The bad news: Some of the wooden benches from old Memorial Stadium were installed in new Memorial Stadium.

The good news: The maligned old boards are used as accents in an interior wall near the new Cal athletics Hall of Fame. All the benches and seats inside the retrofitted, renovated stadium are as 21st century as reality TV.

Good call, by the way.

"I can't tell you how many letters I got from people who sat on those (old) benches," Cal football coach Jeff Tedford said Friday, in between media tours of the 85-year-old architectural icon. "They'd pull the splinters out of their rear and mail them back to me."

Tedford was giddy, and with good reason. The old Memorial Stadium, listed on the 2006 National Register of Historic Places, was tired, seismically unsafe, an eyesore, a pain in the pants pockets. It was renowned for its dry-rot seatery, its cavern-like concession areas and its Industrial Revolution-era finishes. Its visitors locker room was decorated in over-the-top Spartan.

"It was absolutely the worst visiting locker room in the country," Tedford said. "I'm sorry we had to fix that."

It's up to snuff now. As are the public restrooms. The men's rooms, in fact, have gone trough-less. (Ladies, ask your husbands. Better yet: don't.)


Advertisement

The $321 million budgeted for the near-complete tear-down and rebuild was spent wisely. The historic west facade was maintained. The mostly below-grade Simpson Center contains a high performance student-athlete center, plus locker rooms and offices which used to clog the stadium concourse. Now that space is open and airy, with a view of a new landscaped plaza below.

The field has been lowered four feet to improve the sight lines. There are permanent lights, a custom-designed public address system and new scoreboards. Seismic upgrades include a design that separates the stadium into four sections so each can move freely in a significant earthquake on the Hayward Fault, which runs beneath the venue.

"It's perfectly safe," said engineer David Friedman. "I want to be here during an earthquake."

The remarkable part is how much new Memorial Stadium resembles old Memorial Stadium.

"Two-thirds of what you see here was gone," architect Joe Diesko said. "But if you look at it now, it looks the same."

The exception would be the new press box perched atop the west rim, affording a killer view of the Bay Bridge, San Francisco and, on a clear day, forever. Cal assistant athletic director and project manager Bob Milano Jr. considers it a "campus resource" that could be used up to 300 days a year for meetings, conferences and presentations.

All of which explained the celebratory mood at the midday news conference featuring Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, athletic director Sandy Barbour and Tedford, among others.

Birgeneau called it "an amazing modernization."

Barbour said Cal went "from arguably the worst facilities in Division I to among the best."

Which is probably why Tedford, who for years had to entertain potential recruits in a palace of deferred maintenance, might appreciate the new facility the most.

Well, for that reason and because he is in the habit of sleeping in his office several nights a week, approaching each game like a student cramming for finals.

"When I first walked in there I got a little emotional," he said. "It's unreal."

Edward Denton, the university's vice chancellor for facilities services, noted the quick turnaround time on the project. Cal played its final game in the old stadium on Nov. 27, 2010 (and its entire 2011 home schedule at AT&T Park in San Francisco). The first game in the new place will be Sept. 1.

"Twenty-one months is unheard of," Denton said.

Expediency is not always a recipe for success. Oakland's Oracle Arena was renovated over the course of one NBA season, which the Warriors spent playing in San Jose. It emerged as a modestly impressive upgrade. The Oakland Coliseum was renovated between the final weekend of the 1995 NFL season and the first exhibition game in 1996. The result: A disappointing baseball-football hybrid.

If you take the principles at their word, the new Memorial Stadium is everything everybody involved with the project hoped it would be.

"It's great to be home," said Tedford, who should know better than anyone.

Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him at Twitter.com/garyscribe.