This week, the Atlanta Falcons will use Rice’s football fields to prepare for Super Bowl LI against the New England Patriots. Forty-two years ago, however, Rice served as far more than a practice facility. On Jan. 13, 1974, Rice Stadium hosted Super Bowl VIII, the first Super Bowl ever played in the city of Houston.
On that misty, cool day, 71,882 fans packed the building to its capacity to see the defending champions, the Miami Dolphins, take on the Minnesota Vikings and their “Purple People Eaters” defense. Houston resident Steve McMahon, who attended the game, later told the Houston Chronicle it was unlike anything he had ever seen.
“Back then, Houston didn’t have any professional teams that were ‘packing them in,’” McMahon said. “It was quite a sight to see a completely filled stadium.”
Planning for the game had begun just two years earlier, when NFL owners voted to award the game to Houston during their annual meetings in Hawaii. Despite having the state-of-the-art Astrodome just a few miles down the road, the game was played in Rice Stadium due to its larger seating capacity. It was the first Super Bowl ever played in a stadium that did not host an NFL team. In 2004, Fred Faour, the assistant sports editor at the Houston Chronicle at the time, said the building was awe-inspiring.
“Rice Stadium may be run down now, but at the time, it was like going to a football cathedral,” Faour said in an article at the time.
The gloomy weather did not stop fans from enjoying themselves. Parking lots around the stadium were filled with tailgaters, mostly Minnesotans who had driven south for the game. Some Houstonians credit those Vikings fans with sparking the popularity of tailgating at Houston football games. Inside the building, lines for concessions were so long that people were offering to pay $10 for hot dogs priced at just $1.
Although the game was not as big of an event as it is today, it still captured a massive audience. An estimated 52 million people watched on CBS. Like today, celebrities descended upon the city. The NFL had hosted a party for VIPs in the Astrodome the Friday night before the game and paid a whopping $25 per guest. At the party, live cattle roamed the floor of the Astrodome in front of murals of old western saloons and frontier towns.
Before pregame introductions, players from both teams stood in the south end zone tunnel together. Vikings hall of fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton recalled a Dolphins defender making small talk with him as he waited nervously. Following country artist Charley Pride’s national anthem, the Super Bowl began.
The game itself is a mere footnote in NFL history. The Dolphins defeated the Vikings 24-7 for their second consecutive title. Dolphins Hall of Fame running back Larry Csonka won the MVP award for rushing for 145 yards and two touchdowns. Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese threw just seven passes the entire game, but his offense picked apart the celebrated Vikings defense. Steve Sabol, who worked for NFL films for nearly 50 years, later said the game “might have been the dullest [Super Bowl] ever.” Even the halftime show was forgettable; the performers were the University of Texas, Austin band, Miss Texas 1973 on fiddle and the Westchester Wranglerettes drill team.
While the game is often forgotten in NFL lore, it remains one of the biggest events ever hosted on Rice’s campus.