On the 50-year line

Stadium Holds Half-Century’s Worth of Gryphon, Alumni Pride and Loyalty

For 50 years, the University of Guelph’s Alumni Stadium has been a beacon of pride and inspiration for the campus community and beyond.

Since opening in October 1970, the stadium on the northeast corner of campus has served as a hub of athletic aspiration and achievement and as one of the most active sports venues in the city of Guelph.

Scott McRoberts
Scott McRoberts, the University’s director of athletics.

The multi-purpose facility is so named because alumni were at the forefront of its development. A great many U of G grads have held an intense loyalty to the stadium from its beginnings to today, says Scott McRoberts, the University’s director of athletics. Alumni and others with special connections to U of G continue to ensure its vitality.

In particular, the contributions of former Gryphons football head coach Stu Lang have transformed the facility in recent years and sparked a renaissance in U of G’s football program, many say.

“The support of alumni and donors has been huge,” McRoberts says. “The facility would not be what it is today without that generous outpouring from people who have really strong feelings about the stadium and the important place it holds in the community. And it’s probably the one facility that has the most community usage of any outdoor sports facility in our city.”

Over the half-century since the stadium was built – its construction cost $600,000, the equivalent of $4.1 million today – many momentous events and triumphs have happened here.

“It’s been a hub and beacon for so many things over the years,” McRoberts says, “from world-class track events to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats calling Alumni Stadium home in 2013, to high school football on Friday nights, to the Toronto Argonauts holding their training camp here in 2016. And it was the home for our 1984 Vanier Cup-winning Gryphons, and it has hosted Guelph minor football and so many community track and field events.”

Today’s stadium is part of a continuum of U of G athletic pursuits dating back to the Ontario Agricultural College (OAC) football team of the 1880s.

Young athletes who step onto the field today and experience a sense of awe over the splendour of the place share that feeling with athletes who were among the first users of the stadium.

Bill Laidlaw’s love for and dedication to Alumni Stadium and the University of Guelph have been unwavering since 1970, when he was a first-year U of G history student newly recruited to the Gryphons football team.

More recently, Laidlaw has been a U of G volunteer extraordinaire, including chairing the committee organizing Alumni Stadium’s 50th anniversary. The event was to have brought together hundreds of alumni in an unprecedented celebration, but it was postponed last year due to COVID-19. The celebration will occur perhaps as soon as this coming fall.

“It’s probably the one facility that has the most community usage of any outdoor sports facility in our city.”

As a new post-secondary student and varsity athlete, Laidlaw stepped into his first training camp as the brand-new stadium neared its completion. He recalls feeling dazzled and overwhelmed.

“I was an above-average football player. I played a couple of years and was so proud to be on the team,” says Laidlaw, who played under coach Dick Brown and became lifelong friends with many of his teammates. That 1970 squad was one of the best in the country and nearly went to the Vanier Cup, he says.

“I remember my dad dropping me off for camp in August of ’70. There was a second-floor room under the stands with bunk beds, and that’s where rookies had to sleep. The stadium was just being finished and you got this sense that you had made it to the big time, that you were in the CFL or NFL, because in high school you didn’t have any of this.”

One night during training camp, a gale-force wind whipped through, Laidlaw says. The shiny aluminum bleachers had been set in place but not yet bolted down. The wind toppled them, sounding and feeling like “the end of time” to the rookies startled awake below.

“The new stadium demonstrated that the University had a commitment to football and to sports in general, which other universities didn’t have,” Laidlaw says. “As a 19-year-old, to be in a change room that was brand new, with a whirlpool and a sauna room: it was the big leagues for a lot of us.”

Football was all the rage in those days, said Dr. Steve Stewart, a St. Thomas, Ont., veterinarian, and a grad of OAC and the Ontario Veterinary College. He played five seasons with the Gryphons football squad, beginning in the late ’60s. He also chaired the athletics advisory council when the plans for a new stadium were being developed.

Then, the Canadian Football League was cherished across the country, and every varsity player aspired to play in it, Stewart said. At a time when the Canadian professional game was at its height and university football was very popular, the old U of G stadium had outlived its usefulness.

Stadium Early Days
Then U of G president Bill Winegard (front, second from left) and his wife, Elizabeth (third from left), were among the 1970 opening game crowd at Alumni Stadium.

“The crowds were too big,” he says. “There was one incident where fans started throwing beer bottles on the field and University president Dr. William Winegard wouldn’t tolerate it.”

Stewart saved a brochure from 1970 about the opening of the new stadium. It includes the text of a speech by then director of athletics W.F. “Bill” Mitchell, who commented on the ultimatum that got Alumni Stadium off the ground.

Stewart saved a brochure from 1970 about the opening of the new stadium. It includes the text of a speech by then director of athletics W.F. “Bill” Mitchell, who commented on the ultimatum that got Alumni Stadium off the ground.

Mitchell said Winegard, who served as U of G president from 1967 to 1975, triggered the development “by suggesting that if we couldn’t accommodate the growing numbers of people who were interested in seeing our Gryphons in action, we would have to pack up the game.” That sparked the development of the new stadium, one that Winegard wholeheartedly supported.

“Dr. Winegard was a great guy who did a lot for the University,” Stewart says today. “And he was really enthusiastic about sport. He provided the impetus to get this thing started.”

The $600,000 cost was offset through a development fund, gate receipts and contributions from individuals and corporations. The alumni-backed Alma Mater Fund gave $20,000 of its $70,000 1969 campaign total to what would be the most modern football facility among Ontario universities, one with all the amenities – large locker rooms and rooms for coaches, well-equipped training rooms, a sauna and more.

Stewart was a U of G student for eight years and the campus became his home. He is a also a long-time donor to the Department of Athletics – anything associated with the Gryphons, but especially the football program.

“When I was a student there, football in the fall was the focus of the whole year and it spearheaded the enthusiasm on campus,” he says. “I continue to think that football is important to the life of the University and that’s why I continue to contribute to it.”

“When I was a student there, football in the fall was the focus of the whole year.”

Bill Laidlaw, No. 53 on lower left, joined the Guelph Gryphons football team in 1970
Bill Laidlaw, No. 53 on lower left, joined the Guelph Gryphons football team in 1970.

Laidlaw has a similar personal attachment to U of G, one nurtured by football but also based in gratitude.

“I owe the University a lot because I was an average student and yet I managed to excel with all the support I received,” he says. “That set me on my way in life and I have to give back. That’s what you have to do – you have to support your alma mater because you owe it so much.”

Named as winner of the 2020 Alumni Volunteer Award, Laidlaw serves in several voluntary capacities at U of G. Currently, he heads a campaign to raise several million dollars for the performing arts on campus.

“They took a risk on me and I’ve got to pay them back somehow.”

Since 2012, Alumni Stadium has undergone a steady transformation to serve the community better – new turf and track, new lights, updated video screen and press box, the pavilion and landscaping in front of the complex along Lang Way. All have preserved the stadium’s history and legacy while modernizing and improving it.

In particular, in recent years, the stadium has gone through an extraordinary transformation, McRoberts says, the result primarily of the generous support of a donor with a passion for football and a great love for the U of G football program.

Former CFL pro Stu Lang coaching on the field
Former CFL pro Stu Lang coached the Gryphons from 2010 to 2015 and has been a major donor for stadium upgrades.

Stu Lang was a former professional football player for eight years with the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos and the Gryphons head football coach from 2010 to 2015. He helped turn the Gryphons into one of the top university football programs in Canada during his six-year tenure, including capturing the Yates Cup in 2015, nearly 20 years after U of G had last won the trophy.

Through their Angel Gabriel Foundation, Stu and his wife, Kim, have given more than $25 million to Gryphon football, including funding for a 14,000-square-foot pavilion at the stadium. Completed in October 2017, precisely 47 years after the stadium opened, the pavilion added professional-calibre facilities, including a players’ lounge, a state-of-the-art locker room, a therapy room with cold and hot tubs, a study area for players, a boardroom, coaches’ offices and a game-day rooftop patio viewing area. Even earlier, a major expansion and renovation begun in 2011 added an eight-lane track and synthetic turf to the field. The campus road where the stadium is located is now named Lang Way for the facility’s benefactors.

“I had been wanting to build this while I was coach, to create a home for our players and alumni,” Lang said when the new facility officially opened in 2017.

“Kim and I believe there are two classrooms on this campus: the traditional indoor classroom and the outdoor athletic field classroom. On the athletic field, you learn about dealing with challenges, handling success and pulling together with people who are different from you. That’s why we continue to support athletics at the University.”

The Langs are currently supporting a major planned renovation at Alumni Stadium to be completed this year that will include a new fan entrance and improvements to the existing weight room to create a state-of-the-art performance centre.

Gryphon's Stadium
Alumni Stadium has been home to U of G varsity teams during COVID-19.

Alumni Stadium is now an iconic facility for the University community and the city in which it has stood for just over 50 years, says McRoberts. Until the pandemic hit in March 2020, as many as 250 Guelph community members, ages 5 to 65, used the stadium daily.

“These are people sharing this one important facility, being active in what is truly a community hub. It speaks to the uniqueness of the stadium, its traditions and what alumni envisioned it to be,” McRoberts says.

“It goes to show how important it is to reach out, make connections and build relationships.”

“There is nothing better than a homecoming game with 8,000 or 9,000 fans and a lot of students wanting to be up on that hill in their Gryphon gear.”

Plans were all set for the 50th anniversary last October. But the pandemic dragged on and shut it down.

Fortunately, the stadium has not sat idle during the pandemic. By observing strict COVID-19 prevention protocols, U of G’s athletic teams – football, soccer, rugby, lacrosse, field hockey and track – have trained and practised throughout the 2020-21 academic year in the stadium’s outdoor space.

“It was truly a lifeline, more than ever, for these athletes over the past year. It was a safe place for them to train and be together at a time when they needed it the most,” McRoberts says.

Laidlaw says the 50th-anniversary celebration is intended to show how important the stadium is to the University, its students and alumni, the wider community and the members of past football teams. Early this year, he said he hoped to have the 1970 team back to the stadium for the anniversary this fall and is eagerly awaiting the time when it can happen. “We will have a terrific celebration weekend with fellow teammates and friends, and with all the energy, emotion and awe that it deserves.”

For now, he is focused on reflecting on what the stadium has become in recent times.

“I think it’s just fantastic. You have to credit Stu Lang. Stu was asked by then head coach Kyle Walters if he wanted to do some volunteer work and he went on to become head coach and the University’s largest individual donor. It goes to show how important it is to reach out, make connections and build relationships.”

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