Football Season

Oct. 25 Princeton 12 p.m.
Nov. 1 Dartmouth 12:30 p.m.
Nov. 8 @ Columbia 1:30 p.m.
Nov. 15 Pennsylvania 12:30 p.m.
Nov. 22 @ Yale 12:30 p.m.
Home games in bold.

To order tickets, call 1-877-GOHARVARD, or purchase tickets online.

On Saturday (Oct. 25) during the game with Princeton, a host of past players, coaches, and dignitaries will take to the field at halftime to commemorate the stadium’s 100th anniversary. Later that evening, the Centennial Dinner will be held at Lavietes Pavilion. Co-sponsored by the Harvard Varsity Club, Friends of Harvard Football, and the Department of Athletics, the jacket-and-tie affair (reception at 6 p.m.; dinner at 7 p.m.) will also act as the premiere of the Stadium Centennial video, featuring interviews with former players, coaching greats, and alumni.

To reserve a spot, call the Varsity Club at (617) 495-3535. The cost is $150 per person.

The centennial celebrations continue on Nov. 1 when the Crimson host Dartmouth – Harvard’s first opponent in the stadium 100 years ago. During a halftime ceremony, the school’s two athletic directors, Bob Scalise of Harvard and Josie Harper of Dartmouth, will unveil the plaque that designates the stadium as a National Historic Landmark.