When Baylor joined the Big 12 two decades ago, the university’s athletic facilities were scattered randomly throughout campus and across Waco.
After opening in 1988, the Ferrell Center that housed the basketball teams was ready for Baylor’s leap into the newly-formed conference. But the Bears needed new facilities in nearly every other sport to compete at a high level in their brave new world.
Now Baylor’s stadiums, ballparks and other athletic facilities along the Brazos River are a model that many other schools would like to emulate.
Beginning with $266 million McLane Stadium on the shoulder of Interstate 35 all the way across LaSalle Avenue to the Willis Family Equestrian Center, Baylor’s facilities have become an impressive showcase and a remarkable recruiting tool for the coaching staff.
“One of the Big 12 athletic directors that was here a couple of weeks ago for NCAA tennis said you have the best athletic facilities in the country,” Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw said. “I think that’s exactly right. Baylor has been very generous to athletics as far as allowing us to develop facilities in the most beautiful part of campus right along the Brazos River.”
Baylor’s building boom hit a crescendo during the past year with the opening of McLane Stadium and the Clyde Hart Track & Field Stadium. Built on the north side of the Brazos River, the two stadiums opened new ground for construction after Baylor’s other facilities were built on the south side.
Since McCaw became athletic director in 2003, Baylor has spent more than $372 million on athletic facilities. While Baylor’s annual Big 12 television revenue has risen from $6 million to more than $20 million over the last 12 years, most of the facilities have been the result of the fundraising of $400 million from Baylor donors.
“The biggest part of it has been Baylor Nation and our donors stepping up and being very generous,” McCaw said. “If you travel around and look at our facilities, they all have names on them. It’s basically lead gifts by top donors who become passionate about a particular project.”
The building isn’t about to stop with the Beauchamp Athletics Nutrition Center under construction and renovations to the weightlifting facility at the Simpson Center on the horizon.
Baylor also has plans to renovate the Ferrell Center within the next five years and is looking into building a golf course near the Willis Family Equestrian Center. Located at the Twin Rivers facility, golf is currently the only off-campus sport at Baylor.
Recruits have been drawn by Baylor’s building boom and the unprecedented success the Bears have enjoyed on the playing field in recent years. In the 2014-15 Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup, the Bears placed 23rd nationally for their highest finish in school history.
“Facilities equal commitment in the eyes of recruits,” McCaw said. “Recruiting is the lifeblood of every college program, so our facilities allow us to recruit at the highest level in the state of Texas and nationally. If we continue do what our coaches have been doing in recent years it will allow our programs to thrive.”
The landscape now is much different than the one Matt Knoll saw at Baylor when he became the men’s tennis coach in 1996. The Bears were still playing on old, rundown courts near the center of the campus.
But Baylor athletic officials told him new courts were in the blueprint, and that came to fruition in 2001 with the opening of the Hurd Tennis Center. Three years later, Knoll led the Bears to the national championship.
“We went from eight really bad courts that weren’t level and had no bathroom or bleachers to the nicest facility in the country,” said Knoll, the longest tenured Baylor head coach with 19 seasons. “We wouldn’t even show recruits the facility back in those days, and now it’s a central part of what we do. It’s had a massive impact on recruiting. The courts have impacted a lot of areas including the experience the kids have here, the fan experience and the development of our program as far as scheduling.”
Baylor completed Getterman Stadium in 1999 and Baylor Ballpark the following year. Though Glenn Moore had won two straight SEC championships at LSU, he could see Baylor was serious about building a strong softball program with the opening of Getterman Stadium.
“It was a huge factor because it showed Baylor’s commitment to our sport that wasn’t like anything I had seen at the time,” Moore said. “The SEC at that time didn’t have any facility like Baylor. It gave us a chance to sell Baylor as a contender in our sport and that’s held up.”
Moore’s vision has paid off as he’s led the Lady Bears to 10 NCAA tournament appearances in the last 12 years including three berths in the Women’s College World Series.
When McCaw arrived in 2003, the Bears’ baseball, softball and tennis facilities could rival any in the country. But much work needed to be done to improve the Bears’ facilities across the board.
“Clearly we had done a great job in some areas like baseball, softball and tennis,” McCaw said. “We had some very strong facilities in place and we’ve done some enhancements to those facilities. But in a number of facilities we were lagging behind. We’ve been able to address those to football to track to equestrian and some of the others.”
After the Baylor women’s basketball team won the 2005 national title, both the women’s and men’s programs moved into new practice facilities at the Ferrell Center the following year.
But one of the biggest additions to Baylor’s athletic program was the $30 million Highers Complex and Simpson Center in 2008. It brought the Baylor football office and locker room to campus from Floyd Casey Stadium along with the athletic department’s administrative offices.
Since then, many other athletic facilities have risen including the Allison Indoor Football Practice Facility, the Getterman Stadium Indoor Hitting Facility and the Williams Family Soccer and Olympic Training Center.
But by far the crowning project was McLane Stadium, which became a reality with the meteoric rise of Art Briles’ football program and Robert Griffin winning the 2011 Heisman Trophy.
“Our people were bold enough and had enough vision to put a beautiful stadium right there on I-35 and the Brazos River,” Briles said. “How many other schools can do that? I’m looking around and I can’t find anybody. It’s not just all about 17 and 18 year-olds, it’s about changing the perception for everybody. You take advantage of what you have, and we’re doing that now.”
Along with the football program came the $17 million Clyde Hart Track and Field Stadium down the road on Martin Luther King Drive. Baylor track coach Todd Harbour was thrilled to get the track program back on campus after the move from Valley Mills Drive.
“We waited for it patiently and said it’s going to come someday and we’ll find the right spot,” Harbour said. “Everything kind of fell into place. To have our offices and our meeting rooms here pushes it over the top. There isn’t anyone who has come here who hasn’t been blown away by it.”
With the addition of the Hawkins Indoor Tennis Facility in 2013, the Bears were able to host the NCAA tennis tournament for the first time this year.
“It was monumental,” Knoll said. “It was one of the goals we had when we got here. Very few schools get a chance to do it. It showcased our university, our program and the community.”
Knoll is amazed by the transformation that has taken place over the years in Baylor’s athletic facilities. He’s even more impressed that Baylor has done it the right way by building first-class facilities instead of pinching pennies.
“The only thing we’re using now that we had when I got here is the Ferrell Center,” Knoll said. “Everything else is new across the board. We’ve done all these things right. The credit goes to our leadership in feeling they have to make that extra step. I wouldn’t trade what Baylor has for anywhere else, and I’ve been a lot of places.”