The vision for an on-campus stadium at Baylor University at its core was about one thing — unity.
Uniting the Baylor family; harvesting all the excitement that had grown due to the football program’s success; collecting all that energy and bringing it back to campus to power up an already passionate student body and fan base; and most importantly making the game-day festivities within walking distance of student living quarters and the iconic places and spaces around the university.
McLane Stadium’s prominent location, on 93 acres of land next to Interstate 35, just about accomplished that, save for the width of the Brazos River that separates the site from the main Baylor campus.
The final connecting piece — the Sheila and Walter Umphrey Bridge across the river — is as much about easy access to the stadium as it is building tradition and rallying campus pride.
“People are just excited to be out there,” said Nick Joos, executive associate athletics director. “It’s a great way to spend a Saturday, and there’s just a lot of enthusiasm for Baylor and Baylor football right now.”
Spanning 775 feet across the river, and 35 feet in width, the bridge is to serve as the main entry point to football games.
The structure is bookended by two plazas sure to fire up fans before kick-off. On the campus side, a repurposed statue of legendary former head football coach Grant Teaff will usher tens of thousands of visitors coming across the bridge into the game.
At the end of the bridge, a new plaza features a statue of 2011 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III, whose successes at Baylor elevated the team’s performance and national profile.
The journey across the bridge is in effect a retrospective of the football program’s major milestones. Baylor has even dubbed it the “I Believe” walkway, drawing inspiration from Griffin’s “Unbelievably believable” Heisman acceptance speech.
“I was told early on when the construction was about to get started they felt it was very important to have the traditions of the past linked to the future, and I agree with that,” Teaff said. “I’m very grateful and honored because there’s a lot of youngsters that played in my years here that need to be recognized and honored, and that plaza is going to do that.”
The bridge also has a plaque in memory of Jose Dario Suarez, a construction worker who was killed in January after a hydraulic lift he and another man were working from fell into the Brazos River.
The Griffin statue, created through a donation from alumnus John Wood, will be unveiled in a ceremony during pre-game festivities before the Bears’ season-opener against Southern Methodist University. It will be surrounded by three panels — each labeled with the characters “R,” “G,” and “III” — that detail Griffin’s college accomplishments, biography and portions of his Heisman speech.
Artist Tom White designed the statue, a bronze depiction of the quarterback in a passing pose. Griffin traveled to White’s Prescott, Ariz., studio in May for photos and a final work session to complete the clay design before the final bronze statue was cast.
Teaff’s plaza is a re-installment of his statue and biographical panels that had been at the main entrance of Floyd Casey Stadium. Dallas-based artist Dan Brook, who played under Teaff at Baylor, was contracted to refurbish the plaza items and upgrade them for their new home.
The space around both plazas will also be centers for tailgating. The campus side of the bridge will be primarily used for student tailgating, while a new Touchdown Alley on the south end zone side of McLane Stadium has nearly 300 tailgating spots, all of which have been reserved by businesses and fans.
The two locations will be double the size of the tailgating space available at Floyd Casey.
“Whereas in the past it was on one side of the stadium and it got overlooked maybe, it’s going to be very visible and very, very prominent,” Joos said. “Because of how (Floyd Casey) stadium was and it was difficult to walk around the whole stadium, there were a lot of people on the east side who may not have even known (the tailgating areas were) there, and in this instance everybody will know it is there because of its location.”