Duke University was created in December 1924, long before the woods were cleared for a new campus over a mile to the west of the original Durham site. An answer to the question, what facility was used first on the new West Campus, might well provide a surprising answer. The most publicized events are the opening of the hospital on July 1 and the beginning of the academic school year in September, 1930. However, the first use of any West Campus facility occurred nine months earlier on October 5, 1929 when the Blue Devils played the Pittsburgh Panthers in the new football stadium! Students and fans had to be bussed from the recently redesigned East Campus around the construction of the Gothic campus to the completed stadium for its dedicatory game. That such an impressive facility was available is truly remarkable considering Trinity College had reinstated football only in 1920 after a self imposed ban of twenty-four years. Despite a fitful start with seven different coaches in nine years the administration and athletic council were carefully planning for the future.
Athletics clearly were to be part of the new university. Even though the physical facilities were on the periphery of the campus the playing fields and gymnasium were to be "thoroughly in keeping with the beauty and dignity of the new Gothic campus." The gymnasium, soon named after the popular coach W. W. "Cap" Card, was of the same design, stone and trim as were the nearby Gothic buildings. The all purpose gym contained facilities for physical education, a swimming pool, and a basketball court. A distinctive stadium with seating for 35,000 and facilities for football and track and field was planned for an adjacent natural ravine. Once design was determined the impressive stadium was constructed in a remarkably brief time.
Stadium construction was outside the original monetary commitment to build the university. For financing, the athletic council issued certificates of indebtedness at 6% interest. Alumni and friends were urged to buy the bonds with one appeal being for "1,000 individuals to invest $100 in Duke's athletic future." Investors were told they could provide an outdoor stadium unique in the south with entrance from the top like those at the Universities of Pittsburgh, Washington and California. Unobstructed vision was guaranteed by curved seating with the bottom row elevated six feet and the top row forty feet above the playing field. The cinder track was a quarter-mile in length with two 220 yard straightaways.
The financial campaign was successful with alumni anxious to view the football teams that such a capacity stadium would attract with the customary sharing of the "gate" for visiting teams. Payment of all obligations was assured, despite the deepening economic depression, when one of the best known coaches in the country, Wallace Wade of the University of Alabama, expressed interest in Duke's athletic program. When asked to recommend a coach, Wade surprised the administration with his own interest in the position. He later confided that the leadership of the university, the opportunity to return to a private university and the offer to direct the total athletic program greatly appealed to him. Two home games with the powerful Pittsburgh program illustrate Wade's accomplishment. Before his arrival the inaugural game was an embarrassing 57 to 7 loss in front of a sparse crowd. In 1938 Wade's eighth team defeated Pittsburgh 7 to 0 in a snowstorm to preserve an undefeated, untied and unscored upon season and secure Duke's first Rose Bowl invitation. The second Rose Bowl acceptance with Duke hosting the game because of the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor in 1941 is an often told story. It is the only time in the history of the Rose Bowl that the game has been played away from California. Success gave rise to success. Income from the 1939 Rose Bowl appearance provided impetus to build a new gymnasium, Cameron Indoor Stadium. Again administrators clearly were planning for the future when the new basketball arena proved to be the largest south of Philadelphia.
Track and field events in the stadium have brought thrills and international renown to the university as well. In 1956, Dave Sime (right), perhaps the most electrifying of Duke athletes, was billed as the "World's Fastest Human." As a sophomore, Sime, an unheralded baseball player, burst on the track scene setting world records in a winter indoor meet in Washington, D. C. When he appeared outdoors at Duke in the spring, large crowds were not disappointed. In a single meet, Sime set the world record in the 220 low hurdles, tied the world record in the 220 yard dash, and missed the world record in the 100 yard dash by just 1/10 of a second. Continuing to compete while in medical school, Sime went on to hold seven world records and earn Olympic medals despite injury and a rigorous academic schedule.
Ever conscious of providing the best performing surface possible, the cinder track of Sime's day has been replaced and resurfaced numerous times. The football field even has been moved to permit the construction of an eight-lane Olympic size 400 meter oval track. With state of the art facilities and the expertise of track coach and respected administrator Al Buehler, Duke has hosted over half a dozen international track meets including the Pan African-USA Games and USA-USSR dual meets. In 1974, track and field reigned in Durham as 65,000 spectators attended the two day Soviet-American meet. Lyudmil Bragina broke her own world record in the 3,000 meter run acknowledging that the tremendous ovation of the crowd spurred her on. Additional major track events have been hosting the NCAA Division I Collegiate Championships in 1990 and a warm-up meet for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
Once during his tenure, President Few gratefully thanked the athletic department for being of "invaluable assistance in making and keeping Duke University a busy, happy, safe, and helpful place for youth." He might well have added for alumni and friends too. Duke Stadium, officially known as Wallace Wade Stadium since 1967, has played an appropriate role in campus life since 1929.
© 1993. William E. King, University Archivist, 1972-2002.
This article is reprinted from If Gargoyles Could Talk: Sketches of Duke University by William E. King. Carolina Academic Press, 1997.
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