San Jose, CA

A stadium and a stalwart pay it forward for San Jose

Vic Aquino

(The first year of Spartan Stadium in 1933. The north endzone in the foreground looking southeast towards Evergreen. Image posted with permission from San José State University Special Collections & Archives)

On final approach north into San Jose International Airport, which follows over Monterey Road, some of the easiest landmarks to pick out from your window seat are the track & field ovals and the schools surrounding it.

These are the track and football fields of high schools like Santa Teresa, Andrew Hill, Valley Christian, and Oak Grove, depending on which side of the plane you're on.

If you're on the right side of an aircraft, one particular landmark of note is Spartan Stadium or CEFCU Stadium as it's been known since 2016 (Citizens Equity First Credit Union bought the 15-year naming rights for $8.7 million).

It's nerdy-find from the air that you have to anticipate once you pick out the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds and look just a slight bit northeast to the corner of 7th Street and Alma Street.

The nearly 90-year old stadium to alumni and many native and long-time San Joseans will always affectionately refer to it as Spartan Stadium.

It is a venue that holds many memories and emotional ties to a San Jose that has long since passed.

The stadium is also in the midst of a long-awaited makeover with key nearby additions expected to enhance the identity of the area and the university for the next 100 years.

One Bay Area native comes to mind when peering into the past, present, and future of the university's stadium and its past events.

Lawrence Fan has been with San Jose State since 1980.

He serves as associate athletics director and is a man of enduring dedication who marches to the beat of a different drummer.

As a stalwart of the school, Fan has obviously seen the socio-demographic changes and swings of the area. He also offers all the nostalgia, factoids, and anecdotes that come along with being an inadverdent and comprehensive historian of San Jose State athletics (he's also known at Spartan events for baking his "famous Fan cakes").

"The stadium has stood the test of time as one of the oldest venues of Northern California," Fan stated. "Given how much the stadium has changed over the last 25-years, it's a remarkable statement."

(Looking towards the east foothills, CEFCU Stadium without its large, steep eastside bleachers and the upgraded north endzone scoreboard that was completed in 2020. Photo by: Cam Radford)

As the stadium story has been remarkable in other ways, many long-time residents want its expanding city with more unique distinctions to go along with its still indelible small-town feel.

But they've seen letdowns over the years.

"The fact there are actual approvals for this construction is important in itself," said Fan. "The official go-ahead is a real sign of progress."

Fan continues, "Some will remember the multiple failed attempts to construct something in the north endzone in past years, but we'll soon remember it took only once to get a fantastic faciility for the east part of the stadium. It's been a success, so far, in terms of fundraising and planning."

Replacing the eastern side of the stadium will be the Spartan Athletic Center.

It's an expected $60 million project that's supposed to be completed by the 2023 football season. The 55,000 square-foot multi-story facility will support a multitude of functions not just for student-athletes and staff, but also for events, premium viewing, and various hospitality options.

With fiduciary responsibility and future scalability part of the plans, the new allure of Spartan town is already evident on the main campus (one and a half miles north of the stadium) along with its many other renovations.

The expectation is that memories of yesteryear will fasten onto new memories with the expansions. And many of these memories don't necessarily involve football.

Perhaps something in the new facilites should pay homage to the past for the next generations.

"In the '70s, Spartan Stadium was home to the original Earthquakes soccer team. It was a big deal and I hope it's not one to be lost in time," reflected Fan. "At that time the stadium was very compact, about 18,000 people. If you watched the evening news coverage then, you'd see it was always packed."

Around the Bay Area at that time, the Earthquakes coincided with the first surge in youth soccer.

The stadium also made memories for many kids in a different way in the 1970s and 1980s.

"What was different in the stadium then is there were berms in the endzone so kids could run up and down the hill," Fan said fondly. "Those interested in the games sat on wooden bleachers and those who really wanted to watch the contest could sit on the sidelines."

Fifth-year Spartan head football coach Brent Brennan was one of those kids running up and down the north endzone back then. He's also beginning to write his own legacy that parallels the infrastruture growth.

Brennan's led the resurgence of Spartan football; winning the 2020 Mountain West Conference championship and achieving a top 20 national ranking. It was a program that's been mostly dormant since the early 1990s.

Fan resumed, "We've had legendary alumni as commencement speakers in the stadium offering the most unique pearls of wisdom. Peter Uberoth had the shortest commencement speech ever, I believe, at about four minutes. Bob Ladouceur and Dr. Harry Edwards had memorable speeches too, but much longer," laughed Fan.

Ueberroth was a former Major League Baseball commissioner. Edwards is a distinguished civil rights leader and Ladouceur led the nations most successful high school program at De La Salle from 1979 to 2012.

"After the graduations and after everyone took their pictures, I'd take a walk and see it completely empty in and out of the stadium," Fan continued to reminisce. "It always signaled the start of summer for me."

Spartan Stadium summers in the 1980s and 1990s also had famous, memorable concerts.

"In 1991, ZZ Top's concert attendance topped over 35,000 fans," Fan remarked. "Which means not just the seats were packed, but the floor of the stadium too."

The Cure, Iron Maiden, David Bowie, and Lalapalooza music festivals joined this golden era of large open venue entertainment in Spartan Stadium.

"The event with the greatest overall attendance in the stadium was reverend Billy Graham's four-day crusade in 1981," mentioned Fan. "Also in the late '80s and '90s, we had Monster truck pulls and pro soccer was still going. It was also a big challenge for our groundskeepers back then to try and keep the natural surface of the stadium suitable for all users."

People probably expect football games to be more of a stadium's history and it does.

The heyday of Spartan football from the '70s to the early '90s was the pride and joy of San Jose. The stadium then was much more a landmark of gritty football, local legends and gridiron success representing a strong blue-collar ethic of the area. Coaches like Jack Elway and Claude Gilbert were the venerable leaders then.

When asked of Fan which football game sticks out: "Funny enough, right now, it's the game against Fresno State in 1990 when the fire marshall told the executive assistant of our president that we couldn't sell another ticket because too many people were in the stadium!"

Certainly, Fan has tons more local stories that might merit its own book.

For more recent San Jose residents, here's hoping more new memorable history unfolds for all the good reasons.

(Artist rendering of the proposed east facilities of CEFCU Stadium. Image from One Spartan Nation)

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A 50+ year San Jose-native focusing on social awareness, social good, social impact and the hidden gems and treasures of the area. Freelance journalist & sports contributor to SB Nation & SF 49ers (@VicD_SJ on Twitter).

San Jose, CA

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