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Turning over the L.A. Coliseum

Posted September 19, 2016

Candace Buckner - Washington Post

 

It couldn’t be less Hollywood as Brian Grant squints from the top of the stadium’s aged concrete steps. A deep marine layer dulls the sky and covers views of the famous sign. All Grant can see is a decades-long to-do list.

Inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, all is quiet except for the tiny cardinal and gold flags flapping in the breeze over the rim of the arena, and the constant buzz of Grant’s generic ringtone.

This is the week when Grant, the Coliseum’s director of operations, oversees the transformation of the stadium to the NFL home of the Los Angeles Rams, so he sends every non-essential phone call to voicemail and survives off the miracle that is caffeine. 

“It feels like my body is by Monster now,” Grant said.

 

At 93 years old, Memorial Coliseum is still kicking, and still the football home of USC, the tenant that has stuck around since 1923. So this fall, and for the next three seasons, once USC football ends, the NFL takes over the Coliseum.

“People will walk in (and) like magic it’ll go from cardinal and gold of USC to blue and gold of the Rams,” said Joe Furin, general manger of the Coliseum, “and no one is the wiser.”

The week-long process to prepare for Sunday’s game against Seattle began with a hired crew taking down USC’s corporate signage and continued until the weekend as grounds crew workers hand painted blades of grass.

“It’s a labor of love to get it all done,” Grant said. “Our guys take a lot of pride in making sure things go smoothly but she is an old stadium. She needs a lot of TLC.”

After last Saturday’s Utah State-USC game, clean-up began. The grass was mowed. The sunflower seeds, crumpled Powerade cups, chewed gum and general nasty stuff were plucked from the sidelines. 

Then by Monday morning, the conversation kicked off as four stagehands, who had spent the previous weekend setting up a Neil Young performance at a private party in Beverly Hills, stripped down the 25 to 30 banners from the field walls. Later, the USC donor seating section transitioned into the media auxiliary seating and the name over the Audi suites — one of the few 21st century amenities inside the stadium — disappeared from view. (The NFL does not allow corporate branding to be seen near broadcast-facing areas.)

Several NFL teams share stadiums with college football teams, but the vintage Coliseum faces a unique set of challenges. While staffers work hard to change the aesthetics, nothing can be done about the cramped concourses on game day — a lesson learned from the first home preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys on Aug. 13.

“I’ve never seen this place as crowded or chaotic as it was for Dallas,” Grant said. “It taxes the building a bit. We’re really land locked so there’s not a lot of places... for us to hide.”

Like many of his teammates, Rams offensive guard Rodger Saffold voices no complaints about the lack of comforts. He doesn’t mind that many of the stadium seats have been around longer than the oldest player in the locker room — but he still wishes his three-year-old daughter and one-year-old son wouldn’t have to squirm on them.

“No day care in the stadium,” Saffold said, “and that’s the hardest part, making sure that I find somebody to watch my kids if we decide to bring them out.”

Another thing: Saffold can’t help but notice the tunnels. By Sunday, the pantheon of USC legends adorning the walls will be covered by Rams logos. However, both teams will share the tunnel, and no one will notice the new decoration if a fracas breaks outs.

“With the bad blood going on with us and Seattle,” Saffold said, “you wonder if that’s going to cause a problem in this huge game.”

Still, the Rams have recognized the reality of playing inside a stadium that’s registered as a national historical landmark and have not asked for many changes — though the team did request an installation of padded turf down the tunnel so players would not have to pound concrete.

The league, however, is much more demanding. Over the summer months, the Coliseum underwent several small, yet important, renovations to meet NFL standards.

Coaches can now access Wi-Fi on field level; the league mandated better service. Also, there are new $3 million LED lights to brighten games for broadcasts. More metal detectors for the larger crowds pouring into the gates, and new subcontracted vendors selling beer — something that doesn’t happen on Saturdays.

Hollan spends Monday on his knees, placing sod over visible valve boxes on the field. Though each metallic cover is located far from the playing surface, the NFL has tight player safety requirements. Therefore Hollan and his crew must level every box with new grass.

So days before the crowds and chaos, an old stadium paces itself. On this dreary morning, everything seems to be going as planned. And that’s just when the elevator operator tracks down Grant.

There’s a problem with the stadium’s only freight elevator. What else is new?

“With its age,” Grant explains, “she’s a needy elevator.”