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A History of Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium
The stadium has been the site of many historical games and events, but now it’s use and appeal is slowly fading away
It is a Saturday afternoon in early October and some 11,000 football fans are sitting in the stands of Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium under a dark, hovering sky. On the field below, the Jackson State Tigers are in the midst of a conference battle with the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff and have just secured a 7-3 halftime lead.
For JSU supporters still reeling from 1-3 start on the season, a win is desperately needed. As the crowd begins to bounce and sway to a thundering beat from the Sonic Boom marching band, a misty breeze billows over the concrete wall at the top of the stadium.
Gazing over the panoramic vistas of Jackson from this perch, then back into the expanse of the stadium itself, one can’t help but feel the weight of the past, the presence of the countless others who have stood in the same spot watching the legends of Mississippi Sports history in their prime.
From Archie Manning and Walter Petyon to Steve “Air” McNair, Brett Favre and the “Satellite Express” of Willie Totten and Jerry Rice, the stadium has seen them all. It was here where Mississippi State and Ole Miss pulled off some of the greatest upsets in their school’s history, where the state’s first NFL exhibition was played in 1969, where 18 consecutive Egg Bowls, and over a dozen SEC doubleheaders took place.
As most any Jackson native knows, however, the past two decades have not been so kind to Memorial Stadium. Excluding the occasional concert, high school state championships and the Saturday’s when JSU is on their home field, most days of the year find an eerie silence echoing through the stands of the state-owned facility’s 62,512 seats. Such a fact is certainly not lost on politicians and Jackson’s business community and has resulted in an ongoing, multi-faceted debate over the stadium’s future. Only time will tell what that future holds, yet for the time being, Jackson’s largest sports venue continues to look down upon the same spot of land it has for almost sixty years.
The momentum towards construction of what is now known as Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium first began in 1945. The dark years of WWII had finally passed and Americans around the nation were commemorating those who had paid the ultimate sacrifice defeating Hitler and the Axis Powers.
Here in Mississippi, in addition to support for honoring the state’s fallen soldiers with a new monument, there was also a growing desire for “big time football” games to be played in state. Until that point, it was tradition for cities such as Memphis, New Orleans and Memphis to host the biggest games played each season by Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Mississippi Southern (now USM).
If Mississippi’s capital city could only be equipped with a proper stadium, so the argument went, major college football games and their lucrative economic benefits would follow. A grand football stadium built in honor of veterans seemed a perfect fit.
With such motivations in mind – and plenty of encouragement from veterans groups and the Jackson Touchdown Club – the legislature successfully passed a bill in 1946 to donate 29 acres of state-owned land to Hind’s County for the sole purpose of constructing of a stadium. The designated parcel, located north of Woodrow Wilson Drive between North State and West Street, had previously been part of the “insane hospital” property, as newspaper accounts of the day termed it.
The new facility was to be called War Veterans Memorial Stadium and in addition to 35,000 seats, original plans called for 82 sections, one for every county in the state, and each bearing a plaque with the name of that county’s fallen soldiers.
Despite its seemingly lofty goals, it did not take long for the proposed stadium to spark controversy. Battle lines were drawn between those who believed the effort a valuable long term economic investment and those who saw it as wasteful, irresponsible spending. The Jackson Daily News adamantly championed the latter position, regularly publishing editorials lambasting the idea of funding a sports venue instead of new schools, roads, and other infrastructure projects. The Clarion Ledger, by contrast, took much more receptive stance towards the idea.
By late 1947, as Hinds County prepared to vote on a $700,000 bond issue to fund the facility’s construction, opposition had reached an impassioned pitch. “Jackson needs a 35,000 seating capacity stadium just about as badly as a centipede needs more legs,” crooned one Daily News editorial. “Building a structure where fanatics can yell and scream to their heart’s content is a damned poor way to honor war veterans,” said another.
Not afraid of inciting a bit of religious guilt over the issue, a Nov. 12, 1947 editorial entitled “Don’t Strangle Our Needful Things,” pronounced that “if you want to find the men and women who have made Jackson what it is today you can easily locate them right here at home during weekends, looking after their own affairs, attending church on Sunday, and not gallivanting all over the country to witness football games.”
Regardless of the voices sounding off against the stadium, the bond issue passed on November 14, 1947 and construction began early the following year. Work progressed slowly in the midst of weather impediments and rising construction costs and by the time a seating capacity of 21,000 had been reached, the money was gone.
In Dec. 1949, Hinds County voters were asked to return to the polls yet again, this time to approve an additional $800,000 bond issue necessary to bring the stadium to its originally planned level. Voters said no the second time around and Jackson had to settle for a partially finished facility.
Although not the capacity initially envisioned, the stadium was still functional and on Dec. 9, 1950, hosted its first game between Holmes Junior College and the Kilgore College Rangers of Kilgore, Texas. A crowd of 18,000 showed up to watch Holmes fall 32-12. Almost two years later on November 11, 1952, the first Division I-A game took place when Mississippi Southern defeated Louisville 55-26.
Ole Miss first entered the grounds on Sept. 19, 1953, defeating Chattanooga 39-6, and on Halloween day of that same year, Mississippi State made their inaugural appearance with a 20-27 loss to Texas Tech. By this point, temporary seating had been added, bringing capacity to 25,000, a level where the stadium – now going under the name Hinds County War Memorial Stadium – would remain for the rest of the decade.
While Mississippi’s two SEC teams and Mississippi Southern did occasionally play in the stadium through the 1950’s, the venue was primarily used for smaller games such as Millsaps College and the annual High School All-Star matchup. The turning point for expansion proponents, according to stadium commission files from later years, came after a 1958 sellout between Mississippi State and LSU. At this juncture efforts were also well underway to bring the facility under state ownership. In 1960 the legislature did in fact take over the stadium. A bill funding expansion to 46,000 seats was passed, along with a name change to Mississippi Memorial Stadium and the formation of a stadium commission consisting of the Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General and ten others responsible for overseeing operations.
Construction was completed in 1961, just in time for a Sept. 23 televised game which saw John Vaught’s Ole Miss Rebels topple Arkansas 16-0 before a crowd of 45,508. Although 20 years later the stadium would be expanded yet again to its present size, for a time after 1961 it was able to claim status as the third largest football facility in the Southeastern Conference. The big time football games once envisioned by the stadium’s founders were about to come to Jackson.
Between the SEC and Mississippi Southern games, and the Southwestern Athletic Conference battles which began in 1967 after Jackson State adopted the facility as its home field, most of the next two and half decades would find Memorial Stadium a hotbed of college football. During some seasons, when upwards of 15 games would take place, some involving nationally ranked teams, the city of Jackson could even lay a legitimate claim on being the football capital of the South. Attempting to summarize the most monumental of these bouts, and what the facility itself means to those who experienced the electric atmosphere of its peak years, will no doubt leave regrettable omissions. As Michael Rubenstein, current executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and veteran sports director at WLBT-TV recently said, “they don’t print enough paper to put enough pages in enough books to get all the memories I have down from Memorial Stadium.”
One vivid memory that Rubenstein does not have any problem recalling is that of the SEC doubleheaders in Jackson. Beginning in 1964 with a back to back matchup of Mississippi State vs. LSU and Ole Miss vs. Kentucky, the double header Saturday would become a trademark feature of the stadium.
“The doubleheader was unheard of then and its quadrupely unheard of now,” says Rubenstein. “For one town to have two SEC game in the same day, you know, that’s just unbelievable. Even with artificial turf you couldn’t do that anymore. The ones I really remember were when Ole Miss would play LSU in the afternoon and State would play Alabama at night. Of course if you were working the games it just wore you out. That’s a lot to do.”
Going back in time even further than Rubenstein and the doubleheaders to a Saturday night in Sept. 1962, Memorial Stadium would not only find itself hosting a major SEC game between Kentucky and the soon to be national champions Ole Miss, but also serving as a staging ground for one of the darkest chapters in Mississippi’s history. In his book, “Dixie, A personal Odyssey Through Events That Shaped the Modern South,” author and journalist Curtis Wilkie recalls attending the Ole Miss-Kentucky game the night before riots broke out in Oxford because a black man named James Meredith tried to enroll in Ole Miss. Standing in the Jackson stadium amidst thousands of confederate-flag waving fans, Wilkie watched with a mixture of awe and horror as then Gov. Ross Barnett led the crowd in the “Never No Never” song whose words had been printed on leaflets passed through the stands.
“As the thousands howled, Barnett lifted his arms in triumph,” Wilkie writes. “It was an incredible instant. Even as a dubious spectator, I could feel flesh curdling on my arms. I did not wave a flag and I did not cheer. But I would not have traded my seat for a million dollars. I knew I was witnessing the final convulsions of the Civil War. All the crowd lacked were pitchforks and rifles. That would come the next night.”
The Meredith riots and other acts of racially motivated violence through the early 60’s would leave Mississippi’s national reputation in shambles. By the final years of the decade, however, the state’s attitude on civil rights issues was ever so slowly beginning to turn. Just one of the social dynamics which helped encourage outsiders to take a renewed look at Mississippi, according to former Governor William Winter, was the big time football games coming to Mississippi Memorial Stadium. An avid football fan himself who says he never missed an SEC game in Jackson, Winter especially remembers the gutsy performances of Archie Manning and the press coverage the acclaimed quarterback attracted.
“That is really when Manning began to emerge as the sensational player that he was,” Winter said. “I thought it brought a lot of good notice to Jackson. The state of Mississippi was still coming out from under the cloud of the civil rights furor and all the confrontations that had taken place, and those games were some of the events that helped bring in the national press and allow a different opinion of Mississippi to be formed. It was particularly those exciting teams we had in the late 1960’s. Ole Miss, State and Southern all played major games here during that period of time.”
When it came to the art of winning big time football games, there was no arguing that Manning was at his best in Jackson. His first appearance at Memorial Stadium came in the 1967 High School All-Star game where he led the North to victory, throwing for over 200 yards. Over the course of his college career the Drew, Mississippi native would play in Jackson eight more times, taking on Houston, LSU, Tennessee, Georgia and Kentucky and Alabama twice each. The 38-0 romping delivered to the third ranked Volunteers in 1969 – a response to the insults thrown upon the Rebels the year before by Tennessee linebacker Steve Kiner – is considered by some as the biggest victory in Ole Miss history. The 26-23 come-from-behind thriller over a then undefeated LSU team that same season also ranks at the top of Ole Miss’ greatest wins. The Rebels single loss at Memorial stadium during Manning’s tenure came in the Oct. 26, 1968 Houston game. Even today, the former quarterback does not hesitate when asked to recall his near perfect record.
“I was 8-1 in that stadium and those were all big, big games. I remember we absolutely ruined LSU’s season in ‘69’.”
As Manning discusses his Jackson memories, it doesn’t take long for the topic to turn to the doubleheaders.
“You didn’t see that very often,” Manning said. “That was just a great Saturday in Mississippi when you had two big time SEC games in one day. I still have great memories when I pass by the stadium today.”
It wasn’t long after Manning’s days that the stadium bore witness to the spectacle of Walter Peyton. During his tenure at Jackson State, the future Chicago Bears star and NFL Hall of Famer would leave an indelible mark as perhaps the greatest running back to ever come out of Mississippi, finishing his college career rushing for 3,563 yards and scoring a total of 464 points between 1971 and 1974.
One of those who witnessed many of Peyton’s performances was a young Calloway student named Tyrone Keys who himself would later earn a spot in the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. Keys says he particularly remembers the 1972 JSU-Lane College game where Peyton scored seven touchdowns and a pair of two point conversions, setting the yet to be broken single game scoring record for JSU.
Outside of watching Walter Peyton, another vivid memory for Keys is that of the numerous Mississippi State-Florida matchups which took place in Jackson during the 1970’s. Marveling at the spectacle of the SEC games in his hometown, little did Keys know he would soon be taking the same field as linebacker for Mississippi State. It is even more unlikely he imagined the heroic role he would play in a Nov. 1, 1980 game in Jackson against the defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide. With only seconds remaining and MSU desperately clinging to a 6-3 lead as Alabama drove hard towards the goal line, Keys caused the fumble that preserved a Bulldog victory. Bear Bryant and his number 1 ranked Crimson Tide had won 28 straight games until that day’s visit to Jackson.
“I remember that play like it was yesterday,” Keys remembers. “I remember saying that we had come too far to loose and that somebody has got to make a play. I just exploded out of my stance and they couldn’t believe I was there. I wasn’t looking to knock the ball out but I definitely was looking to make a big play. To be a part of history and make that play was a beautiful thing, and then to be able to walk home from the game –I didn’t live far from the stadium –I was just thinking to myself that this is like a dream.”
The above are but a few of most notable moments seen inside Memorial Stadium during its peak years of usage. A few others which also must be mentioned;
The 20-13 Ole Miss upset of Notre Dame on Sept. 17, 1977: Backup quarterback Tim Ellis becomes a hero after leading the Rebels on a game-winning, fourth-quarter drive that’s sets off wild jubilation from fans. The Fighting Irish were ranked third in the country that year and would go on to win a national championship.
The 1981 USM-MSU matchup: Southern clinches a narrow 7-6 victory before a crowd reported at 64,112 – a figure some claim set the stadium’s all-time attendance record. The game would be the first in a series of eight consecutive meetings between the two schools in Jackson.
The 1983 Egg Bowl: With second remaining in the game and down by a point, Mississippi State kicker Artie Cosby puts up a 27-yard field goal attempt that by all appearances is good. The Bulldogs begin to celebrate a victory just as a mysterious gust of wind throws the ball back to the earth. Ole Miss hangs on for a 24-23 win and Independence Bowl berth.
The 1984 Mississippi Valley – Alcorn State game: At that point in the season both teams were undefeated. The Totten-Rice combination, along with heavy media coverage surrounding the game, results in a capacity crowd at the stadium above 64,000. (Discrepancies in the attendance figures exist, but many claim the crowd was larger than that of the ‘81’ USM-MSU game).
The era of JSU football between 1985-1988: Led by legendary Head Coach W.C. Gordon, the Tigers win four consecutive SWAC Championships. Three of those years Memorial Stadium leads the nation in NCAA Division I AA average attendance.
The 1990 Egg Bowl: Owl Miss prevails 21-9 in what would be the last meeting between the two rivals in Jackson.
The 1996 Ole Miss-Virginia Military Institute game: The 31-7 Rebel win is the last Division I-A football game to take place in Memorial Stadium.
By the mid 1970’s, as more and more football stadiums around the South surpassed Memorial Stadium in size, talk had once again turned towards expansion. In 1979, with the ‘77’ Ole Miss-Notre Dame and other near capacity crowd games fresh on their minds, the legislature approve a bill for $3 million in state-backed bonds to enclose the north end of the stadium with roughly 16,000 new seats. The upgrade was completed in 1980, bringing the facility to its horseshoe shape and present capacity of 62,512.
Although there was some degree of opposition to the expansion at the time, the move was for the most part supported by politicians and the general public. Mississippi’s “big three” universities also lobbied hard for the growth, pledging to continue bringing their games to Jackson. Few could have seen that just a few short years later the same schools would be backing out of Jackson, leaving the expansion re-considered as a mistake.
In order to generate funds to pay for the project, for example, the legislature authorized the stadium commission to implement a new rental fee charging MSU, Ole Miss and Southern, 10 percent of the pre-tax value of each ticket sold, plus 50 cents per ticket (Jackson State was exempt from the same rental charges). It didn’t take long for resentment towards the fees and other polices implemented by the stadium commission to begin mounting within the big three’s athletic departments.
Simultaneously, attendance figures at Memorial Stadium were steadily declining, and at best inconsistent. As revenues from ticket sales dwindled, the stadium’s operating funds normally budgeted for salaries and other maintenance projects began being funneled towards making the annual $300,000 bond payments. Hinds County, who had put up $1million on top of the state’s $3 million, was also demanding repayment.
While some blamed the poor attendance on losing seasons which plagued Ole Miss and State through the early 1980’s, a depressing turnout of 35,000 for the 1986 Ole Miss vs. Tennessee game – this when the Rebels were 6-2-1 and aiming for their first potential SEC championship since 1963 – forced many to face the ugly truth that Jackson’s SEC glory days might be over. Efforts to generate income through concerts and other non-sporting events were also attempted, but generally fell flat.
In 1987, after a Legislative watchdog committee appointed to investigate the stadium found numerous flaws with the management operations, the stadium commission was re-organized in hopes of turning the place around. Instead of a large committee consisting of politicians and random businessmen, the new committee was cut to five members who would be appointed and hopefully more in-tune with the dynamics of putting on sporting events. (It was at this time the name of stadium changed once again, this time to Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium). Unfortunately, the re-organization had little lasting impact and by 1988 the future of major college football games in Jackson appeared bleaker than ever. Of the ten games which took place in the stadium that fall, only four involved Division 1-A schools, the fewest number in 20 years. “Mississippians have millions invested in the stadium,” pronounced a Clarion Ledger Editorial, “and unless things improve, that money will have been wasted.” Things did not approve.
USM left Memorial Stadium for good after the 1988 game against MSU. The Bulldogs last appearance came two years later in the 1990 Egg Bowl. Ole Miss continued to play at least one game in Jackson through 1993, but by the following season had scheduled all their home games for Oxford. During a 1993 House Appropriations Committee meeting where legislators were seeking answers for the stadium’s funding problems, then Ole Miss Athletic Director Warner Alford stated his case bluntly. “We have a 42,000 seat stadium in Oxford, Alford said. “I have constituents to answer to. They don’t understand why I play games in Jackson when we can draw the same crowd in Oxford.”
After Ole Miss’ final appearance three years later against Virginia Military Institute, Jackson State for the most part, left as the sole college football team taking the field of Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium during fall Saturdays. The situation remains the same today.
For anyone who has attended a game at Oxford’s Vaught-Hemingway or Starkville’s Davis Wade Stadium in recent years, just one look at the modern seating, jumbotrons and luxury suites is all it takes to realize the comparative standing of Jackson’s stadium. The scoreboard here is not much bigger than that seen over high school fields. The square, metal frame press box with rust stains and a prehistoric looking elevator is, too put it kindly, outdated. (Its not as if money hasn’t not been spent on the place – more than $15 million in fact over the past decade on new locker rooms, offices behind the south end zone and other smaller projects).
Outdated or not, the fact remains Memorial stadium continues to light up with JSU gridiron action each fall. And although the Tiger’s home attendance in recent years has substantially dropped from stretches in the late 1980’s and 1990’s – a time when some years saw an average crowd size of 38,000 – some games such as the Southern University rivalry and Alcorn State classic can draw enough to fill more than three quarters of the stadium.
For long-time Tiger fans such as Jackie Fortson, a 1973 JSU graduate who has purchased season every year since she finished school, such games inside Memorial Stadium hold a special place. Among the many memories she recalls are the years when the Soul Bowl between JSU and Alcorn (now called the Capital City Classic) took place in Jackson on Thanksgiving Day.
“We used to get up in the morning and my mom and I would do all the cooking. We would come to the game and then go home and eat with family and all the alumni who were in town. That was a big deal and we always looked forward to that.”
Not all of the Tiger’s fans, administration and alumni are thrilled with their home venue, however. The fact JSU is the only Division I program in the state without an on-campus stadium is not looked on kindly in some circles and has caused substantial lobbying to tear down Memorial and build a new, smaller venue at JSU.
Further complicating the issue is the fact the stadium happens to sit on some of Jackson’s most prime real estate. With the University of Mississippi Medical Center directly across State Street, it is no secret the hospital has been eyeing the stadium’s land for a new research center.
If those considerations aren’t enough to create a political cesspool surrounding the issue, just factor in a few of the recent blunders by previous stadium management. A seemingly endless traffic jam and crowd control nightmare that occurred during the 2006 Saints-Colts exhibition game was a major blunder. Then, the following year, $200,000 in concession and ticket sales from a JSU game was stolen in a still-unsolved robbery. Following the two incidents, the legislature in 2008 made a decision to dissolve the stadium commission and re-align the facility under the Department of Finance and Administration.
According to Mike Marsh who took over the reins as new stadium manager after DFA’s takeover, the stadium is, for the time being, a self sustaining facility, generating just enough revenue to keep its budget of approximately $1.1 million dollars balanced. Although at present time the JSU games provide a relatively small chunk of the stadium’s revenue – by statute, the facility receives a seven percent amusement tax on all tickets sold – Veterans Memorial continues to support itself by other means. The primary source of income is parking fees paid by the University of Mississippi Medical Center. Rental fees paid by the restaurants and businesses that have located on the 25 acres surrounding the stadium are another important funding source. In 2010 Marsh expects to be pushing hard for more off-season events and concerts – he has been in talks with top acts including Willie Nelson and The Eagles – and stresses the huge financial impact just one successful big name show could have. In terms of a long-term vision, however, the manager does admit it can be difficult.
“Right now we are basically at a break even situation,” Marsh said. “We are just taking it a year at a time and trying to keep the ship riding in the water. Once we get a feel for what the legislature wants to do and the kind of financial commitment they want to make to the stadium, we can go forward with more of a game plan.”
Regardless of the financial realities facing the stadium he runs, Marsh says he never looses sight of the historical currents which surround the place, nor the fact so many Jacksonians consider it an enduring symbol of their city.
“It’s a grand place,” says Marsh. “It is in an elite group of stadiums in this country that were built and named after the people who defended our right to even go to football games. They were built at a time when our country honored our veterans and I think that fact alone is very important to our history in Mississippi.”
By Andy Ross – Clarksdale Press Register –