There’s something magical about it. Its horseshoe design, built into a natural ravine, echoes the classic Greek architecture of the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens. Its sandstone exterior matches the beauty of the surrounding campus. The east side stands are built up higher than the west side; offering spectacular views of the front range and the high Rockies. There are no bad seats, and the fans are closer to the playing field than almost any other football stadium in the world. Its size is intimate, yet it can produce deafening noise.
In Folsom’s First Century, you’ll learn the story of how this jewel of a stadium came to look, sound, and feel the way it does today. Every Week before a home game this season we’re going to look at a different stage of Folsom’s evolution, and also go through some of the defining moments that took place on the field. After the end of the regular season, we’re going to rank the 25 greatest moments of Folsom’s first century and discuss how the stadium should evolve in the future.
Chapter 1: 1924-1955 “Digging In”
On the long list of things I love about college football, its stadiums are near the top. Unlike their professional counterparts, which get demolished every generation and bear the names of faceless corporations, college stadiums get expanded, upgraded and preserved. Corporate naming rights are rare. Instead, these hallowed grounds are often named in honor of someone who was important to the university, or to remember fallen soldiers, or simply after the school itself. In a society where nothing seems to last, they endure.
This year, one of college football’s most picturesque venues will see its one-hundredth season of football. Through its story, you can trace the growth of a football program, a university, and an entire region. But in 1923, before its century of legendary players, iconic moments, heartbreaking defeats and thrilling victories, Folsom Field was just an empty ravine on the east side of CU’s campus.
One hundred years ago, college football was in the midst of a construction boom. As the sport reached new levels of popularity, wooden grandstands made way for massive concrete football cathedrals all across America; from Champaign and Columbus to Stanford and Berkeley. The Rose Bowl hosted its first eponymous game on January 1, 1923, and across town the 75,000-seat Coliseum opened its doors.
In Boulder, the University of Colorado football team (they would not be called the Buffaloes for another decade) was enjoying the greatest season in their history. The Silver & Gold went a perfect 9-0-0, and the 8,000-capacity Gamble Field, CU’s home for a quarter-century, proved too small to hold all the fans who wanted to watch the games. University officials decided a new stadium was needed, but they didn’t have the funds to build something as grandiose as the Coliseum (which cost nearly $1 million) or the Shoe ($1.7 million).
The ingenious solution they found was both expedient and economical, without sacrificing future flexibility. Instead of building upwards, CU dug in. The site, suggested by engineering professor Whitney Huntington, was a natural ravine next to the new gymnasium. CU law professor Fred Folsom (who just so happened to have been the greatest football coach in school history to that point) came up with a financing plan, and work began on the stadium in January of 1924.
After excavating over 110,000 cubic yards of earth, construction crews installed wooden bleachers on regularly spaced concrete supports in the horseshoe-shaped amphitheater. But why not pave the entire bowl? Besides the obvious financial reasons, engineers at the time said the recently excavated ground needed time to settle, which might cause concrete to crack if it was installed too soon. Concrete was the endgame, but wood was needed in order to have the stadium ready in time for the 1924 season.
Or, rather, almost in time. The Silver & Gold opened the 1924 campaign with one last game at Gamble Field before debuting in their new home on October 11 with a 39-0 drubbing of Regis University. And what a home it was! With a capacity of 26,740, it was the largest stadium anywhere between Nebraska and the West Coast, and the price tag was a mere $69,898
– a fraction of the cost of Lincoln’s Memorial Stadium, which held just 4,000 additional people at the time. It’s true that it lacked a grand concrete facade like some of its contemporaries. In fact, with all the seating below street level, it had no facade at all. But don’t be fooled by the low profile and wood bleachers – this was no temporary measure. You need look no further than the seating capacity, which was ten times CU’s 1924 enrollment, to know that Colorado Stadium was intended to be the home of the Silver & Gold for a long time.
The stadium was officially dedicated on homecoming weekend – November 1, 1924 – against rival Utah. Star CU quarterback Hatfield Chilson completed 13 out of 16 passes, but neither team was able to score until Colorado placekicker Earl Loser won the game with a late field goal. Three weeks later, CU wrapped up a second consecutive undefeated season with a 36-0 win over Colorado Agricultural (CSU) in front of more than 15,000 fans – nearly double the capacity of old Gamble Field. Zero points were scored against the Silver & Gold in 1924.
Despite some promising teams, CU was unable to duplicate the success of 1923 and 1924 over the following decade. They had several chances at a Rocky Mountain Conference title foiled by a red team from a neighboring state (Utah), who beat them nine consecutive times from 1925-1933. In 1934, the boys from Boulder became known as the Buffaloes, and their first game with the new name was homecoming against Utah on November 10, 1934. With a live buffalo on the sidelines, the Buffs defeated the then-Redskins in a 7-6 nail-biter en route to a share of their first conference title in a decade.
Colorado Stadium, which was by now beginning to be sometimes colloquially referred to as Norlin Field – despite the objections of the University President himself – remained unchanged in its first decade, but by 1935 it was entirely paid for, as per Folsom’s financing plan, and in 1936 it got a neighbor. CU’s fieldhouse (it didn’t acquire the Balch moniker until the 1970s) made for a picturesque addition to the west side of the stadium and became the first above-ground construction attached to it. It also appears in the background of one of the most famous photos of the greatest CU Buff of all time, Byron White, as he stood next to head coach Bunnie Oakes during the historic 1937 season.
That was the season that White led the Buffs to an undefeated record and their first major national attention. After his legendary performance against Utah in Salt Lake City was written up by major East Coast sportswriter Henry McLemore, the 6-0 Buffs entered the national rankings for the first time – landing at #16 in the AP Poll. The following week Colorado Stadium witnessed its first game ever involving a ranked team, as the Buffs and White used a third-quarter surge to topple Colorado College 35-6 in their final home game of the season. With an 8-0 record at season’s end, the Buffs were invited to play in the second annual Cotton Bowl in Dallas.
On November 11, 1944, Fred Folsom passed away. Two weeks later, Colorado Stadium was officially renamed Folsom Field in honor of the then-winningest coach in school history, who had also played a key role in getting it built two decades earlier. In the text of the dedication, the Board of Regents wrote that Folsom “has left high standards for us to attain.” Fittingly, the standards in Boulder were about to get raised.
Former CU sports information director Fred “The Count” Casotti wrote in his 1980 book The Golden Buffaloes that “World War II was the dividing line for college football throughout the nation. Quickly it would become a big business, highly subsidized and recruited. CU was ready to join.” What that meant was blowing up their traditional rivalries in the Mountain States Conference and moving to the more prestigious Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association (which, thankfully, we will refer to as the Big Six from here on out.) If the undefeated 1937 regular season could only get the Buffs to #17 in the nation, what hope did they have of reaching the top?
Athletic Director Harry Carlson started scheduling Big Six teams like Nebraska and Oklahoma in the 1930s with an eye towards the future, and CU was ultimately accepted into the conference in 1947. Carlson wasn’t content with being a regional power. He wanted to play with the big boys. Most were skeptical the Buffs could compete in their new conference, but they proved the skeptics wrong in their very first Big Seven home game. In front of Folsom Field’s first sellout crowd of 26,500, the Buffs defeated Nebraska 19-6 on October 9, 1948. It was also the first of many victories for new head coach Dallas Ward.
Ward’s first few seasons as coach were challenging as CU faced a steep learning curve in their new conference, but the 1950 team finished with a winning record and put a scare into #3 Oklahoma in front of a new Folsom record crowd of 29,500. In 1950, Folsom saw its first-ever upset of a ranked opponent, as the Buffs knocked off #20 Kansas 35-27, en route to finishing second in the Big Seven with a 5-1 conference record – the only loss was to Oklahoma.
For the 1952 season, Folsom got a new electronic scoreboard. In week two, it would display one of the most famous final scores in CU history to that point. With 30,732 fans crammed in like sardines, the Buffs fought #4 Oklahoma to a 21-21 draw. The craziest part is that CU should have won. Leading 21-14 in the fourth quarter, the home team pounced on an Oklahoma fumble deep in Sooner territory. But an ill-advised interception gave the ball back to OU, who went on a game-tying touchdown drive in the final minutes. What made this result so remarkable is that it was the only conference game between 1948 and 1958 that Oklahoma did not win.
After a 5-0 start to the 1954 season, the Buffs reached #11 in the AP Poll – a new program best. Temporary bleachers had to be constructed for the Nebraska and Oklahoma games, allowing record crowds of over 32,500 to attend each. The CU football program had outgrown its nest again. Now it was time to build upwards.
Folsom begins to resemble the stadium we know today with two different expansions as the Buffs reach new levels of national prominence.
“Folsom’s 25 Greatest Games” nominees from this chapter are:
- October 11, 1924 – the first game in stadium history. CU 39, Regis 0
- November 1, 1924 – the stadium’s official dedication as CU wins 3-0 over Utah
- November 10, 1934 – CU, in their first ever game as the Buffaloes, defeats Utah for the first time in 10 years, 7-6
- October 19, 1935 – CU back Kayo Lam rushes for 226 yards and 4 touchdowns on only 7 carries en route to leading the nation in rushing for the season. CU 58, Mines 0
- November 13, 1937 – final home game of undefeated 1937 regular season. First game ever as a ranked team. Byron White scores three touchdowns in the first ten minutes of the second half. #16 CU 35, Colorado College 6
- November 30, 1939 – in a battle for the conference title, CU comes back from a 10-0 deficit to beat Denver 27-17 in a rare Boulder edition of this rivalry, which was usually played on Thanksgiving in Denver until it ceased in 1947
- October 9, 1948 – CU 19, Nebraska 6 in the Buffs’ first-ever Big Seven home game
- October 6, 1951 – CU 35, #20 Kansas 27. The first-ever win over a ranked opponent
- September 27, 1952 – CU 21, #4 Oklahoma 21. The only blemish on Oklahoma’s conference record in an entire decade of football
- October 31, 1953 – CU comes back from a 14-point deficit to beat Iowa State 41-34
- November 20, 1954 – CU legend Carroll Hardy rushes for a national record 238 yards in his final college game. CU rushes for 493 yards as a team in a 38-14 romp over Kansas State