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Graying at the Temples

Coliseum, Rose Bowl showing their age, and NFL knows it

May 20, 2003|Mike Penner | Times Staff Writer

They are both octogenarians now, and cranky ones at that. On a street corner in downtown Los Angeles, one continually complains about all the friends and relatives who have bailed out over the years. Alongside some bench seats in Pasadena, the other prattles on about being the "granddaddy of them all" and, dad gum it, you whippersnappers, isn't that worth some respect?

The Coliseum turned 80 this month. The Rose Bowl is pushing 81. We mostly humor them now, nodding along as they try to convince everyone, including themselves, that each is just the place to house an NFL team, never mind the aging concrete, the outmoded architecture and the impudent upstart down the road in Carson.

The Coliseum and Rose Bowl both have representatives in Philadelphia today, preparing to make informal pitches to a league that abandoned the area in 1995 and is controlled by owners with the attention spans of sugar-addled 6-year-olds.

Show them shiny. Show them new. But two tradition-drenched buildings that not only predate John Madden and Thursday night football, but made their debuts in the early 1920s?

As the St. Louis Rams and Oakland (Again) Raiders and Houston Texans remind with every snap of the football, when it comes to this sort of thing, the NFL has a distinct edifice complex.

The Coliseum and the Rose Bowl have seen better days, lots of them, but just to pick one, how about 1959? Then, the Coliseum was home to Los Angeles' four biggest sporting passions -- USC and UCLA football, the Rams and the just-arrived-from-Brooklyn, soon-to-be-crowned-World-Series-champion Dodgers.

The Rams were to Los Angeles what the Lakers are now -- the city's glamour team, the first major league franchise to arrive on the West Coast. Owner Dan Reeves moved them from Cleveland in 1946, paving the way for the Dodgers' arrival in 1958, turning the Coliseum into the nation's largest big-league baseball park, with crowds of 90,000-plus cheering Wally Moon's fabled "Moon Shots" over the Coliseum's 251-foot left-field short porch.

At the same time, the Rose Bowl was flourishing as the preeminent temple of college football, with the University of Washington readying to end the Big Ten's six-year winning streak in the New Year's Day game.

Along with New York's Yankee Stadium, Soldier Field in Chicago, Boston's Fenway Park and few others, these were among the most important American sports facilities of the day. The Coliseum Commission knew it and flaunted it, publishing in 1959 a self-congratulatory volume that celebrated the greatness of the stadium's past while casting a starry-eyed glimpse toward the future:

"In the days to come there is no shadow on the horizon to check the career of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. ... The principle of supply and demand will govern, as it nearly always does. And athletics will continue to flourish, and will broaden their scope, as surely as the expanding population adds converts to their ranks."

This, of course, failed to consider the impact of Georgia Frontiere and Al Davis' someday being added to the ranks.

Another excerpt:

"It was written of Shakespeare, 'He was not of an age, but for all time.' This prophecy might well be argued for the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum."

Or maybe not.

The last two decades of the 20th century were hard ones for the Coliseum. In 1980-81, the stadium lost the Rams to Anaheim and UCLA to the Rose Bowl. In 1982, the Raiders came. In their 13 years in Los Angeles, the Raiders brought the Coliseum the fading luster of one Super Bowl championship -- and the everlasting "tough neighborhood" stigma that continues to scare the NFL into scouting the suburbs.

Today, the Coliseum is empty some 340 days a year. USC has remained faithful, its football team continuing as the stadium's lone regular tenant. Throw in 10 to 15 soccer matches, a few rock concerts and a special event or two and in a good year the Coliseum might have 25 paydays.

The Rose Bowl continues as the home of UCLA football and the annual Big Game, which is no longer quite as big as it once was, diminished to preliminary status three years out of every four by the bowl championship series. And, in an ominous development that could set a tone for the NFL meetings in Philadelphia, the Galaxy abandoned the Rose Bowl after last season and will play its first home game in its new Carson stadium on June 7.

Depending on which bid the NFL favors, the Coliseum or the Rose Bowl -- or both -- could soon be teetering on the brink of obsolescence.

"That could very well be the case," said Jim Hardy, former Coliseum general manager who played football in both stadiums as a quarterback for USC and the Rams during the 1940s and '50s.

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