The Corners are Full
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com
TSL Extra, Issue #20

Recently, I paid a visit to Lane Stadium and went inside to admire the new South end zone expansion. I entered via an always-open gate at the North end of the stadium, and I went up to the top row of the North end zone bleachers to stare across at the South end zone.

A trip into Lane Stadium these days is a surreal experience. To borrow a phrase from the Marketing group at now-defunct Oldsmobile, this is not your father's Lane Stadium. In the span of just a few years, those gaping holes that used to exist at the North and South ends of the stadium have been replaced with approximately 16,000 new seats.

About 5500 of those new seats are in the North end zone, in the form of all-business metal bleachers that exist for one purpose only: to pack as many rowdy Hokie fans into a small area as possible. No luxury suites here, no concession stands, and no wooden seating surfaces; just raw, cold, loud-if-you-stomp-your-feet sheet metal.

The North end zone gets a bad rap for being ugly, short-sighted, and an ill-fitting tack-on to Tech's beloved Lane Stadium. To heck with that -- I like it. It looks small when compared to the rest of the stadium, but if you visit Lane Stadium and go into the North end zone section, you quickly realize that it's not small. A lot of people sit there. Pretty? No. Functional? Yes. I vote we keep it, although I would like to see Tech one day dress up its bare metal underside a little. It is a bit of an eyesore right now from its backside.

And then there's that South end zone structure.

Anyone who has seen it in person will tell you that pictures do not do it justice, and that is correct. To drive or walk right up to it and peer from the ground all the way up to the top is to understand that it is a massive structure. It has to be. It seats more people than Cassell Coliseum. Not only that, but it's got a bunch of other stuff in it: restrooms, an indoor stadium club, concession stands, elevators, locker rooms, media rooms, and an assortment of other functional areas.

A moment's thought brings up an obvious point: the North and South end zone structures are as different in character as Stalin and Ghandi. On one hand, the North end zone is almost a stop-gap measure designed to put fans in the stadium and do nothing else. It cost about $2 million, and the video scoreboard that rises up behind and above it costs about $1 million more.

The South end zone, on the other hand, represents everything that's right and wrong with college football. It's a monolithic monster that not only puts fans in the stadium but caters to a select few with enough money to enjoy its luxury suites. It generates revenue not just from ticket sales, but from those luxury suites and annual gifts required to sit in some of its seats and enjoy its stadium club privileges. It cost $34 million to build.

But together, those two disparate constructs make Lane Stadium what it has never been before: a four-sided noise factory. Sure, in the past, there have been North and South end zone bleachers at the same time, but never have Hokie fans so surrounded the opposition. There's nowhere left for the sound to go now, and everywhere you look, there will be thousands of Hokie fans bearing down on the field, cheering Tech on. It's going to be a sight to behold, and the other day, when I visited the stadium, it gave me a sense of awe, even while completely empty.

I'm excited to see what the LSU game will be like. I'm pleased that after all these years, Virginia Tech can offer its fans a stadium that is truly grand and all-encompassing, not just a couple of big concrete bleachers staring across the field at each other.

But still, I find myself looking back, back in the day….

An Ever-Changing World

I have an interesting capacity for nostalgia and for remembering the past in a positive fashion, no matter what the reality was. It's a personality trait. I don’t necessarily pooh-pooh everything new, but I do fondly recall "the old stuff."

When I was a student, for example, you could stand at the entrance to Virginia Tech's "Mall" and gaze down its two long lanes of pavement, all the way to the War Memorial. These days, the huge expanse of Torgersen Hall spans the Mall, arching over it from what used to be a grassy hillside over to Newman Library.

I think Torgersen Hall is a beautiful, impressive structure, one to be proud of. But still, I miss the days when you could see clearly from one end of VT's Mall all the way to the other. Today's students have no idea what that's like.

I'm always struck by man's capacity to shape the world around him into something different, something permanent. Something exists a certain way for years, perhaps decades or even centuries, until someone with influence comes along and gathers money, an architect, and a construction company and changes the landscape … forever.

So it is with Lane Stadium. Pretty soon, we'll become used to seeing that huge South end zone structure, and it will be difficult to remember what it was like back when that space was occupied by bleachers, trees, grass, and open air. At this point, I can still see in my mind's eye how that South end zone used to look, in much the same way that I can picture the Mall before Torgersen Hall swallowed it. In my mind's eye, I can see 1600 fans in those tiny bleachers down there, as I saw them for years from my seats in section 13.

I can also remember what it was like to be able to watch the game from the North end zone, pre-bleachers, as I walked from Lane Stadium's northwest gate over to the East stands. Many was the time I arrived late for a game and managed to see a couple of plays as I walked across the large, grassy expanse behind the North end zone, on my way from the West side over to the East side. Try that now, and your view will be blocked by those new bleachers, and you're likely to walk into a steel girder.

But the advancements have their advantages. During the 2000 WVU game, I went over to the West side during half time and was late getting back to my East stand seats. As I walked behind the North end zone bleachers, Michael Vick hit Bob Slowikowski for a 72-yard catch-and-run TD pass.

I didn't see the play live, but as I walked under the Jumbotron video scoreboard, I stopped, craned my neck, and managed to watch a replay of it, albeit from a difficult angle. You couldn't do that "back in the day," folks. It saved me from having ask that silly, "What happened?" question when I got back to my seat.

Empty Corners

As Virginia Tech football gets bigger and bigger and more and more prominent, becoming more business-like all the time, I am reminded of a time when the atmosphere in Lane Stadium was a bit more casual, and elbow room was plentiful.

I have a couple of pictures I took from the North end zone grass in 1991, just before the Cincinnati game that year (a game that Tech won 56-9). I leaned out over the railing above the tunnel the players run out of, pointed my camera straight down, and snapped a picture of Coach Beamer waiting at the entrance of the tunnel with his players. You can see Damien Russell, Jon Jeffries, Eugene Chung and others in the picture.

The second picture is taken as the players are running out of the tunnel onto the field. The thing that strikes me about this picture is that you can see the East stands in the background, and the corners are completely devoid of fans, all the way down to the front row. Empty seats.

I looked it up, and there were just 36,312 fans at that game. And here's the killer: that game was Tech's first home game after being away from Lane Stadium for five straight games. Tech hadn't played at home for 49 straight days, and just 36,312 fans came to see them.

I have a third picture from that game of a few … shall we say … weary students sleeping in the stands during that game. They're laid out flat on Tech's bench seats, taking up as much room as they please, trying to sleep off the night before. And they've got plenty of leg and elbow room, with empty seats all around.

Just five years before that, in the 1986 season, the Hokies ended the year with a home game against Vanderbilt. At that point in time, Tech was in the final stages of driving towards a Peach Bowl birth, and they were the owners of surprising 7-2-1 record. Tech kicker Chris Kinzer was having an All-American caliber year, at one point having made 17 straight field goals, and in Tech's prior home game two weeks earlier, he had hit a 49-yarder in the rain with one second to go to give Tech a 17-15 win.

It was one of Tech's most exciting football seasons ever, and a win in the season home finale against Vandy would put the Hokies into a bowl game. And a mere 27,300 people came to that game.

That's not a misprint.

Oh, and that Kentucky game I spoke of, two weeks before? 30,300 fans.

Times are changing, folks. The days when a bowl-bound Tech team could barely draw flies (27,300? Give me a break!) are long gone. To give you some perspective, the Hokies' season-opening affair with Arkansas State this year will probably draw more fans than 1986's Kentucky and Vanderbilt games combined.

One more note about that Kentucky game: it's not like I have room to talk. I heard Kinzer's game-winning kick on my car radio. I was on my way to Williamsburg to attend a dance with a girlfriend of mine who went to William and Mary. What was I thinking? I've straightened out since then; ten years later, in October of 1996, I took a 6-day honeymoon, instead of a full week, so I could get back early and see the Pittsburgh game.

Like I said, times are changing.

Close Your Eyes

This article is rapidly becoming a writer's downfall: it's a story without a point. And you may be asking yourself what I'm driving at here.

To be honest, I'm not sure. But as Virginia Tech football grows, and Lane Stadium is expanded with more seats, and more fans pack themselves in, there's a tiny little part of me that, believe it or not, wouldn't mind going back to that sunny October day in 1991 when the Hokies smashed Cincinnati 56-9.

Just to see what a crowd of 36,312 looks like. To move through the stands unencumbered. To stand in short concession lines, and even shorter bathroom lines. But mostly, to look around myself and realize that it wasn't always going to be like that, playing uninteresting games in front of small crowds.

I remember when I was younger, in the 1980's and through the early 1990's, I used to always try to gauge the size of a Tech football crowd by looking up to the corners of the East stands to see how empty they were. When they were barren of fans, and I knew the crowd was only 40,000 people, tops, it used to frustrate me. I used to wonder why more people didn't come to the games. If only more people would show up, maybe Tech would win more, and the games would be more exciting.

So why would I want to go back and see one of those games, one of those Cincinnati-type games with only about 35,000 people in the stands? Because this time, I would be able to look at those empty corners and smile, knowing that a brighter future for Tech football was, well, just around the corner. It's no big deal, I'd tell myself, just enjoy the leg room and the fact that when the kid with the sodas reaches your row, he'll still have some drinks left in his tray, not like these days, when he barely makes it out of the tunnel before he's sold out.

These thoughts have helped me deal with the struggles the men's basketball team is facing right now. I go to games, and sometimes there are only about 3,000 people there, but instead of letting it bother me, I remind myself to enjoy it, because there are plenty of great seats, and everyone who is there with me is there because they love Tech basketball, not because they have hitched their wagon to a winner.

I can prop my feet up on the seat in front of me without kicking someone in the head, and I can stuff my coat into the empty seat next to me. When I go to get a hot dog and a drink, I don't have to wait very long in line. And in the last few years, I'll bet I've sat in the front row at least ten times, a feat I could never pull off back in the 80's, when the Hokies were a nationally-ranked team.

Tech's not very good in basketball right now, but they will be again some day, and then Cassell will be crowded again, and I'll find myself missing, in an odd way, the "old days" when it wasn't so hard to leave my seat to go to the bathroom, and I had a place to put my coat.

But I digress. If you're looking for a point to this article, I guess that's it: don't forget to enjoy the ride. I know there's a lot you want to happen for Tech football. You want the big games against teams like LSU in Lane Stadium, you want a win over a top-ranked team, you want another undefeated season, you want a national championship. That's all fine and good. It's the striving for achievement that has pushed the Hokies to the heights they have reached, though they can certainly go higher.

But while you're looking at that target in the distance, don't forget to see what's going on around you. Because it's always good, and it's always fun, even if it isn't exactly what you want.

And before you make your next trip to Blacksburg and that 64,000-seat stadium, close your eyes and remember what it looked like before, without the South end zone expansion, and the luxury boxes, and the chair-backed bleacher seats. Because once you get used to the new-look Lane Stadium, you'll forget what the old one looked like.

And that would be too bad, because some great things happened in the old Lane Stadium, too. Don't forget that, now that the corners are full.

 

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