LOS ANGELES — Like some legendary but aging Hollywood actress who remains regal after all these years, she’s still there, still standing, taking her place as the grand dame of American venues. At the ripe old age of 93, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum is making a historic comeback of sorts in 2016, as the venerable stadium prepares to return to the ranks of the NFL as the temporary home of the relocated Los Angeles Rams.
Yes, the Rams are back, exactly 70 years after they moved to L.A. the first time, and there’s something undeniably retro cool about the fact that for three years they’ll be playing in the same building that housed one of the NFL’s most iconic franchises from 1946 to ’79. The Rams played at the Coliseum 34 years and remarkably have already been gone for the past 36—spending 15 years in Anaheim and 21 in St. Louis—but for me it’s the homecoming story within the story that promises to be one of the most intriguing sagas of the NFL’s 2016 season, turning every Rams home game into a Throwback Sunday.
Once upon a time, age and the lack of modern amenities conspired to end the Coliseum’s NFL ties, with the Rams heading south for Anaheim Stadium in time for the 1980 season and the Raiders leaving to return to Oakland 15 years later. But now the Coliseum’s decades-long pro football story has come full circle. Now, ironically enough, the Coliseum’s history with the Rams is its ally and biggest selling point, with Todd Gurley, Aaron Donald and Tavon Austin about to take the same field where the likes of Roman Gabriel, Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen so famously made their NFL marks.
Naturally all the focus, attention and excitement thus far has been about the sprawling new $2.6 billion stadium complex that will become the Rams’ home in Inglewood starting in 2019, in all its Disney-esque state-of-the-artness. Rams owner Stan Kroenke’s one-of-a-kind football palace is going to be shiny and pristine, and the venue will encompass almost 300 acres once the surrounding multi-use complex is fully developed.
But first, before the Rams make that bold leap forward, there’s this nostalgic back-to-the-future spin move they’re executing in returning to their past, the scene of so much former franchise glory. After a long interlude in St. Louis, the Rams really are going home. In a historic way.
“That’s what separates this place from every place else out there,” says University of Southern California VP/Coliseum COO Dan Stimmler, on one of those rare perfectly clear L.A. mornings last month. “I mean, find a venue that’s had two Summer Olympics, three AFL/NFL teams, the first Super Bowl, the World Series, two traditional collegiate superpowers like USC and UCLA, the baseball all-star game, and on and on. And now the Rams are back. When you scan through our timeline, you’ll just shake your head.”
Rams guard Tom Mack played all 13 seasons of his Hall of Fame career (1966–78) as an L.A. Ram, with the Coliseum as his home stadium for each of them. The Rams during that span endured just one losing season, winning eight division titles and becoming a perennial powerhouse in the NFC West. For Mack, the franchise’s return to Los Angeles is made even sweeter by its short-term return to the majestic expanse of the 93,607-seat Coliseum, where so many of his football memories were made.
“That stadium per se hasn’t changed in 40 or 50 years,” said Mack, 72, who lives in Nevada. “L.A. fans are going to respond to seeing the Rams back in the Coliseum, very much so. People over the years have all longingly said, ‘Boy, I wish the Rams would come back.’ If the Rams can put a good product on the field, and they’ve got a very young team, the people out there will love it. They’re going to move to that spectacular new stadium, but first we’re going to look forward to seeing the Rams in the Coliseum.”
The irony is unmistakable. The Rams forsook the Coliseum for Anaheim Stadium in 1980 because the stadium was considered antiquated and lacked modern fan creature comforts such as luxury boxes and private suites—with their accompanying revenue streams. A different version of the same story was told when the Rams left St. Louis earlier this year, pointing to the Edward Jones Dome as an antiquated and insufficient NFL venue by current standards.
But now the Rams will play back in the Coliseum for three years, with its shortcomings downplayed in favor of its historic and nostalgic value. A major three-year $270 million renovation of the Coliseum has been scheduled by USC, which now holds a 98-year lease on the building, but work won’t begin until 2018, the Rams’ final season of occupancy. So the Coliseum will actually be closer to NFL standards only after the Rams move to Inglewood.
But the short-term blast-from-the-past approach works for the team, says Rams COO Kevin Demoff, because of what lies ahead in 2019. And that reality casts the team’s return to the Coliseum in a whole new light.
“There’s a number of intangibles, from the nostalgia, to the familiar location, that will help people look past what it isn’t,” Demoff says. “They know this is a means to an end. I think the league was always scared a team would come back and someone would have to play in the Coliseum indefinitely, and they wouldn’t know what the future looks like. But we don’t have that problem.
“That’s why this is different. This is you’re going to have a building coming up from the ground and people will be able to track that. This was the home of the Rams for a very long time, so people have a nostalgic connection to that, and they’re just excited to have live football in L.A. People have very visceral memories of watching the Rams there. And when you get to the core of why this is so different, this isn’t the Houston Oilers moving to the Liberty Bowl [in Memphis, for one year in 1997] or the Vikings playing in TCF Bank Stadium [on the University of Minnesota campus] the past two years. For fans in L.A., it’s, ‘Hey, this is where I always watched the Rams.’ ”
It’s where Jeff Fisher, the current coach of the Rams and a Los Angeles area native, first watched them as a nine-year-old, taking in a 1967 Rams-Eagles game with his dad at the Coliseum. For Fisher, 58, who went on to star at defensive back at USC from 1977 to ’80, the Rams’ homecoming is his own homecoming.
“I remember walking through the tunnel and just being overwhelmed by the vastness of the stadium,” Fisher said Monday night by phone. “I was this small person in this big, big arena, and it’s one of those experiences you remember for a lifetime. For me growing up, that was my team. And now to have an opportunity to reach back and connect with those Rams teams, and include them in what is our future, especially the next three years at the Coliseum, it’s really special to me.
“That stadium is 93 years old, and to think back to the Olympics and all the great games that were played there and everything that has taken place in that facility, it’s just classic, totally classic.”
Getting the old place ready for its close-up
Roll these numbers around in your head for context: When the Coliseum opened in 1923, the NFL was a mere three years old. When the Rams left for Anaheim after the 1979 season, only six current NFL stadiums were even open: Green Bay, San Diego, Oakland, Buffalo, Kansas City and New Orleans. Of those, Green Bay’s Lambeau Field is the oldest, having debuted in a far different incarnation in 1957, some 34 years after the Coliseum debuted.
Visit the Coliseum for even an hour, as I did, and you quickly realize how much the place reeks of history. The Rams, Raiders and first-year AFL Chargers, of course, all played here, as did the Dodgers, who were shoehorned in from 1958 to ’61. Don Shula’s 17–0 Dolphins capped their perfect season here in Super Bowl VII. And there’s so much more, even beyond the 1984 Olympics that remain fresh in memory. John F. Kennedy gave his 1960 Democratic National Convention acceptance speech here. Nelson Mandela addressed thousands from the stage, Pope John Paul conducted a mass, Charles Lindberg barnstormed through and Billy Graham preached to a stadium record crowd of 134,254 in September 1963. Jack Dempsey boxed here, the Globetrotters entertained as only they can, and even Evel Knievel did his daredevil thing here in 1973. And most memorably, in the venue’s signature event, the 1932 Summer Olympics helped put Los Angeles on the map.
On the February day I toured the Coliseum, a little more than a month after the Rams got the go-ahead from the NFL to move back to Los Angeles, the league’s newest/oldest stadium was in fine form, with the abundant sunshine bringing out the beauty of the iconic arched Peristyle at the building’s east end, and the field looking as if it had never been played on. But of course, there’s work to be done before the NFL fully returns this late summer and fall, and I kept trying to ascertain whether this cherished national historic landmark will be fully ready for its latest close-up.
The Coliseum will more than double its football schedule in 2016, adding nine Rams games (two preseason and seven in the regular season; L.A. has agreed to play an international game in each of the three seasons they’re at the Coliseum) to the six or seven that USC annually plays there. While the NFL hasn’t announced its 2016 schedule yet, both the league and USC will be making their best effort to avoid the Rams and Trojans playing home games on back-to-back days, though such a tight turnaround schedule is possible at the Coliseum, officials say. Things will get exponentially more complicated if the Chargers or Raiders are indeed a co-tenant with the Rams in 2017, but for now getting ready for the 2016 Rams is the sole focus of the ongoing work at the stadium.
“We don’t anticipate the game day operations to be all that different than what we do for a USC game,” Stimmler said. “Probably the biggest change is going to be in the behavior and culture of the fan, because our fan has this whole ritual of being on USC’s campus, where they’ve been coming to games for 20 years. NFL fans are a little bit different, they won’t have that cultural ritual here. Will they come five or six hours before and tailgate? Will they be going to restaurants downtown? But really there aren’t but about 10 things we’re working on together with the Rams, to get things up to NFL specifications.”
Among those issues include the installation of metal detectors, because NFL security procedures now demand them, whereas the NCAA does not; figuring out how to have alcohol sales in the bowl seating areas, which aren’t allowed during college games; how to best create gameday corporate hospitality centers without the existence of suites; the installation of new higher-tech lighting towers in time for the NFL’s preseason; and a complete down-in-the-weeds review of how the stadium will handle everything from the different camera positions that the league’s TV partners require to the capability of the systems that operate such essentials such as coaches’ communication, the wiring for instant replay and the strength of the Wifi signal. No change to the Coliseum playing surface is planned, unless a second NFL team should become a tenant in 2017, which would force a temporary move to an artificial field.
“A lot of it is the very behind-the-scenes stuff of how NFL games get played,” Demoff said. “How do you get tablets and things like that functioning? There’s figuring out a security perimeter. Making sure the coach-to-quarterback communications will work. The visitor’s locker room needs to be improved. Will we use SC’s locker room or build or own? This is a very old building, and there are things it doesn’t have. We’ll try to do things that work for both us and SC, but will we do some things temporarily for us? That’s what we’re deciding now.”
The visitor’s locker room offers a classic bit of Coliseum lore. It was last renovated in 1994 after the Northridge earthquake did damage to the stadium’s infrastructure, and the Raiders were then the NFL tenant. Raiders owner Al Davis, never shy when it came to a little skullduggery designed to get in an opponent’s head, personally handled the design of the visitor’s locker room, with predictable results.
The locker room is cramped and confusing, configured with a series of rows of lockers, much like a library layout, with no open spaces for coaches or players to gather and talk face to face. An “Al Davis special,” in other words.
“As the story goes, they’re laying it out and modernizing and renovating the locker room, and they kept saying to Al, ‘This is kind of small, and a little cramped,’ ” Coliseum general manager Joe Furin said. “And Al said, ‘That’s the way I want it!’ You can’t even have positional meetings in there. A coach can’t stand anywhere and talk to all of his players. They have to spread out and into the hallways and things like that, so we’re going to have to come up with some creative solutions for that. We might have to blow out a wall and create more cubes.”
‘Atmosphere will trump amenities’
After the ebb and flow of this city’s long 21-year hiatus from the NFL, it still feels a little surreal to even realize the Rams are back in Los Angeles. You won’t see a bunch of signage that screams “The Rams have returned!” at the stately old Coliseum, and they won’t be bathing the place in a version of Rams blue and gold on game days. This is still primarily the home of the USC Trojans, and you’ll have to wait for Inglewood for that kind of display, Rams fans. So far, all that has really announced the team’s presence has been the Coliseum freeway sign along the 110, which displayed a “Welcome Home Rams” message for a while after the team moved.
But the anticipation for the Rams being back in the old neighborhood is building, and the Rams have those well-publicized 56,000 deposits of $100 for the right to buy as many as eight season tickets to prove it. If everyone takes them up on that offer to the max, the Coliseum will have a seating problem on its hands that makes Jerry Jones’s Super Bowl fiasco in Dallas look minor-league by comparison. The Rams had been targeting a “capacity” crowd in the mid-to-high 60,000s, but that now might wind up in the low 70s due to demand. And while many of the seats in the east bowl feature what are considered to be bad sight lines, given how far they are from the field, the Rams could for big games put all 93,000 seats on sale, a la Jones in his massive AT&T Stadium. (USC’s renovation plans will drop the seating capacity to about 77,000-plus, partially impacting only the Rams’ third and final season there).
“The sheer capacity given the ticket demand is actually a really good thing,” Demoff said. “To have a building that can credibly host 70,000-80,000 is a big deal for us. There are a lot of seats that just aren’t good seats, but like for the first game back, could you use them? Could you pack them in and do that? Yes.”
Here’s an educated guess: The Rams returning to the NFL and the Coliseum with a nationally televised game against Dallas in their preseason opener, given the Cowboys hold training camp just up the road in Oxnard and still have a tremendous following in Southern California. Can you say “the makings of an overflow crowd”?
“That would make for a pretty compelling game,” said Stimmler, smiling all the while. “I think you could have a sold out game for the first preseason game.”
Will the novelty of the Rams’ triumphant return to the Coliseum wear off quickly if they don’t give the L.A. market a winning product? After all, the Rams haven’t made the playoffs since 2004 and haven’t had a winning season since 2003. When Tom Mack played in the Coliseum, those star-powered Rams often drew at or near capacity crowds and actually compiled the NFL’s best regular-season record during his 13 years in L.A.
“It was a nice place to play,” Mack recalled. “I remember when I first went out there, in 1966, the Rams were a last-place team and had had seven losing seasons in a row. Early on in my rookie year, the place was half full. But by the end of the year, we ended up with a winning record, and then the next year we went 11-2-1 and we were getting 90,000 people coming to the game. It was very exciting and very emotional.”
Agent Leigh Steinberg, 66, is a longtime SoCal resident and in the mid-90s was the chairman of the ill-fated “Save our Rams” committee, which did not quite get the job done. While against franchise relocation in general, he’s convinced Los Angeles will quickly re-embrace the Rams and their historic temporary home.
“I am thrilled the Rams are back, and it’s why I fell in love with football back in the ’50s, going to the Coliseum,” Steinberg said last month from his office in Newport Beach. “What the Coliseum won’t have is luxury boxes or signage in any viable way, but what it does have is a ton of atmosphere and reasonable sight-lines. And for three years at least, atmosphere will trump amenities in today’s NFL.
“Nothing is more popular than a home team, but what they are going to need are stars. This is a star city. They could probably use a big, good-looking quarterback [Steinberg laughs at this point because he represents six-foot-seven Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch in this year’s draft]. But I think they’re going to be a big hit, I really do. The Rams have enough of a solid foundation of people who rooted for them back when and have sustained until now. You have 18 million people living around here. You could turn up 70,000 people for 10 concert dates to watch fleas skip along.”
Interestingly the 2016 season will be the Rams’ 50th season in the Los Angeles market, a golden anniversary, giving the franchise even a little more to celebrate after their 49-season stay from 1946 to ’94. But keeping with the turn-back-the-clock theme, many L.A. fans seem hopeful that the team will return to its brighter retro shade of blue and gold in the uniforms from its L.A. era, or even the blue and white combination of the ’60s and early ’70s, rather than the St. Louis-style blue and gold.
Mack is among them, believing that the franchise has cast itself in a whole new light with the relocation to Los Angeles, so why not celebrate the link to the past that the Rams are now conjuring up with their return to the Coliseum?
“There’s an awful lot of people that remember the Rams there, and I think it’d be extremely smart if the Rams showed up in their old blue and gold instead of the dark blue and copper gold,” Mack said. “Did you ever hear the history of why we were wearing blue and white at one point? The Rams were a blue and gold team when they came from Cleveland in 1946, and they stayed blue and gold until 1958.
“But they finally went to blue and white because most of the people had black and white TVs back then, and blue and gold didn’t look good on black and white TV. So they went to the blue and white, and when Carroll Rosenbloom bought the team and took over in ’72, they went back to the blue and gold because by then everybody had color TVs. So all of a sudden, blue and gold was back in style.”
Just like the Rams, now that they have returned to the storied Los Angeles Coliseum. No matter what happens in the final nine-plus months of 2016, it’s the slam-dunk winner for comeback of the year in the NFL.