Of all the turning points in the unlikely storyline of McLane Stadium, the most unforgettable begins on a late November night in 2011 with a giant-killer named Robert Griffin III.
Tied against Oklahoma with eight seconds to go, the Baylor University quarterback hurled a perfect 35-yard touchdown pass to beat the No. 5-ranked team for the first time in school history.
As fans stormed the field at Floyd Casey Stadium, Brian Nicholson felt the ground shift. Watching the game on television in another town, the Baylor construction official who would supervise the massive project pulled out his cellphone.
“That pass just cost us $250 million,” he texted to vice president Reagan Ramsower, who was at the game.
“He texted back, ‘Yep, it did,’” recalls Nicholson, now vice president for facility, planning and construction. “At that point, we realized we need to get to work, because this is going to happen and it’s going to happen quick.”
If only he had known how quick. A month later, Griffin was holding up a Heisman trophy. Three months later, businessman Drayton McLane had pledged the largest donation in Baylor history toward the stadium. In late July 2012, Baylor regents approved the 45,000-seat stadium.
Barely more than two years after the vote, McLane Stadium, with a final construction tally of $266 million, is ready for the Baylor season opener on Aug. 31.
“It took a lot of stars aligning simultaneously,” said McLane, the stadium’s lead donor and original advocate. “There were a lot of hurdles to overcome. If somebody wrote this as a novel, you wouldn’t believe it.”
Those hurdles seemed insurmountable even a few years ago.
Leave aside the daunting cost of building a gleaming new on-campus stadium to replace Floyd Casey, and the argument that the money would have been better spent on academics, scholarships and research. Leave aside the logistical challenges of building on a floodplain site, cut off from the rest of the campus and Waco by inadequate roads and the river itself.
The bigger question was whether donors would open their checkbooks to build a monumental stadium for a team that was at best unproven. The Bears had scraped through most of the late 1990s and 2000s at the bottom of the Big 12 Conference. In 2007 they lost every Big 12 game.
Coach Art Briles, hired that November, started to turn around the team’s reputation with smart recruiting and strategy.
That turnaround was still in its infancy by spring 2010, when Ken Starr was appointed president of the university. The series of bowl game successes, the 2011 Heisman season and the 2013 Big 12 championship lay in the future.
But Briles was confident enough in the team’s direction to ask for a new home. At a reception with the new president on June 1, 2010, Briles got right to the point.
“I went over to say hello to Coach Briles,” Starr recalls. “I asked him, as I tend to ask when I meet with coaches or deans, ‘What is it that you need?’ He said, ‘We need an on-campus stadium. It is a need, not a want.’ He’s a very persuasive person. But my first thought is that it can’t be our highest priority.”
Starr was making arrangements to head to Kansas City for the annual meeting of Big 12 Conference presidents the next day, unaware of the crisis that awaited him there.
Several universities in the Big 12 would threaten to pull out to join other conferences, which would have undermined the entire conference and left bottom-ranked Baylor a conference orphan. After weeks of negotiation, Nebraska and Colorado ended up leaving the conference, but the other teams appeared to commit to staying.
That seeming reprieve for Baylor was in doubt with a conference crisis through much of summer 2011. The crisis ended with Texas A&M and Missouri bolting for the Southeastern Conference and the remaining eight Big 12 teams agreeing to long-term television contracts worth more than $20 million per year.
McLane knew that he had a moment to strike.
“I saw that if Baylor didn’t get first-class facilities and better-quality recruits, it wasn’t going to be in the Big 12 Conference,” he said.
McLane, founder of a wholesale empire and former owner of the Houston Astros, had been on a one-man campaign since the 1990s to get an on-campus stadium. Past presidents and regents had seen the project as desirable but cost-prohibitive, McLane said.
The university had started in 2009 doing a feasibility study on renovating Floyd Casey Stadium, which was built in 1950. Officials were finding that it would cost tens of millions of dollars.
In July 2011, with the Big 12 crisis still looming, McLane loaded Starr and a couple of other regents onto his private plane and flew to Kansas City to meet with architects from Populous, who had designed the University of Minnesota stadium and the Astros’ Minute Maid Park in Houston.
McLane ordered up some preliminary sketches of a stadium at the Brazos River and Interstate 35.
Baylor had already acquired much but not all of the 93-acre future stadium land in the early 2000s, when it was proposing to the build the George W. Bush presidential library there. Since losing the library competition to SMU, Baylor officials had been considering the site for graduate and research facilities.
Even in September 2011, the idea of putting a stadium there seemed far-fetched, Nicholson said.
“I still thought it was a project we were studying or chasing, but it wasn’t going to happen, at least not on the timeline others would want,” he said. “The whole thing was speculative.”
McLane was working on Starr and his fellow regents.
“Ken’s No. 1 goal was to raise $100 million for scholarships, and rightfully so,” McLane said. “I said, ‘Ken, we’ve got to do them both. I think building the stadium will help you raise $200 million for scholarships, and this will help you raise $100 million for a new business school.’ Athletics add the excitement and prestige and recognition to the university.”
Starr called McLane his “chief educator.”
“Much more than any other person, he made it clear to me that by bringing a stadium to campus, all boats would rise,” Starr said.
McLane presented his drawings and proposal to regents in early November 2011, and the board, still noncommittal, agreed to release the sketches and seek input from Baylor fans.
Ken Hall, who was a regent and president of Buckner International at the time, said he regarded the concept with “healthy skepticism.”
“I knew we needed it and agreed with it, but the sheer sticker shock of the numbers made me think we’d never come close to raising that much money,” he said. “We had so many other things on our plate.”
Hall would be hired the next year to raise that money as vice president for development. He said McLane’s optimism has been borne out: Fundraising goals for the stadium have been exceeded, and the scholarships and business school have been funded.
Support swelled for the new stadium in late 2011 as Griffin won the Heisman and Briles took the team to the Alamo Bowl.
After McLane announced in March 2012 that he would make a lead gift — made possible by the sale of the Astros — Baylor officials headed to Waco City Hall.
They asked then-City Manager Larry Groth and Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. for $50 million from the downtown Tax Increment Finance Zone, which is funded by growth in the downtown tax base. Duncan recalls that Baylor officials told them the project wouldn’t work without that level of contribution.
The stadium wouldn’t add tax base to the zone, and Duncan said he didn’t want to commit all of the TIF’s future revenue to one project.
“We said, let us look at it,” Duncan said. “We had a real concern about being able to take care of other demands in the district.”
Duncan said he and city staff analyzed TIF fund projections and the stadium’s financing and negotiated a $35 million contribution.
“I think it’s the best investment we could have made,” Duncan said, adding that the stadium project has already boosted interest in downtown development.
Hall said Waco’s support for the project made it easier to sell to other donors.
“That $35 million was the best number,” he said. “It sent a message that ‘Waco’s buying into this thing.’”
In July 2012, with Waco’s commitment in hand, Baylor regents approved the stadium, and work began almost immediately.
By that point, Baylor officials had already hashed out some key decisions. The stadium’s capacity would be similar to Floyd Casey’s — 45,000 seats — but with the ability to expand.
And the project would be finished in 24 months. It would be a tight squeeze, but waiting any longer would mean losing another football season, Nicholson said.
The logistical challenges of completing such a project on such a deadline were daunting. Parts of the stadium project would have to be built while others were still being designed, leaving little room for error.
“We took some calculated risks early on to meet the deadline,” Nicholson said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would have to expedite its environmental approval to build along the river, and the city of Waco would have to speed up its inspections. The stadium site was in a floodplain, and it would have to be raised with 220,000 cubic yards of soil to safeguard against floods.
Some key decisions made before the regents’ votes helped the stadium move along on time. Baylor had already hired Oncor to move giant transmission lines back in April 2012.
Texas Department of Transportation executive director Phil Wilson met with Waco and Baylor officials in early 2012 and agreed to push for the extension and expansion of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard past the stadium’s front door to connect with Business Highway 77. Without that critical connection, the stadium could not have gone forward, Nicholson said.
The state also agreed in summer 2012 to expedite its $45 million project to build new frontage road bridges across the Brazos so they would be complete in time for the 2014 football season.
Nicholson said the timing was fortunate in another way: Since July 2012, a post-recession building boom has raised the cost of construction.
“If we were to take a vote today, two years after the board voted to approve it, I do not believe we could build this stadium in 24 months for $266 million,” Nicholson said.
He estimated that the price tag today would be at least $300 million.
The stadium, along with the frontage road bridges, the new Umphrey pedestrian bridge and track and field facilities, have reshaped the front door to Baylor and downtown Waco.
“It is going to change the city of Waco and Baylor,” McLane said. “People are going to say, ‘Wow, that’s Waco.’ Just think of all the events the city will have in the stadium, and I think you’re going to see really nice hotels built and greater restaurants and entertainment.”
Starr said the stadium turned out even better than he imagined.
“The watercolors of the stadium did not do it justice, thanks to the magnificence of the river and all the developments along the river,” he said. “When one walks across the beautiful Umphrey bridge, it’s a thing of beauty.”
Starr said the stadium realizes the river’s original name, “El Rio Brazos de Dios.”
“It’s God’s great gift of the River of the Arms of God,” Starr said. “The Spaniards were onto something when they named it that. They saw the beauty and grace this river had. It will be a gathering place not just for football but a venue for the whole community.”