All of Aggieland was awash in sunshine and excitement on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015. From the moment the sun first peeked above the horizon that morning, a buzz of eager elation hinted that the day was destined for something historic and special. The thousands of maroon-clad fans flocking to the Texas A&M campus were greeted with a gentle breeze and a strikingly unblemished blue sky.
Truly, it may have been the most beautiful day of the year.
It was certainly the most anticipated.
For Aggies, Sept. 12 was the culmination of more than 1,000 days of waiting. Ever since word spread about plans to renovate Kyle Field, former students and fans painstakingly debated, discussed, dissected and even dreamed about what the new stadium might look like.
And now their questions were being answered.
When the stadium gates opened, a boisterous crowd of 104,213 flooded redeveloped Kyle Field to see the Texas A&M football team blast Ball State, 56-23. The final score, however, was not the main story.
Rather, this day was about soaking in all of the stadium's majesty. The game capped a weekend that included the unveiling of monuments, a black tie gala complete with a champagne toast, a burgeoning crowd for Midnight Yell, a jubilant atmosphere at tailgates and concerts across campus.
Kyle Field did not disappoint.
Construction crews needed every possible hour of the two-year-long process, but the end result was a stunning stadium that proudly projected excellence while embracing Texas A&M's renowned traditions.
"This is the finest sports facility in America," said Texas A&M University System chancellor John Sharp. "We all know Kyle Field is more than just a stadium. To us, it is the spiritual home of our school, and we take that very seriously. I'm very proud of what we have built here. All Aggies, current students, former students and future students--this is truly a legacy project for all of us."
In many ways, Sept. 12 was one of Texas A&M's most historic days. The amount of planning and work required to make the current configuration a reality would have been suited for an episode--or perhaps even an entire season--of the television series Modern Marvels.
More than 29 million pounds of structural steel, 1.6 million bricks, 2.7 million linear feet of wire...the list of superlatives needed to complete the magnificent project was staggering and extensive.
However, the end result was a far cry from the plans for Kyle Field that were conceived nearly a decade ago, when a university study group actively began pondering what A&M should do with its aging football stadium.
In its previous life, Kyle Field's capacity peaked at 83,002. And while the stadium has always been known for its raucous student section on the east side, the west side of Kyle Field had long been showing its age. In fact, fans still sat on much of the concrete from the first deck that was originally poured in 1927.
Over time, other improvements to Kyle Field included: the addition of a partial second deck and press box to the west side in 1954; second-deck expansions on both the west and east stands in 1967; and third decks added to both sides in 1979. In 1999, A&M unveiled the Bernard C. Richardson Zone, a massive complex on the north side of the stadium.
During portions of the mid and late 2000s, A&M struggled to consistently fill Kyle Field. A handful of losing seasons combined with almost non-existent visiting fan bases left attendance marks for some games battling to break 75,000.
"As the football team languished in performance, the stadium was struggling to sell out," recalled Miles Marks, who served as president and CEO of the 12th Man Foundation from 1998-2012. "We were still stuck in the Big 12, and there were a lot of efforts to offer discounted tickets to try and fill out the upper decks of the north end zone."
With those facts in mind, the 12th Man Foundation and university solicited several studies to determine potential options. One plan included re-doing the west side first deck, as well as upgrading all suites on the west side for a new capacity of 78,000. Another potential plan included an enclosed south end zone with upgraded amenities, something donors had long desired in old Kyle Field.
Everything changed in 2011.
That summer, word spread that Texas A&M was again pursuing membership in the Southeastern Conference. The school flirted heavily with the "League of Champions" in 2010 before ultimately settling back into a refurbished Big 12. By 2011, Aggie fans, former students and donors were largely unified in a desire to head east, and the SEC announced in Sept. 2011 that it would unconditionally accept A&M as a full member on July, 1, 2012.
It was a moment that radically altered the future of Kyle Field.
Ticket requests quickly flooded the 12th Man Foundation offices. Excitement for Aggie football surged to an all-time high, and officials announced prior to the 2011 season that the school had set a new record for season ticket sales.
To alter a phrase from the classic 1939 movie "The Wizard of Oz," clearly the Aggies weren't going to be playing Kansas anymore.
As a result, plans that had been four-plus years in the making to upgrade but shrink Kyle Field were quickly scuttled.
"Once the SEC entered the picture, a smaller stadium wasn't going to work anymore," said Scott Taylor, who was then the chairman of the 12th Man Foundation's Board of Trustees. "From that point forward, we knew we needed a new plan."
In November 2012, A&M president R. Bowen Loftin convened a committee to study the issue. Loftin asked Sam Torn, who at the time was on the 12th Man Foundation's Board of Trustees, to head the group.
Torn's response may have surprised Loftin.
"I said yes, but only if he would let us build it as big and bold as we could," said Torn, who served as co-chair with Bob McClaren. "It was a conditional deal. (Loftin) said they would, as long as we could show him how we could pay for it."
That November, the 12th Man Foundation pledged $5 million to the Texas A&M Board of Regents to further the idea. The committee, which included representatives from the A&M System, Board of Regents, 12th Man Foundation and Athletics Department, quickly engaged Populous to be the project architect.
Preliminary cost estimates settled in the $450 million range, a massive amount that would rely heavily on donor support to be considered feasible. The goal was to bring the project to the Board of Regents for approval in May 2013, meaning there was a short six-month time frame for the 12th Man Foundation to secure pledges of support. Financial models showed that roughly $125 million would have to be raised from private donations in order for the project to move forward. Considering the largest capital campaign in 12th Man Foundation history prior to the redevelopment of Kyle Field was $67 million for the construction of the McFerrin Athletic Center and the Cox-McFerrin Center for Aggie Basketball, the organization was treading far into uncharted waters.
Fortunately for Texas A&M, the timing couldn't have been better. The Aggie football team had steamrolled through its first season in the SEC and was riding high after a massive road win at No. 1 Alabama and a Cotton Bowl beat down of former Big 12 foe Oklahoma.
Quarterback Johnny Manziel was the toast of the college football world after becoming the first freshman in history to win the Heisman Trophy. And the oil business, a vocation in which many former students had excelled, was booming.
There was something else working in A&M's favor, as well.
"What we found was that there was a kind of untapped desire to excel," said Torn. "We had donors who were tired of settling, and because of the passion that our donors have, we not only raised the money in six months, but we exceeded it by a long shot in six months. I attribute that solely to the fact that Aggies were ready to take a step."
That step then quickly turned into a stride, which rapidly evolved into a leap.
Within six months, commitments had been received for nearly $225 million, exceeding the initial goal by $100 million. The redevelopment was on, and it quickly became the most talked-about construction project in the history of Texas A&M.
The scope of the project was daunting. Populous scoured the A&M campus in an effort to determine the best course of action, including redeveloping the existing stadium, or building a new stadium elsewhere on campus. In all, eight potential locations were considered.
Another topic that caught traction among the Aggie faithful was the possibility of construction forcing the football team to play games away from College Station while the stadium was renovated.
That, Torn said, was quickly dismissed.
"We did not want to leave College Station," said Torn. "A football weekend at Texas A&M is a homecoming every weekend. So many things center around football weekends, so to rip that away for a year (wasn't ideal). You add in the thought of trying to go through an SEC schedule without a home game...we decided pretty early on that wasn't an option.
"At the end of the day, what we decided as a committee was that the present location of Kyle Field in the center of campus with easy access is very unique and very advantageous. It needed to stay right here."
While those decisions were being discussed, the other pressing issue was the timeline of the project.
Populous, along with contractor Manhattan-Vaughn, developed a scenario in which the project could be completed in two phases, with the majority of one taking place following the conclusion of the 2013 season and the other after the final home game of 2014.
The amount of work required for each phase was staggering.
Phase one included the demolition of campus landmark G. Rollie White Coliseum on the northeast side of Kyle Field, as well as the Read Building under the stadium's east side. The entire first deck would also need to be removed in a way that would leave the second and third decks untouched, yet still allow for massive concourses to be constructed behind them. Then, an entirely new first deck would be put in place, complete with a row of suites. Concurrently, an entirely new and massive south end zone would be built.
In terms of the caliber of the new construction, A&M leadership had given both Populous and Manhattan-Vaughn one charge: make it the absolute best.
Both companies had been involved with dozens of landmark stadium projects, but none had experienced a renovation of this magnitude with as tight of a timetable.
In devising the plans for the stadium, lead architect Earl Santee made sure to do one thing before lifting a pencil. He listened to hundreds of Aggies.
"We had session after session (with Santee) where we talked and talked about what Aggie football meant to the people of Texas A&M," recalled Taylor. "We spent weeks doing this. From there, they took a sense of what this project meant to our school and began to incorporate that into a design."
The renderings were spectacular.
Plush clubs and suite areas, enhanced chair back seats on much of the west side, three new video boards, wider concourses with vastly increased restroom and concession areas, a new press box, a striking brick façade, canopies overhanging the east and west stands to trap in sound, and an increased seating capacity that would make Kyle Field the largest stadium in both Texas and the SEC.
Aggies responded emphatically.
So, too, did contractor Manhattan-Vaughn, which was tabbed with finding a way to complete both phases of the project on time.
"I've never worked on a project that has been harder," said Manhattan-Vaughn vice president and project director Greg McClure, a 1990 graduate of A&M. "This required more critical thinking in every aspect of what we do. Because we were on such a tight timeline, we could not sustain any major mistakes. We probably spent a full year planning before we ever put a piece of equipment on the job site."
Demolition of G. Rollie White Coliseum and the Read Building began in the weeks leading up to the 2013 football season. Construction fences guarded the east side of the stadium for much of the season, and workers began installing the new façade while the season was still underway. Preparation for the removal of the east first deck began just hours after the Aggies finished off a 51-41 victory against Mississippi State on Nov. 9.
Just 10 months later, Kyle Field re-opened with a capacity of 106,511 thanks to the new, imposing south end zone. (Capacity would be reduced the following year when narrow bleacher seats on the west side were replaced with wider chairbacks.)
While the scope of phase one was impressive, phase two would feature the most dramatic moment of the entire project. The iconic west side of the stadium was imploded in the early morning hours of Dec. 21, 2014. Thousands of Aggies lined west campus to celebrate, and in some cases mourn, the demolition of a portion of their beloved football home.
From the rubble, however, a massive transformation began to take place. Beam by beam, panel by panel and window by window, the crown jewel of Texas A&M began to rise. At times, as many as 1,300 workers were on-site, working through driving rains, bitter winds and searing heat.
Workers and materials came from across the state, nation and even the globe to contribute to the project. Approximately 93 subcontractors were hired and worked an astounding 3.3 million man-hours. The job site was closed just two days during the two-year project: Christmas Day in 2013 and 2014. Every other day featured a beehive of activity.
It was enough to astonish the most veteran construction professionals.
"We had hard hat stickers for the workers who went through our safety training on site, and we've given out about 9,000 of those stickers," said Manhattan Construction's Jim Cuddihee, whose hard hat bore a sticker labeled "0001." "That means there are 9,000 people from all over the country who left their families and sacrificed a lot to give the Aggies this stadium. Those guys deserve a ton of appreciation."
Hard work didn't stop there.
The 12th Man Foundation staff, meanwhile had been tasked with its most arduous job ever. The configuration of Kyle Field was changing drastically, and it had become clear early in the process that the entire stadium would have to be reseated for the 2015 season.
It was an intimidating process that required thousands of hours of planning and execution. Each donor was given a specific time to select their seats based on priority point rankings. Along for each selection was an armada of Foundation staff members available to assist donors with their appointment either on the phone or in person.
"That's an important part of this story," recalled Torn. "A tremendous amount of credit goes to the staff of the 12th Man Foundation. It's important for people to know how hard every employee has worked to make this a possibility, and how committed and dedicated they were to the project."
None of it would have been possible, however, without the unyielding support of Texas A&M's donors. In particular, the sale of 12 suites, dubbed Founders Suites, netted roughly half of the $225 million raised for redeveloped Kyle Field.
"This group enabled us to take the project where we needed to go in a timely fashion," Torn said. "Without that group, we would probably still be in the planning stages. They are all committed Aggies, and they are all proud of what we are doing and what it says to the world about Texas A&M."
Instead of lagging behind, the redevelopment of Kyle Field raced toward its glorious conclusion. Manhattan-Vaughn turned the keys to the facility over to the A&M System on Sept. 5, 2015, setting the stage for a furious week of activities to mark the grand opening. On Sept. 11, a black tie gala was hosted inside the sparkling new Hall of Champions, a massive, 100-yard-long space on the west side that serves as a tribute to A&M's athletic past.
A project that Populous designed to emulate and embrace Texas A&M's rich, unique culture had done just that.
"If excellence is one of your core values, this stadium is it," said Santee. "This stadium is really symbolic of the passion and love your community has for this university. The details are all about you, your football program and your university. This is the finest sports building in America, and I have 30 years of experience behind me saying that with truth."
The finished product was stunning.
With a final budget of $485 million and listed capacity of 102,733, redeveloped Kyle Field represented a bold step by the university. The stadium quickly attracted interest from media across the country, as well as other universities considering stadium enhancements. It is hard to imagine another school attempting such an aggressive project with a currently existing stadium, but one thing is certain: Kyle Field is the gold standard to which others will aspire.
And its reach extends far beyond football.
"Athletics are often the window to the university," said Skip Wagner, current 12th Man Foundation president and CEO. "We are now going to get visibility for A&M that is impossible to get any other way. That allows us to show lots of other great things, whether it's academics, the Corps of Cadets or our diverse student body and fan base...all of that will happen because of the visibility provided by Kyle Field.
"This stadium shows that our donors care deeply about championship athletics, but they also care deeply about A&M. Their generosity goes hand-in-hand with their care for the whole university. We have to salute those donors and their vision and the way this was about far more than a sports program--it was something for the university."
Like the old stadium, redeveloped Kyle Field will be the setting for deafening yells from the 12th Man, proud Aggie Band formations, unforgettable plays and championships. It will also be the destination for weekend road trips, family photos, high-fives and indelible memories for generations of Aggies.
Indeed, Kyle Field will forever be much more than a football stadium.
When it comes down to it, education is the most important thing someone can have, and student-athletes give so much of their time and talents to our school. If we can help support them to earn that diploma and Aggie ring, then that is what we want to do."