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John Harte / Special to The Californian

The Renegades take the field for the state championship against City College of San Francisco in December, before a crowd in excess of 16,000 fans.

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John Harte / Special to The Californian

Fans wait to re-enter Memorial Stadium during a game in 2011 after being asked to leave because of lightning. The stadium was the first building completed at the new BC campus in the 1950s.

It was the first structure completed when the new Bakersfield College campus was built in the mid-1950s. It is the focal point of BC athletics.

It is one-of-a-kind among community colleges.

It is Memorial Stadium.

Bakersfield College is celebrating its 100th anniversary, and Memorial Stadium has been the site of countless events and memories that have highlighted the Renegades' nearly century-long sports history.

"There is no other community college stadium as big as this one in the nation," said Bob Covey, who was the men's track and cross country coach at BC from 1963 until his retirement in 2005.

The double-decked, concrete and steel stadium was built for $1.161 million, according to BC's archives, which includes the cost of miscellaneous equipment needed when the stadium first opened.

There have been several tweaks to the original structure, which had an official capacity of approximately 16,500 permanent seats in 1955 but added seats to both sides of the stadium in 1961 to reach its current capacity of 19,468.

Temporary seating for certain events has led to more than 20,000 spectators several times.

On a Friday night, Sept. 23, 1955, the first game was played in Memorial Stadium. BC beat Pasadena 36-0 before 14,483 -- at the time the largest recorded crowd to watch a junior college athletic event in the nation.

An overwhelmed campus

The idea of building a stadium began in 1950 when momentum for a new Bakersfield College campus began to grow.

When BC formed in 1913, it shared its campus with Kern Union High School, which later became Bakersfield High. By 1950, the campus was overwhelmed by the sheer number of high school and junior college students.

In 1951, a 151.68-acres parcel was purchased at the current BC location for $94,850. In the fall of 1952, Kern County voters approved a $17 million bond issue to build a new BC campus.

According to the BC archives, the stadium groundbreaking, which coincided with that of the campus, was held on Nov. 12, 1953.

Tons of dirt had to be dug out and removed from the stadium site. The dirt was needed to prepare the rest of the proposed campus for construction, said Covey, who is preparing a book on the history of BC and has spent countless hours digging up information on the history of the campus and athletics.

J.B. "Cap" Haralson and Gil Bishop headed the stadium planning committee. Bishop was BC's first fulltime athletic director, serving from 1954-68, while Haralson was a coach and administrator for the Kern County Joint Union High School and Junior College District from 1924-66.

Covey said the stadium was modeled after Rice Stadium in Houston.

Theron Taber, who was the district's assistant superintendent, visited Houston and took a snapshot of Rice's stadium. Upon returning to Bakersfield, Taber urged Haralson to pattern the new stadium after Rice's facility. Haralson agreed and forwarded the photo to the stadium architects, Covey said.

Enthralled by the progress

The community keenly followed the stadium construction's progress.

"My brother sent me pictures of it as they were working on it when I was in the Air Force," said Harvel Pollard, who played on the 1955 BC team in the stadium's first season and later spent 27 years as a football assistant coach for the Renegades.

"When I got up there and saw it for the first time, that was huge," Pollard said. "The way it sits is very picturesque, they way you can look over the city of Bakersfield. It's very impressive."

Carl Bowser was a senior at Bakersfield High in 1955 when he played his first "official" game at Memorial Stadium when the Drillers faced East, which played its home games there.

Bowser played for the Renegades in 1956-57 and then coached football at BC from 1967-1994, the final 11 as head coach.

Bowser said he got a preview of the stadium before it officially opened.

"I'd go up there with some friends and watch it being built," Bowser said. "We'd take a football up there on a weekend, climb the fence and run around the field like we were scoring a touchdown.

"There were no guards up there at the time. We were awed by how big it was. It was like the (Los Angeles) Coliseum to us."

Pollard said some community members were miffed that the stadium was completed before any other campus structure, presumably feeling there was an over-emphasis on athletics.

"A lot of people said the stadium shouldn't have been that important. But they needed the dirt," Pollard said.

The night before the stadium's inaugural game, Pollard said fans were invited to the stadium to attend a walk-through practice where they could pick out their season ticket locations.

"About 10,000 people showed up for a practice," he said. "We said, 'my goodness. That's a lot of people.' "

"We were so proud of it," said Herb Loken, BC's athletic director from 1968-83 who joined the BC staff in 1956 as a gymnastics coach and instructor. "At times, people were negative about it, but once it started to prove itself, all of that talk went away.

"Think of what it would cost now to replace it. The problem is how to maintain the darn thing."

Like playing at Nebraska

Current BC head football coach Jeff Chudy played in Memorial Stadium for Taft College in the 1979 and 1981 Shrine Potato Bowls against BC. More than 16,000 attended those games, and more than 16,000 attended last December's state title game between the Renegades and City College of San Francisco.

"The way the stadium is designed, it can really be loud -- electrifying," Chudy said. "Ninety-nine percent of our guys won't ever play in front of as loud a crowd as that the rest of their lives."

Even opponents can find Memorial Stadium a special experience.

El Camino coach John Featherstone, whose squad lost 28-0 to BC on Oct. 12, played in the stadium for El Camino in 1967.

"What I always tell our team: It's like going to the Midwest and playing Nebraska," Featherstone said. "Everyone's wearing red. They're tailgating and getting excited for the game. When you walk into this stadium, it's a Division I stadium."

A facility under attack

The greatest threat to the stadium came in the late 1990s when BC authorized a study to evaluate structural concerns with Memorial Stadium.

AP Architects' report said salt erosion, which was unknown when the stadium was built, had contributed to the deterioration and added that modernizing the facility was essential.

"Over the years, the stadium has deteriorated to the point that if it was not restored, it would have to be removed," the report said.

Seismic retrofitting, concrete repairs, replacement of wooden seats with aluminum, concession and restroom upgrades and restoration were among the items covered in an $8.9 million refurbishment that was completed in 1999.

Currently, the track surface is in woeful shape and BC officials are considering replacing grass with field turf. Fundraising to bankroll those projects has begun, but those talks have quieted after many community members and potential donors were angered by the forced resignation of former athletic director Ryan Beckwith last summer.

The original crushed brick and clay track surface was replaced by all-weather Tartan Turf in 1971, so the stadium could continue to host high-level U.S. amateur meets.

The track is where it was at

From 1956-1974, six U.S. National Track and Field Championship meets were hosted at Memorial Stadium. U.S. national meets for women and girls were held three times and the decathlon nationals were held in 1970. The stadium hasn't hosted a meet of national and international status since the 1979 U.S. vs. Soviet Union juniors dual meet.

By the 1980s, the bidding process had changed for top-level U.S. amateur meets, and a $50,000 bidding fee was required, Covey said, adding that the Kern Community College District and Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce decided Bakersfield could no longer compete against larger metropolitan areas for those types of meets.

The Police Olympics have been held at Memorial Stadium and the fireworks festivity, which had annually been hosted at the stadium, returned last summer.

"We realize how lucky we are to have the community support and this great stadium we have here at Bakersfield College," Chudy said. "We will never take it for granted."