Baylor fans, with eyes wide and full of wonder, marveled over their new first-class football stadium on the banks of the Brazos River.

“I almost cried when I walked up and saw it was a real stadium,” said Baylor alum Andy Smith, of Austin. “It’s like any dream, you wonder, ‘Is it really going to happen?’ But it’s absolutely incredible.”

Brazos Fielder, a 2006 graduate, said he was blown away by the views of the field and the cozy design of the stadium bowl.

“Every single seat is fantastic. It feels like I’m at home watching the game,” said Fielder, who lives in Austin. “You look at and it’s hard to believe it’s Baylor’s.

“We are one of those top football programs now, and now we have this new stadium to show it. We’re here and we’re going to continue going up.”

The sold-out crowd of 45,733 packed the $266 million McLane Stadium to watch the Bears easily rout Southern Methodist University, 45-0.

Michael Burgess and his wife, Micah, followed the construction of the stadium, driving by the building and looking at images on Baylor University’s construction cam. But finally being able to explore the building, Michael Burgess was impressed by the exceptional planning that went into the stadium’s design.

“The way each level is built, it’s stacked and curved over the next level, so it creates this really intimate feel even though it’s built up higher,” he said. “It doesn’t feel crowded.”

Mike Young, of Houston, said the layout of the stadium also makes it more convenient to get to concessions while remaining tuned into the game. Concession stands at the Bears’ former home, Floyd Casey Stadium, were all located beneath the structure. Food and restrooms are on each concourse at McLane Stadium with a line of sight to the field.

“Even from the back (of the concourse) you can still watch the game,” Young said.

Fielder said he never bought anything from the concession stands at Floyd Casey because the stands were so far out of the way. But he was eager for a catfish po’boy from the Creole stands — one of five different themed concessions spread throughout the stadium.

Exploring the grounds

J.B. Rindt and Mitchell Sharrock found comfort in a basket of fried burger bites — deep-fried flaky pastries stuff with beef, cheese and Cajun sauce. The friends drove from Dallas early Sunday to take in all pregame activities at the stadium and explore the grounds.

“Going to games at Floyd Casey, it felt like I was going to a high school football game,” said Sharrock, a 2011 Baylor graduate. “This feels like I’m back at the Fiesta Bowl when we went back in January. This feels like a professional football stadium.”

Smith went to his first Baylor game at Floyd Casey in 1968 when he was 8 years old and has faithfully attended games since his college years at Baylor in the early ’80s. He’s been anxious and excited about McLane Stadium since construction.

While he was enamored with the stadium’s sleek exterior and upgraded amenities, Smith said simply bringing football back to campus will bring a new swell of energy to gamedays. He recalls a similar transformation when Baylor built the Ferrell Center in 1988 after using the Heart O’ Texas Coliseum for basketball games.

“Everything changed after that, the attendance went up, the culture on campus grew,” Smith said. “That’s what this is going to do for the football program.”

The features around the stadium also drew grand praise. Kyle Kurfees, of Dallas, was among a group of former students commanding a boat and “sailgating” in the Brazos River in front of the stadium beginning early Sunday morning.

Nearly 40 boats were in the river at various points before kickoff.

“How great is it to be able to look up at this majestic stadium towering 40 yards above you as you sail around the river?” Kurfees said. “(Coach) Art Briles and (Athletics Director) Ian McCaw had a vision, and we had some great alumni put their support behind it, and now we’re just going to continue to grow and be greater.

“Without question, the atmosphere here is going to be the best in the U.S.”

Festive atmosphere

Collin Aldredge said the tailgating area near the stadium’s north end zone is noticeably more festive than that at Floyd Casey. McLane Stadium has nearly 300 tailgating spots between Touchdown Alley and a student section on campus — more than double the number of locations than were at Floyd Casey.

“There’s way more people out here than there ever were, it’s so much bigger and nicer here,” Aldredge said. “You don’t have to worry about putting gas in your car to come to a game or figure out a ride to Floyd Casey, you can just walk over from campus.”

Rindt, a 2009 Baylor graduate, said the new stadium now matches the grand transformation and ascension of Baylor’s football program.

He recalled Baylor being blown out 62-0 in 2005 by the University of Texas, which went on to win the national championship that year. Last December, Baylor dominated UT to win the Big 12 title.

“Being here is probably the best day of my life ever,” Rindt said.