Since the earliest days of Mustang athletics, football has dominated the autumn sports scene on campus. Pep rallies, bonfires, welcome of trains bearing home the triumphant victors, increasingly large and boisterous crowds in old J. W. Little Stadium, all factored into an atmosphere of excitement and celebration.
Embedded in all this, a persistent practice prevailed, one that went hand-in-hand with football crowds — the consumption of spirits. As crowds increased in old Little Stadium over the decades, so too did the incidence of alcohol and its inevitably alarming effects when too much was consumed.
By the 1960s, Western’s football stadium scene on Saturdays far eclipsed that of any other university in Canada. Little Stadium seated almost 10,000 folks; standing-room crowds usually present at Homecoming swelled attendance figures to nearly 11,000. The so-called Alumni stands accommodated almost 5,000, the student side 3,500. Temporary bleachers encircling the end-zones added a couple of thousand more.
Enthusiasm for Mustang football accelerated commensurate with student body increases, particularly in the freshman class. With sustained fervor for football, the time-honored “right and privilege” to drink in the stadium mushroomed. The issues that inevitably resulted: greater security needs, injuries incurred by hurled objects, indecent exposure, ugly confrontations and public censure of the university, placed discredit on Western, particularly on its student body.
The issue reached such proportions by the end of the 1960s that an increasingly angry athletic director, John Metras, moved to stamp it out. A ‘no more drinking in the stadium’ ultimatum raised student reaction. An outraged student body urged the University Students’ Council (USC) to effect compromise, the aim of which protected the ‘right’ to drink in the stadium.
A negotiated peace descended. Western student police would henceforth provide the necessary security control; alcohol was OK, but not in hard containers. Booze in bottles, metal flasks and hard plastic thermos containers were banned; grog in wineskins and plastic bags was permitted. Most agreed, football players included, that the ‘right and privilege’ to bring booze enhanced both spectator numbers and a celebratory stadium atmosphere.
Alas, the Metras/USC agreement failed to arrest the problem. In fact, it acerbated it.
Students got creative; plastic bags containing booze got bigger and bigger, multiple straws often protruded from them.
By the early 1970s, the enduring problem escalated to explosive proportions. By the 1976 football season, the cadre of student police hired to keep order escalated to 70 for each home game and 80 for Homecoming. The season’s cost for providing security at football games rose to almost $10,000. The number of reported incidents involving injury, drunkenness, fighting, public urination and indecent exposure increased alarmingly, peaking to more than 40 for the season of 1976. The scene following the end of games as students staggered from the stadium often resembled something out of Dante.
An ugly incident at Homecoming 1976 involved two inebriated Western students running amok through the assembled ranks of a visiting 110-member Ohio high school band invited to play at Homecoming. The students indiscriminately knocked plumed hats off heads, infuriated alumni and embarrassed the university. A flood of angry letters from disgusted alums appeared on the desk of the chair of intercollegiate athletics and the dean of the Faculty of Physical Education.
The last straw came when the PBS television station WQLN in Erie, Penn., journeyed to London in the autumn 1976 to showcase the city. The scene in the football stadium that greeted WQLN television officials prompted immediate cancellation of including Western in its London coverage. Following his return to Erie, the WQLN producer penned a letter of concern, indeed dismay, to the assistant dean of Western’s Faculty of Physical Education, finally prompting resolution.
In a carefully planned and methodically executed process conducted over several months in the winter, spring and summer of 1976-77, a complete alcohol ban was imposed in the stadium beginning with the 1977 football season.
The key authority in supporting the decision and action was the USC, headed by its first-ever female president, Margaret O’Grady. As the major financial underwriter of the athletic program (student fees), it was the USC’s right to address the issue. In a tense meeting in the Tower Room of Thames Hall on a late winter evening in 1977, at times erupting into angry debate, council voted 17-10 to support the ban.
Through education in the dorms, public messages from a supportive university president (George Connell), through counsel and planning with student police, with signage posted in the stadium and messages printed on the reverse side of game tickets, the way was prepared for the mission’s first test — the home season-opener against York University on Sept. 17, 1977.
By game day, the issue reached front page headline status in the local Free Press. The carefully prepared plan worked to perfection. A greatly diminished student turnout marked the otherwise scene of sober celebration over yet another Mustang victory. There was one breach of the new code — one member of Western’s sky-diving club performing a pre-kickoff drop into the stadium, landed on his feet near mid-field triumphantly brandishing aloft a wineskin.
The student Gazette was quick to comment the following week: “No, Christmas will still be celebrated, but another tradition, one that has been going on almost as long, has ceased to exist.”
Indeed it had “ceased to exist,” in fact, ceases to exist to this very day.
Enjoy the Homecoming game Saturday, folks. You can be guaranteed not to suffer your university’s humiliation. For your spectator brethren of several decades ago, no similar guarantee could be offered.
Robert Knight Barney has worked at Western University for 40 years, gaining professor rank in 1982 and professor emeritus status in 1996. He is the author of Mustang 100: A century of Western athletics.