THE HIGHWAY THAT connects Pullman, Washington, and Moscow, Idaho, is roughly nine miles. It’s a well-known stretch for those on the Palouse, cutting through the rolling hills and wheat fields of the region.
Other than the turnoff for the tiny Moscow-Pullman Regional Airport, there aren’t many notable landmarks between the college towns of Washington State University and the University of Idaho. It’s mostly farmland, but when making the drive from the west, one large white structure stands out.
It comes into view about a half-mile before the state border, dwarfing everything around it on the University of Idaho campus. Most first-timers assume it’s an airplane hangar. Students joke it’s a giant beer can on its side.
Officially, it’s called the ASUI-Kibbie Activity Center, but since opening 50 years ago this week as the home to Idaho football, it’s mostly been known by a different name: The Kibbie Dome.
It’s also known as the weirdest college football stadium in America — and one of the most unusual sports venues in the world.
“Here’s the irony: the Kibbie Dome is not really a dome,” said Alec Holser, a founding partner of Opsis Architecture in Portland, Oregon, who led the 2011 renovation of the building. “There are other geodesic domes made of wood, but this is actually a vault.
“It’s an arched-shaped continuous [roof] like a blimp hangar. In fact, one of the few other structures of similar gargantuan size were the blimp hangars built in World War II.”
On its 50th anniversary, it’s time to celebrate all of the weirdness that makes the Kibbie Dome one of a kind.
FIRST, LET’S ESTABLISH that the “dome” of the stadium is not 50 years old. The building itself debuted as an open-air facility on October 9, 1971, but the giant wooden roof that sits atop a concrete stadium bowl was not finished until 1975. That completed an ambitious project to replace the old Neale Stadium, which was condemned in 1968 and destroyed by an arsonist a year later.
It’s made totally of wood, which is a badge of honor in that part of the country. The University of Idaho launched one of the first forestry departments in the country in 1909, and it’s one of the school’s proudest programs.
“It’s a crazy construction,” Holser said. “They literally got a contract to basically build a dome over the existing stadium, which is just nuts.”
Holser said it’s a remarkable feat of engineering, using the company’s wood truss system with steel joints, particularly when you consider that it was all done by hand calculations in the pre-computer era. The roof spans 400 feet across, covering 4.5 acres, and the center is 144 feet above the field level, equivalent to a 12-story building.
“More recently, some soccer stadiums around the world have been built with wood,” Holser said. “But in terms of a wood football stadium, it’s the only one that I’m aware of that really qualifies. There are not many, if any, in the world — certainly in the U.S. — that would be a wood structure covering that kind of distance.”
The unintended effects of the design turned out to be beneficial for the Vandals.
“The curve-shape does focus some of the sound down to the floor,” Holser said. “It’s particularly bad on the field, or it’s … good, depending on which way you want to look at it.”
Even visiting coaches have come to adore it.
“I played there in 2011 when I was at Louisiana Tech,” SMU coach Sonny Dykes said. “I love the place. There were between 6,000 and 8,000 people at the game and it sounded like between 60,000 and 80,000. It was deafening. I’ve coached in a bunch of big places and that was as loud as any place I’ve ever been.”
Dykes laughed, recalling that both offenses played poorly on that Oct. 8, and both punters seemed to have career days, kicking a combined 21 times for 1,030 yards, a 49-yard average.
“These guys were just launching it,” he said. “I always thought it was a miracle that they caught it inside that dome, because it looked like it would be hard. It was like watching guys try to field fly balls at the Astrodome when it first opened.”
Kicking field goals isn’t straightforward, either. Due to space constraints, the goalposts are attached to the walls behind both end zones, and in an Idaho-Eastern Washington game in the spring, officials mistakenly called a successful Eastern field goal no good with the game tied in the fourth quarter.
Eastern Washington’s kicker makes 22-yard field goal. Refs call it no good.
— Kendall Baker (@kendallbaker) February 28, 2021
Idaho went on to win 28-21, after which the Big Sky released a statement that read, in part, “The physical setup of the scoreboard and catwalk directly adjacent to the uprights in this end zone of the Kibbie Dome create unique conditions when determining whether a kick is good.”
Former Idaho quarterback Doug Nussmeier, who won the Walter Payton Award as the best Division I-AA football player in 1993, has fond memories of playing in the dome. He appreciated how the atmosphere could get electric, but there were drawbacks.
“I remember we always hated when the rodeo would … come to town in the wintertime,” said Nussmeier, who is now the Dallas Cowboys quarterbacks coach. “We’re doing winter conditioning, and they would bring in belt trucks full of dirt to make the rodeo arena and we’d be in there doing winter conditioning in the mornings and you’d just be inhaling all these diesel fumes and dust in the air, because they’re dumping dirt everywhere. It was just miserable.”
Then there was the turf. Beneath the artificial Tartan Turf installed in 1972 was a four-inch asphalt bed, which made the surface about as forgiving as the parking lot outside. It lasted 18 years before being replaced by AstroTurf, though the new carpet didn’t provide much improvement.
“I’ve got many a scar on my body from turf burns on that turf,” Nussmeier said. “I think we had the hardest turf in the country. You would get burned nonstop.”
Holser said the playing surface had one of the first removable turf fields in America. FieldTurf was installed in 2007.
“There’s a device — it’s actually made by the same company that makes Zambonis — that takes these giant 15-foot-wide rolls of artificial turf and it scoops them up and rolls them, and then stores them,” he said.
While the engineering ingenuity was impressive, wood construction had its downsides. There was essentially no natural light, so electric bills for lighting was costly. Then, there was another issue that Holser discovered when he was brought in to discuss the renovation.
“Over the years, the end walls began to deteriorate,” he said. “They were just covered with a single layer of plywood and woodpeckers put holes in them so, if you stood in there, you’d see these beams of light coming through. It didn’t really have any insulation, and apparently the heating system had conked out 25 years ago, and so it got progressively colder in there as the season went on. Of course with the bird holes, that added to the wind coming through the space.”
The most shocking thing Holser heard in meetings about the project was that there were Idaho officials who thought it might just be time to destroy the dome itself and return to the old bowl stadium. They thought it’d be too expensive to fix, and some, he said, thought football was best played in the elements.
But the cost to tear it down wasn’t substantially different than how much it would cost to fix it and make sure it adhered to updated seismic and building regulations.
Holser replaced the wooden end walls with glazed fiberglass panels, bringing light into the dome and saving the school $100,000 the first year in electrical bills. He managed to preserve an indoor facility for more uses than only football.
The athletic department also uses the dome as its home for soccer, tennis and indoor track and field. Otherwise, the venue hosts everything from concerts, intramurals and graduations to the Palouse Pinewood Derby and the Lionel Hampton International Jazz Festival, winner of the National Medal of Arts in 2007.
Idaho will open a new basketball arena this month — the $51 million Idaho Central Credit Union Arena — but since 2001, the Kibbie Dome has been converted into the Cowan Spectrum for basketball. The arena-in-a-dome model took inspiration from the Carrier Dome at Syracuse and the Alamodome when the San Antonio Spurs played there, and used 27,000 square feet of fabric curtains to create a more intimate setting.
Holser, who designed the new 4,000-seat arena, said studying the Kibbie Dome, which is next to the new building, was an inspiration for what has already been hailed by Idaho senior associate athletic director Matt Martin as “the most unique facility in the country.” It’s a pioneering project in the use of “mass timber,” an emerging construction product made from layers of compressed wood.
“The significance in it for us was to continue the ingenuity [behind the Dome’s engineering] and sort of no-holds-barred determination to build something like that,” he said. “That’s why I worked on the arena to push the limits of mass timber and construction for basketball arenas.”
ALEX BOATMAN WAS 13 days old when he attended his first game in the dome and only missed a couple contests until joining the team as a walk-on long-snapper in 2014. Few people have inhabited it like him.
He played youth football inside, attended community events and even worked there part-time as a desk attendant, making rounds deep into the night. He’s one of the few people who have been inside the roof — there are gaps between the exterior shell and the giant trusses that support it — and peered down at the field through the slats.
“The Dome is home,” said Boatman, who now works in development for West Virginia athletics.
“The Dome kind of personifies our university and everything we are. It just kind of shows Idaho is a state of just trying to get by. It’s like, ‘Hey, we’re gonna play like five sports in here and get by with as little as possible, facility-wise.'”
Holser agrees that it’s a product that represents its surroundings perfectly.
“I’ve worked a lot in Idaho over the years in communities like [Moscow]. You’re kind of out there, so there’s a spirit of ‘Yeah, we can do that. Why not?'” Holser said.
If there’s such a thing as a stadium with a cult following, the Kibbie Dome is it.
Some of its most passionate fans have never stepped foot inside. Eight years after EA Sports discontinued its popular NCAA Football video games series, there remain gamers who take over the Vandals in dynasty mode to bring national championships to the dome.
Just two weeks ago, a Reddit user started a thread called “The Kibbie Dome Challenge: Make this the #1 toughest place to play.” It’s full of responses from people who shared their own virtual dynasty stories.
At one point, the local Walmart sold Kibbie Dome T-shirts. From 1997 until 2017, the time in which Idaho was an FBS football program before moving back to the FCS in 2018, the 16,000-seat stadium was the smallest by capacity in top-division football (the average FBS attendance in 2019 was 41,129). Yet there are ways it outshines behemoths like Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium. Tuscaloosa has Big Al, the Crimson Tide’s costumed elephant mascot. The Kibbie Dome has the real thing.
“I’ve seen a circus there,” Holser said. “I’ve seen elephants there. I’ve seen motorhomes there. You name it, anything can happen.”