Wooden connected to Memorial Stadium

You see all the promos for the new Kansas University Gridiron Club, note how things have changed at that site since 1919 and suddenly recall that basketball legends Phog Allen and John Wooden both figured in the evolution of the old football horseshoe.

Yes, that’s the same John Wooden who won 10 NCAA titles at UCLA. Brief as John’s input was, it’s still part of the fabric, and he’s openly proud of that. Lotta people may not know this.

I’m indebted to Prairie Village banker James Allen, the great-grandson of Phog and a 2008 KU graduate, for some intriguing background. James is the son of Dr. Mark Allen and his brothers are Chris and Chad, all with solid gold Jayhawk pedigrees.

James writes that at the Naismith Awards several years ago in Kansas City, his dad ran into John Wooden and introduced himself as Phog’s grandson. Mark expected a polite “nice to meet you,” but the gracious Wooden told him to sit down and hear a story about his helping to build Memorial Stadium.

While recruiting Wooden, an Indiana native, to play at KU, Phog extended an open invitation for John to come to Kansas during the summer if he ever needed a job, like working in the wheat harvests. Kids did that then. Wooden said that during the summer of 1927 between his junior and senior years in high school, he came here with friends figuring they’d be harvesters.

They got here too early, before the crops matured, and figured they’d have to go home empty-handed. Talent-conscious Phog took the crew over to Memorial Stadium, where, beginning that year, work had begun adding the north end zone (which detractors called “Phog’s Folly”). Wooden and his buddies were put to work pouring concrete into the foundation for the new addition. Wooden proudly told Mark Allen, “You see, I helped build that football stadium of yours.” Then he played college ball at Purdue.

Talk about tradition! Basketball inventor James Naismith KU’s first coach, Phog Allen the father of basketball coaching and iconic John Wooden as a stadium-builder. Says James Allen: “We’re so lucky to support a basketball program that is richer in tradition than any other in the world (he’s so right about that). Wooden’s 99 now, and he still is pleased about his contribution here. That’s worth sharing with the Jayhawk Nation.”

As for Phog’s Folly, he was the patron saint of the current 51,500-seat arena, which could become a 55,000 or 60,000 venue. In 1919, KU initiated a million-dollar drive to build a memorial stadium honoring the school’s World War I fatalities. In 1920, Phog in his only year as football coach led his Jayhawks from a 20-0 halftime deficit to a 20-20 tie with mighty Nebraska. It stunned the world. The next Monday, an Allen-inspired push produced $200,000 to get things started.

May 10, 1920, was “Stadium Day,” and 4,000 students helped demolish the old McCook field environs. In the first game in the new arena, Oct. 3, 1921, KU defeated Kansas State, 21-7, before 5,150 fans in a layout that held 22,000. Then came the horseshoe in 1927 when John Wooden took part in its creation, and capacity was boosted to 35,000.

There has been one refurbishment after another to produce the current layout. Miracle man? You betcha! What didn’t Phog Allen do for KU and Lawrence in his 39 seasons on Mount Oread, including luring fellow immortal John Wooden to town to help with the stadium?

Little wonder the Allen family, near and far, are so intensely proud of their namesake.