New-old Harvard Stadium, a venerable football institution

Being there can be more than half the fun in college football, where environment is so important. Stadiums are a major part of the sport's feel, and often are remembered as vividly as the games themselves.

Perhaps no current structure is in more mental photo albums than Harvard Stadium, the site of this Saturday's tradition-steeped rivalry with Yale. The facility, which is separated from the main Cambridge, Mass. campus by the Charles River, was built in 1903 and thus ranks as the oldest football stadium in the country.

It's undergone a complete renovation, though, and grads who haven't been reading their alumni bulletins may sense something's different.

The stadium looks basically the same as it did 79 years ago, only now it's stronger than ever with new reinforced concrete throughout. The classic architecture has been retained with its Greek and Roman influences. About all that's missing is the ivy.

Before undertaking this $7 million project, Harvard looked at all the options , everything from a schedule of constant repairs to construction of a whole new stadium. This latter solution, of course, was pretty much out of the question. ''Leveling the stadium would have been like tearing down a church,'' says Jack Reardon, the school's athletic director. ''It's a real historic monument.''

Before college football swept the country, many of the great early teams and players pranced across the Harvard gridiron. By the time the Roaring Twenties began, the Crimson had won seven national championships and produced a dozen stars destined for hall of fame induction.

More than a backdrop, however, the stadium actually influenced the rules. The dimensions of Harvard's field, for example, became the national standard. They also led to the forward pass.

In 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt called for a revision of the rules after 19 fatalities. To save the game, a committee met in New York under the leadership of Yale's Walter Camp, ''the father of American football.'' Concerned with the trend toward brute force and mass attack, the group contemplated widening the field by 40 feet. Since Harvard Stadium couldn't accomodate such a change, the committee agreed to permit passing.

Perhaps the most famous passes ever completed in the Stadium occurred in the 1968 Harvard-Yale contest, when Harvard threw for a touchdown and two-point conversion as the season's final seconds ticked away. The plays gave the Crimson a 29-29 ''victory,'' so called because the home team scored 16 points in the last minute in this battle of Ivy League unbeatens.

Saturday's game doesn't stack up as quite such a showdown. Yale is uncharacteristi-cally out of the Ivy race, and Harvard, stung by last week's disputed loss to Pennsylvania, is in a position to grab only a share of the championship. This doesn't make the game any less appealing, because it traditionally sells out whether played in 37,000-seat Harvard Stadium or the 71, 000-seat Yale Bowl. For raccoon-coated alums, who congregate at class reunion tents or tailgate parties before the kickoff, this contest serves as a homecoming game.

Such large crowds are not the rule throughout the season. Today, Ivy League games don't draw the way they once did, and most schools are happy to sell 20, 000 tickets.

The last time Brown University needed to erect bleachers in the end zone was the early 1950s, when Princeton came to Providence, R. I., with halfback Dick Kazmaier of Heisman Trophy fame. Harvard, meanwhile, removed steel end zone seats in 1951 that once placed the stadium's capacity at 57,000.

The general attendance decline has been tied to many factors, including competition from big-time college telecasts and pro football.

One man who clearly remembers ''Ivy'' football in its heydey is William Gilbane. As a Brown running back in the 1930s, he had occasion to play in Harvard Stadium, which sits upstream from Boston. Today Gilbane owns the firm (Gilbane Construction Company) that did the Harvard renovations.

''The original structural joints at Harvard Stadium allowed water to penetrate the porous concrete and rust the steel,'' he said in outlining the problem. Today concrete is much stronger than ever before, so the renovated structure should last far longer.

Other schools have watched Harvard's project with great interest. Some, like Brown, plan to study the feasability of undertaking some sort of rehabbing.

Elsewhere in the Ivy League, Columbia has a brand new stadium on the drawing board. If the needed funds are received ($4 million have been contributed toward the $7 million total), wooden Baker Bowl will be demolished and construction begun on a double-crescent concrete structure, scheduled to open in 1984. And at Yale Bowl, maintenance crews little by little replace that facility's 18 miles of seats.

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