Illini Legends, Lists & Lore: Replacing the Memorial Stadium turf
Twenty-three years ago, coach John Mackovic's Illini football team rolled to a 41-2 victory against Utah State, racking up 507 yards in offense while holding the Aggies to three first downs and 82 yards. As hot as Illinois was that afternoon, it didn't match the fire that vandals set to the Memorial Stadium turf early the next day. According to University Police Chief Paul Dollins, the blaze was set about 5 a.m. and caused the northeast quarter of the field to be destroyed. A timeline of what happened:
Sept. 25: Representatives from the AstroTurf division of Monsanto in Dalton, Ga., arrived in Champaign to inspect the damage. They showed university officials and media members that an accelerant had been used to set the fire, and it would cost roughly $500,000 to replace the field.
Sept. 26: Removal of the charred AstroTurf began.
Sept. 27: The Chicago Tribune reported that two members of Illinois' fencing team and a third university student were charged with setting fire to the football stadium's artificial turf. University police said the three students, who may have been drinking before the incident, were identified by people who saw them with matches and a flammable liquid outside Memorial Stadium shortly before the Sept. 24 blaze.
Sept. 28: Workers began preparation of the base of the field. Nine days remained until the next home game against Ohio State.
Oct. 1: Laboring through the night under the Memorial Stadium lights, workers completed the replacement of 60 yards of AstroTurf. The balance of the field was replaced the following day.
Oct. 2: Repainting the field began. The Illini team, ranked 17th nationally, practiced on the natural turf field just east of the stadium.
Oct. 4: A two-day rain began to fall in Champaign-Urbana, delaying the workers' progress. Local TV reported from the stadium regarding the progress being made.
Oct. 6: The university set up a tent in the middle of the field so painters could reproduce a 10-yard-wide Chief logo on the 50-yard line.
Oct. 7: With the sun in the sky, workers applied temporary paint to the sidelines of the brand-new AstroTurf. A near-capacity crowd of 69,088 and a national television audience watched the Illini defeat Ohio State 34-14 as co-Players of the Game Howard Griffith (117 yards rushing) and Jason Verduzco starred. Jeff George, injured in the first half, re-entered during the second half and led the Illini to 24 points and the victory. Receiver Mike Bellamy caught 10 passes for 152 yards, including a 34-yard option pass from Steven Williams.
Sunday: Cary Franklin, tennis (35)
Monday: Kirby Wilson, football (51)
Tuesday: Nick Smith, basketball (30)
Wednesday: Trent Meacham, basketball (27)
Thursday: Brian de la Torriente, baseball (23)
Friday: Steve Bridges, track & field (42)
Saturday: Pete Elliott, football coach (86)
By Mike Pearson, author of Illini Legends, Lists & Lore and assistant athletic director at Miami (Ohio)
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