by Matt Kupec
October 3, 2019
This past week I had the chance to visit Memorial Stadium on the University of Illinois campus for the first time. The Fighting Illini are not a power in the Big 10 and have not competed in many games of importance over the years but I have enjoyed seeing the occasional highlight from an Illini game on football TV shows.
When driving up to Memorial Stadium I was very impressive with the outside of the football stadium. Columns on the outer walls made me think of the Los Angeles Coliseum which is home to the USC Trojans. The inside of the stadium is somewhat of a different story with lots of concrete, field turf and a facility lacking in character. I do believe with some minor renovations it could be a pretty cool place to play. Ghosts of the late great Red Grange still run strong in the football environment.
Visiting Memorial Stadium made me think about the best football stadiums I have either been in as a player or a fan. Here is my top #10 list and the rationale behind my rankings:
. UCLA (Rose Bowl Stadium – 90,888 seating capacity)
I consider the Rose Bowl to be the best stadium in all of college football. I have seen three games there including the 2005 Texas win over USC to capture the national championship and 2009 National Championship games in which Texas fell to Alabama. I grew up loving to watch the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day when the major bowls still played their games on the same day to start the new year. I love the beautiful grass, the hills in the background, the circular stadium and history of the place.
#2. Notre Dame (Notre Dame Stadium – 77,662 seating capacity)
I grew up watching Notre Dame highlights on Sunday with Lindsay Nelson and Paul Horning providing commentary. Watching ND legends like Terry Hanratty, Jim Seymour and so many others filled my childhood dreams of being a football player. The gold helmets. The plain uniforms. No colors in the end zone but diagonal white stripes. And real and beautiful grass. The echo’s of Knute Rockne and Touchdown Jesus outside. A majestic place that, unfortunately, has been tainted by the installation of field tur. It is painful to watch ND on television these days. Shameful!
#3. University of North Carolina (Kenan Memorial Stadium – 51,000 seating capacity)
I first visited Kenan Stadium as a fourteen year 8th grader when my family dropped off my older brother Chris on the campus of UNC. Chris was an All-American HS QB and picked the Tar Heels from among his many suitors. I was immediately drawn to Kenan Stadium because of its beauty and setting nestled in the middle of campus surrounded by pine trees. Those feelings grew when I wound up being the four-year starting QB for the Heels in the late 1970’s. The Bell Tower overlooking the Stadium and the trees surrounding the stadium continue its beauty. However, like ND, UNC installed artificial turf this year to replace the beautiful natural grass. And the hedges were removed. Now, Kenan is all concrete and artificial turf. Helping me in my pain, though, is that my friend Mack Brown is the Head Coach again and he is the all-time best person as a coach I have ever met. UNC was smart to bring him home!
#4. University of Texas (Darrel K. Royal – Texas Memorial Stadium – 100.119 seating capacity)
Whereas I grew up a Notre Dame fan, brother Chris grew up rooting for the Texas Longhorns. But it wasn’t before Mack Brown became Head Coach at Texas that I attended my first game in Austin. Wow! What a great experience. I saw many great games in Texas as Coach Brown had an incredible ten-year year building Texas as one of the nation’s great powers. Texas loves its football and under Coach Brown the stadium underwent incredible expansion and improvement driving its capacity to over 100,000. When the “Eyes of Texas” plays, it is truly a goose- bump type of experience.
#5. Clemson University (Memorial Stadium – 81,500 seating capacity)
In a town of 28,000 Clemson has created a Saturday scene with its football team that is as good as any in the country. It starts with the Tiger paws painted on all roads leading into the town and the University. Then it continues to a game day experience that is unmatched. I had the privilege of playing at Clemson twice – in my freshman and junior years as UNC’s QB. What a great experience – the crowds were so loud that you couldn’t audible plays at the line of scrimmage. And the C-L-E-M-S-O-N cheer when each section of Memorial Stadium plays its part is truly incredible. This was my favorite stadium to play in by far!!
#6. Ohio State (Ohio Stadium – 102,344 seating capacity)
I grew up watching the great Ohio State Buckeye teams under legendary coach Woody Hayes. Despite the “three yards and a cloud of dust” offense, I admired players like QB Rex Kern and so many others. I loved the Ohio State Buckeyes uniforms, particularly the Buckeyes placed on the helmets for outstanding performance. I can’t imagine the pride the players felt when putting on the Ohio State uniform. Brother Chris and I had the chance to attend the Texas at Ohio State game in 2005 when #2 Texas beat #4 Ohio State 26-22 in a classic. Chris and I took in the game on the Texas sidelines. The crowd, the RV’s parked by the thousands in the parking lots, the tailgating, the band playing outside the stadium. And then the incredible roar when the band stormed the field before the game. And, of course, the dotting of the “I” when playing the fight song at halftime. What an incredible experience!
#7. U.S. Military Academy (Army) – (Michie Stadium – 38,000 seating capacity)
I played at Army during my senior year at UNC. We beat Army 31-0 in what was sort of a homecoming for me as I returned to my native state to play against Army. I even had a major story written about me in Long Island Newsday on Sunday. What an incredible setting. Michie Stadium overlooks the Hudson River. The pageantry of a game vs. the US Military Academy is unlike any other. The Cadets were awesome. During one timeout, I remember the Cadets swinging their coats in the air in unison as the fight song was played. One side note, on the plane into upstate NY (Westchester County), my UNC teammate Lawrence Taylor – yes, that Lawrence Taylor – looked out the window of the plane – and upon seeing trees on the ground, and knowing that I grew up on Long Island, yelled to me, “hey Matt, NY has trees! Yes, Lawrence, NY has a few trees its not all downtown NY City!!
#8. Auburn University (Jordan-Hare Stadium -87,451 seating capacity)
My experience with Auburn University football and its stadium is mostly limited to many, many games watching Auburn play from Jordan-Hare Stadium. The pageantry, the colors, the beauty and the quality of the football always made it feel big time. Well, when I was working at UNC, I had the chance to attend the Tennessee @ Auburn football game as a guest of Dave Bronczek, the CEO of FedEx. Dave had a son attend UNC and two daughters attend Auburn. He was a big supporter of Auburn. So, we flew into Auburn and had an awesome time at the game. The highlight for me was the cheers practice right before the game and the real Golden Eagle flying into the ceremony. So cool!
#9. University of Southern California (Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum – 78,467 seating capacity)
USC, like Ohio State and Notre Dame, is steep in tradition. Tailback U for a while! Great run of QB’s, including numerous Heisman Trophy winners. The great fight song, the school’s colors, the uniforms and the sound of Keith Jackson calling so many of their games! I traveled to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for a game years ago and was simply blown away by the experience. I love the columns of the Coliseum. I felt like I was in Rome watching an event from the Roman Coliseum. And I loved the sound of the band constantly playing when the Trojans were on defense.
#10. University of Alabama (Bryant-Denny Stadium – 101,821 seating capacity)
Like Auburn, most of my memories of Alabama football come from watching numerous games on the television. I think of Keith Jackson saying “AlaBama,” tear away jerseys worn by players like Johnny Musso, the simple but elegant uniforms, and the national championships. My direct experience with Bryant-Denny Stadium came when the University of Alabama was recruiting me to be Vice Chancellor for Advancement. I went to Tuscaloosa to meet with the President and senior administrators. On the morning of my interviews, I went for a jog on campus and was able to get into unlocked Bryant-Denny Stadium and take a job on the field. At one point, I imagined myself as a wide receiver and ran and out and up, caught the imaginary pass and raced into the end zone for the game winning touchdown against Auburn! The mind is a great thing! The experience at Bryant-Denny was overwhelming, even as I ran that imaginary pass pattern in front of over 100,000 fans!
About the Author
Matt Kupec is a fundraising professional with 32 years of significant higher education development experience. He has directed three major university fundraising campaigns and nearly $5 billion has been raised under his leadership. He has led the fundraising programs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Hofstra University, Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute and HelpMeSee, a New York City based non-profit. He is currently serving as Senior In-House Fundraising Counsel for Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.
Matt is a former record-breaking four year starting quarterback for the UNC Tar Heels. During his career he set 19 season and career passing records. Two of which still stand — most consecutive games with a TD pass and most wins as a starting QB. Matt also set the ACC record for TD passes his senior year at UNC. Matt was named MVP of the 1977 Liberty Bowl and the 1979 Gator Bowl becoming the 1st player in Atlantic Coast Conference history to be named MVP of two bowl games.