The Construction of Memorial Stadium and Its Impact on College Life

Noah Lliteras, History 250: The Historian Craft

Delicious aromas of grilled meat filling the air, over intoxicated fans with face paint stumbling around parking lots, and kids anxiously awaiting their eventual entrance in to the stadium. These are just a few examples of characteristics that have become synonymous with a tradition that courses through American History. That tradition being college football. In a city like Lincoln Nebraska, where the highlight of the city skyline is the college football cathedral officially named Memorial Stadium, it is no secret that college football is the talk of the town. Having played over 1,300 games total, with over 800 wins, the Nebraska Cornhuskers and their historic stadium, are true bluebloods in the sport. [1] However, that was not always the case. With the construction of Memorial Stadium beginning in 1923, it signaled the ushering in of a new generation.[2] The roaring 20’s were not reserved to cities and those of high living, as the new boisterous and fun focused life also crept into college life. This paper will outline the construction of memorial stadium and its funding, the impact on student life both through football and outside of it, and the social identity shift it attributed to in the 1920s. Following the Great War a few years earlier, those in America sought to return to a sense of post war normalcy, and at UNL this included the idea of a new multi-purpose stadium, named honoring those lost in the war. [3]

As mentioned above, college football saw a jump in popularity in post war America. With more and more young adults going off for new lives at different colleges, the sports attached to those colleges continued to grow alongside them. For example, the 1920’s saw a jump in stadium capacity such as at Yale, where the capacity rose from 36,000 to roughly 70,000. [4] Realizing the advantage of a stadium, not only for football purposes but for alternate uses to the university, students began to work towards construction in 1919/1920. Committees were established to canvas the state and gauge donation interest from boosters and alumni. According to History Nebraska, “a faltering economy and resistance from some local editors, American Legion chapters and bank managers brought the campaign to a halt.” [5] Due to these snags, both administratively and financially, the construction of memorial stadium was shelved. Facing these obstacles, the Memorial Association reassessed their plans and made some adjustments. By removing the original plans for building a new coliseum alongside the stadium, and reducing the estimated funds required, the new plans were approved. [6]

With reinvigorated fundraising efforts, plans for Memorial Stadium became much more of a reality as long as donation expectations could be met. With plans in place, the University set benchmarks for donation expectations from groups such as students, staff/faculty, Lincoln residents, Omaha residents, and residents of the rest of the state. Asked to raise 90,000 dollars, the students reacted in full force and raised not only the 90,000 but also and additional 26,000 dollars. The staff also overachieved on their goal of 21,000 dollars, eventually reaching a total of almost 26,000 dollars. [7] With their goals, easily met the plans for Memorial Stadium were set to go. Now, in 1923 the business of college football was growing, but it was not the multi-million-dollar industry it is in today’s age. With that in mind, the University planned on using Memorial Stadium for much more than just football. According to a pamphlet used by those out seeking donations, the stadium would be used for football, intramural sports, track and field events, social fairs and events, and other student gatherings. [8] With construction on the new stadium beginning in 1923, the shift in the average life of college students became more apparent. Students began to see college life as more of a social opportunity alongside an opportunity at higher education. Coming on the coattail of World War One, more college aged males than ever before would be looking for an escape from the “real world” and the construction of the arena was as good a symbol for that as anything else.

In the modern age, a college education and high levels of learning have almost become an expectation. It has become almost impossible to build a longstanding career without higher levels of education, but it is easy to forget that this was not always the case. [9] According to the book The American College and the Culture of Aspiration, 1915-1940, in the first decade of the nineteen-hundreds, only about two out of every one hundred people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four attended a university. It wasn’t until the years between 1915 and 1940 did college attendance really jump.[10] It is no coincidence that collegiate sports, both as an activity and a business also saw their numbers skyrocket in those years as well. The increased attendance at these universities brought a passionate youthful exuberance to both the campus and their sports teams. Frank Leslie, a sports writer in the 1920’s wrote,

“And the reasons why football is so universally popular are: First, because it is played by those who love it for its spirit of genuine combat, for its atmosphere of excitement, and who follow its fortunes for honor and glory, not for financial reward or because they intend to make it their life work; second, because it is a game of skill, dash, spirit, played by youths with imagination, a sense of ethics and of moral responsibility which place them on a plane above the average professional athlete; and third, because the game is clean, because tricky playing is properly penalized, because practically every college man who ever trod a gridiron would sooner have lost his right arm than thrown a game.”[11]

This excerpt shows the mix of passion and dedication brought to campus both by young 18-year-old kids, but also war hardened veterans that upon returning from Europe sought a normal life. These interwar years (years between the first and second World Wars) are years of cultural and social shifts on campus. While before the First World War, Universities were able to get by with their lack luster curriculum and student body numbers, the push for change in the post war years would force these universities to change as well. [12] In that idea, Nebraska Universitywas no different.

According to the official website for the University of Nebraska Lincoln, the 1920’s were a time of massive growth in student body population size, infrastructure construction, and athletic growth. [13] The website, chronicling the history of the University goes on to say,

“City campus, on the other hand, developed in a variety of styles, experiencing rapid growth in the postwar years of the 1920s. This period brought such monumental structures as Social Sciences Hall, now home to the College of Business, and Morrill Hall, also known as the University of Nebraska State Museum. Millions of visitors have passed through its massive colonnades to view astonishing displays of prehistory, including the remarkable exhibition known as Elephant Hall. The 1920s also saw the continued rise of athletic excellence at the University of Nebraska with the construction of two large-scale sports complexes—Memorial Stadium and the Nebraska Coliseum.” [14]

Once again, this passage shows that the continued growth in popularity of athletics goes hand in hand with the growth in student population, the importance of education, and campus size.  As mentioned before, the construction of Memorial Stadium was based on the plan for the stadium to be used by far more than just football players. The growing and ever changing social culture on campus would also spill on to the field. When out petitioning for donations towards the stadium’s construction, students used an instructional handbook to have the best chance at securing donations. In this handbook, there is a paragraph targeted directly at the question “What will the stadium be used for?” Answering this question, the paragraph lists activities such as football and baseball games, University track meets, High School meets and tournaments, intramural activities, outdoor events, and pageants. [15] By including a multitude of other uses for the stadium, outside of football, the University acknowledged the changing college culture in the United States. No longer was school a place that only the few attended for strict academic purposes, rather it was a place for students to have fun, grow and experience new things, and really take advantage of living away from home. Nebraska U is a good microcosm for the shifting culture across the country, with college becoming more accessible. New students, seeking a change, ushered the changes that are now synonymous with university in the 1920s, and Nebraska U, along with other universities, being willing to open its mind and accept these changes, allowed a new era of education in the United States.

Though it comes as no surprise, Memorial stadium today is no longer two grand stands, with a track surrounding the field. In an article posted in the Lincoln Journal star, the timeline of changes to the stadium is included highlighting miles stones such as, April 1923: Groundbreaking Ceremonies, 1943: construction on north stadium expansion begins, 1964: south end zone expansion complete, 1967: press boxes completed. [16] With this article being from 1988 it didn’t include the further expansions that took place in the 1990’s, 2000’s and 2010’s that all accumulate to the beautiful Memorial Stadium we know and love today. Just as the construction of Memorial Stadium was a kind of microcosm of the 1920’s, the expansion of the stadium also is a good representation of the ever changing social, educational and political environment in the United States. In the end, all Memorial Stadium is, is just that, a stadium honoring the veterans of this great country. Standing tall and strong for over 90 years, it is a constant reminder of the ultimate sacrifice made, by brave soldiers, throughout the duration of its existence.

Gameday in Lincoln, Nebraska is a sight to behold. The raucous fan base, has shown up 90,000 strong, week in and week out to support the Huskers. Football is important to the state of Nebraska, and the importance of its roots in the 1920’s cannot be overlooked. It is clear to see, Memorial Stadium, a prominent feature in the skyline of Lincoln, serves not only as a lightning rod for sport fandom but also as a reminder of its role in shaping the university. By highlighting the process that was the construction of Memorial Stadium, the impact its construction had on the university itself, and how it all was intertwined with a shifting social change in the United States, this paper showed just how impactful the construction of the stadium was. Memorial Stadium was, is, and will continue to be vital to not only the university but to the entire state. Seven or Eight Saturdays out of the year, the old stadium gets to be used for its primary purpose, but fans will not soon forget the importance it has held in the development of the university, and its continued diversity in us for the public. Do not expect for the stadium to be gone anytime soon, and maybe, if we are lucky, it can continue to encourage, facilitate, and embrace growth in our university, our state, and our country.      


  1. 1. Omaha World-Herald. Husker Football History: 128 Seasons of Nebraska Football. Omaha. Omaha World Herald. 2018.
  2. The Daily Nebraskan. Nebraska Newspapers. Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 1923.
  3. We Will Build the Nebraska Stadium in 1923, 14 June 1923. RG 52-02-00, UNL Building and Grounds, Box 15. Archives and Special Collections, UNL Libraries
  4. Frank Leslie’s Weekly. Frank Leslie’s Weekly. Accessible Archives. 1920.
  5. The University of Nebraska Alumni Association. Invitation to Tour Europe: Memorial Stadium.The House That George Built. 10 May 1965. RG 52-02-00, UNL Building and Grounds, Box 15. Archives and Special Collections, UNL Libraries
  6. History Nebraska Blog. Memorial Stadium’s Roots in World War 1. Official Nebraska Government Website. 2014.’s-roots-world-war-i
  7. Nebraska University. The Cornhusker University of 1903. pg 407. 1923.,590#page/407/mode/transcription
  8. We Will Build the Nebraska Stadium in 1923, Salesman Handbook. 1923. RG 52-02-00, UNL Building and Grounds, Box 15. Archives and Special Collections, UNL Libraries
  9.  Levine, David. The American College and the Culture of Aspiration, 1915-1940. 13-22. Ithaca N.Y. Cornell University Press. 1986.
  10.  Levine, David. The American College and Culture of Aspiration, 1915-1940. 13-22
  11.  Frank Leslie’s Weekly. Frank Leslie’s Weekly.
  12.  Levine, David. The American College and Culture of Aspiration, 1915-1940. 13-22
  13.  University of Nebraska-Lincoln. History 1869-Present: The Early Century. Lincoln. 2018.
  14.  University of Nebraska-Lincoln. History 1869-Present: The Early Century.
  15.  We Will Build the Nebraska Stadium in 1923, 14 June 1923.
  16.  Lincoln Journal and Lincoln Star. A Look at the History of Memorial Stadium. 26 August 1988. RG 52-02-00, UNL Building and Grounds, Box 15. Archives and Special Collections, UNL Libraries


The Construction of Memorial Stadium and Its Impact on College Life