(Disclaimer: I am writing about football press boxes here, at Louisiana Tech. It is, in regard to the severe flooding in South Louisiana, a frivolous topic. Our hearts and prayers are with the people of this storm-stricken state. I live in Texas, but Louisiana is my home state, so I care.)
Those of us who have occupied football press boxes, and even did a little work in them, and those of us with Louisiana Tech University ties took note of last week's announcement with interest.
Tech people are planning a new $16.7 million press box/guest suite facility atop Joe Aillet Stadium. It is going to be an impressive sight.
It's about time.
Not that we didn't appreciate the press box that opened when the stadium did in 1968. Those of us who worked in the old -- really old -- press box at what was Tech Stadium about a half-mile away really appreciated it.
(There aren't many of us left that remember that old Tech Stadium press box. That one had only about 18 seats, and usually was really crowded. More on that in a moment.)
We were excited when the new stadium -- a dream of coach-athletic director Joe Aillet for years -- was being built (while I was a student at Tech, starting in fall 1965).
The press box, as it was being built, looked appealing. We looked forward to working there; in my case, as the Tech statistician during games, and then later covering games as a sportswriter.
But, dang, that box was cramped and crowded and a bit dysfunctional from the start. It was -- and if I'm offending the construction company, sorry -- poorly designed.
It was outdated from the start. It needed a redesign -- in 1968. (I'll return to this, too, in a few paragraphs.)
Don't get the wrong idea. We were happy to be there, in an enclosed press box, especially if it rained. (Not so fortunate at some of the big-school, no-window press boxes -- LSU and Florida, to name two -- during rain games.)
And at Joe Aillet Stadium, for the first couple of decades, the (free) meals were a real treat ... prime roast beef, fried chicken, good sides, good desserts, and eventually a popcorn machine. That's not the primary reason we were there -- to eat -- but it was a side benefit.
Keith Prince, the sports information director at Tech for 25 years starting in 1969 and a good friend, helped me recall those times, and said the meal money wasn't in his department's budget but was provided by then-Tech President F. Jay Taylor, who also was treating the school's top benefactors, some of whom were visitors to his private press-box booth.
I have covered games in a three-person press box, and some high school press boxes a little bigger, and some here in north central Texas that were new and roomy and college-level. I covered games at major university and NFL stadiums.
The first press box I was in, at old State Fair Stadium in Shreveport, was mediocre, and that's being kind. The replacement at what became Independence Stadium had its issues.
I was not exactly enamored with the old Tiger Stadium press box; the one now is very nice, as are those at Florida and Tennessee. But the problem with them -- for me, I'm not speaking for anyone else -- is they're too high up; it's better to watch the action on the nearby TVs (and, thankfully, most press boxes at colleges and in the NFL have those).
Best press-box seat I've had for a college game was at Kentucky -- at the top of the lower level of seats. I think the new stadium here at TCU, about a mile from our apartments, has a fabulous press box/luxury suits level (and view).
But the best press-box seat ever was at Texas Stadium when the Cowboys moved there in 1971. Again, top of the lower level of seats, and the service -- stats provided, food, room to work, a small TV between every two seats -- was tops. And it was two press boxes -- one for print media, stats, etc.; one across the way for TV/radio people.
(Then Jerry Jones took over the Cowboys and decided that great view was much better suited for big-money donors and the media was moved to the very top of Texas Stadium near what little roof there was. At the new Spaceship Stadium in Arlington, it's upper-level near the end zone on one side ... and closer to Fort Worth than the playing field.)
So old Tech Stadium was, I think, a 1930s facility much too small and dated by the early 1960s. But when I first saw games from the press box there, as a high school junior and senior, I thought it was big-time. Absolutely thrilled to be there.
But crowded, yes. By the time you put in the Tech sports information director (Pete Dosher then), the statistician (Frank "Spike" Bright and Mike Powell in the years before me), sportswriters from Shreveport and Monroe and the visiting team's media, the Tech radio crew (Bill Carter and Bill Darland then), the visiting radio (not all the schools had one), the public-address announcer (the venerable "Major" Lawrence Fox), a spotter for him, a pro scout or two and opposing teams' scouts, it was a full and cramped place.
And ... a Western Union man -- who took the stories from the various sportswriters and sent them in telegram-form to the respective papers. That's how it was done then, or by dictation with the one or two telephones there. The good old days.
The friends I asked didn't remember the details about the old press box. What they remembered mostly was the hospitality shown by the wonderful Pete Dosher, a fine and crafty journalist and SID.
Paul Manasseh was the Tech SID in 1968 when the new stadium and press box opened, and Keith Prince took over the next football season; each of them were pros who were good to and provided well for the media.
What was special about the first two years at Joe Aillet Stadium, remembers O.K. "Buddy" Davis, my old friend, fellow Tech journalist and sports editor of the Ruston Daily Leader for 50-plus years, is that those were Terry Bradshaw's great two seasons as the Tech quarterback.
But that press box was built with, as a friend put it, "a flaw in spacing." The front-row seats at first were too close to the working counter in front, so guys with, well, big bellies, couldn't sit there. That was quickly adjusted. But, always, the upper back-row seats were built too close to the front row; you had to squeeze down the front-row alley; even (then) skinny guys like me.
It is, as that friend said, "difficult to walk the length of the press box. It's impossible without touching someone, or with having to scooch into a wall or a chair. There is little room to serve food. Very difficult for student workers to get info passed out."
In the first couple of years, there was no elevator, so equipment had to be carried up. Not a big problem, but still ... Then when they installed the elevator, it was s-l-o-w. It's been s-l-o-w for 45 years.
The working booths upstairs, for radio-TV, scouts and team coaches, and the President's box, were all too small, too tight, and one level. No elevated seats, which is common now in most press boxes to accommodate -- in particular -- the four or five coaches each team sends upstairs.
At some point, Tech added a level for TV cameras, and in 1988, a Sky Box "luxury" level -- for major Tech donors -- above the main press. Still everything was crowded.
There has been -- forever -- one bathroom per level ... one tiny bathroom. Go figure. (Or go outside.)
Same friend's observation on this press box: "... workable, but way outdated. A very uncomfortable press box."
So, yes, the new Tech press-box plans ...
It is going to stretch from 10-yard line to 10-yard line, so 80 yards wide. That should be plenty for the media level and the luxury-box level.
(To be honest, I've been to two Tech home games in some 35 years. The press box media level was maybe half occupied. But, hopefully, this will attract more attention and more people.)
The best part of all of this is: All of the construction money, $18.6 million in all (with $1.9 million in other stadium improvements), is to be privately donated. No state money involved.
The cynical part of me asks: Is this illusions (delusions) of grandeur for a school Tech's size? Is this not too much? Why 80 yards wide? Why not 45 or 60? A friend suggests that the word "overbuilding" applies here.
The press-box fan in me says: This is necessary, long overdue. A redesign/renovation would have been good years ago.
Certainly, the luxury-level boxes will bring a significant chunk of revenue to the university.
The Tech fan in me reads that it is part of the overall
vision Tech President Dr. Les Guice has for the university (the enrollment goal of 15,000 students by 2020) and new facilities and other improvements/updates all over the campus. And that's great.
I would hope that this type money will put be into classrooms, dorms, cafeterias, the Student Union, the library, etc., and I trust that it is.
Certainly, a new football press box will be great for the media, for Malcolm Butler (the current SID, in his 18th year) and staff, and it will be an impressive sight on the Tech campus. If it helps make Tech a more elite mid-major athletic program, I'm for it. If it helps attracts new students and new Tech supporters, even better.
If you're going to do it, do it big and do it right. Go first-class, and serve the hungry media.