Free State High's first season using Memorial Stadium for all its home football games will probably be the Firebirds' last in Kansas University's facility.
"I think our chances for playing there next year are slim and none," said Rick Gammill, director of special operations for the Lawrence school district.
Free State High was given permission to use Memorial Stadium before Lew Perkins became KU's athletic director in July, and Perkins doesn't want anyone other than the KU football team using the stadium during the regular season.
Perkins said he had no qualms about the Class 6A and Class 5A state high school championship games being played at Memorial Stadium because those contests were scheduled Nov. 29 and KU's last home game was Nov. 22.
"After the season, I'm more than happy to let it be used," Perkins said.
"We encourage it after the season. In season, I worry about it."
Only one of Free State's five Friday night home games -- Sept. 19 against Shawnee Mission West -- will be played prior to a Saturday KU home game, yet Perkins said he was concerned about wear and tear on the AstroPlay turf, noting seams could be damaged and pose a risk to KU players.
"I have to protect the athletes on scholarship," Perkins said.
'A great experience'
Free State High opened in 1997 and the Firebirds played all of their home games at Haskell Stadium, until 2000 when they had one game at Memorial Stadium. Free State also played one game at KU in 2001 and two there last year. Then KU athletic department officials invited Free State to play all its home games at Memorial Stadium this fall, and Free State officials quickly accepted.
"I think it's a great experience for our kids," Free State coach Bob Lisher said. "And I think it's great exposure for KU because our opponents like to play there, too. We were invited to play there last spring and we agreed, and now it's kind of turned around."
The Lawrence district pays Haskell Indian Nations University $3,000 for every event it stages at Haskell Stadium. Free State paid roughly the same price for using Memorial Stadium last season.
"It was comparable to playing at Haskell, but it's billed differently, based on hours," said Steve Grant, Free State's athletic director. "One of the games there last year cost $2,800 and the other about $3,200."
Kansas will charge Free State $3,700 per game this year. That's $700 more than Haskell charges, but a lot less than the $6,000 Perkins originally requested.
"They doubled the price and that put us in a real bind because our games were set," Gammill said. "We talked to Mr. Perkins about it. He was very congenial but matter-of-fact, and we were able to negotiate."
Own budget woes
Perkins is aware of the school district's financial woes, but stressed he had his own budget to worry about.
"I know it's tough on them, but we need money desperately," Perkins said. "We need money to put back into repairs. We're trying to build an equity for when we'll need new turf. Every time we have to repair something it comes out of our budget."
Even though the district will pay more this year to utilize KU's stadium, the Firebirds will actually receive less because the Jayhawks' locker room won't be available to them.
"That's disappointing, because we've used it in the past and we've always left it in better shape than we found it," Lisher said.
The decision, however, dovetails with KU football coach Mark Mangino's announcement following the 2002 season he wanted to move the football offices to Memorial Stadium and make the facility -- except for the track -- sacrosanct for Kansas football.
Mangino declined to discuss the issue after Wednesday's practice.
With the KU locker room off-limits, Free State's players will shift to the visitor's locker room under the east stands. The Firebirds' opponent will spend its halftime break in a tent in the south end zone.
"That's kind of a bad situation having to use a tent," Lisher said.
Lawrence High is one of the teams that will have to use the tent because the Lions will be the visiting team when they meet the Firebirds Oct. 24 at the stadium, but LHS athletic director Ron Commons said he wasn't concerned.
"That's OK with us," Commons said. "We're just glad to have an opportunity to play."
Lawrence High played Topeka High at Memorial Stadium last year because Haskell Stadium's grass field was a quagmire and HINU officials asked LHS officials not to use it.
History has shown Haskell's field doesn't hold up when Lawrence High, Free State and the Fightin' Indians all use it, particularly during rain cycles, and that's another reason Free State was eager to use Memorial Stadium.
"Three teams using Haskell cause a lot of wear and tear," Gammill said, "so we'll have to sit down and talk about what we're going to do next year. But right now I think Haskell is our only option."
Free State AD Steve Grant is more optimistic the Firebirds will be able to return to Memorial Stadium in 2004.
"I'm going to keep pursuing it," Grant said. "They told us this is a one-year deal, but we'll try to convince them it's a good deal for everybody. At the very least, maybe they'll let us play a couple of games there next year."
Free State's first game at Memorial Stadium will be Sept. 12 against Olathe South. Also on tap are SM West Sept. 19, Olathe North Oct. 10, Lawrence High Oct. 24 and Washburn Rural Oct. 31.