Stadium next step toward Baylor's future

WACO, Texas -- Late on the night of Nov. 19, 2011, not long after Robert Griffin III’s last-second pass landed in the arms of Terrance Williams, Brian Nicholson remembers sending a text message.

The celebration of Baylor’s 45-38 upset of No. 5 Oklahoma was only just beginning when it dawned on Baylor’s associate vice president for facilities and operations that the catalyst had finally been found. So he fired off a message to his boss, Baylor senior vice president and CFO Reagan Ramsower.

“That pass just cost us $250 million.”

Griffin’s grand night, his Heisman Trophy and the Bears’ breakout 10-win season set in motion a plan that had been talked about for years: Bringing a new stadium to Baylor’s campus, and finally leaving the antiquated Floyd Casey Stadium behind.

On Saturday, the Bears say goodbye. The Floyd Casey Stadium era ends after 63 years, and the timing could not be better. By the time No. 9 Baylor and Texas kick off this weekend, construction of the $260 million Baylor Stadium will be more than 50 percent complete. By Aug. 1, 2014, the program will finally have a venue far more befitting its rapid rise to national prominence.

“We’re competing with the best in the country right now,” athletic director Ian McCaw said. “So why not go ahead and play in the best college football facility in America?”

This was a need, not a want. From day one of Art Briles’ tenure, he identified and lobbied for a new stadium as a necessity.

Baylor officials held their first meeting to discuss the project in July 2011. Back then, they believe Briles and the Bears were starting to get some momentum. Nobody could’ve anticipated just how drastically the 2011 season would alter the trajectory of this program.

“We’d raised literally zero at the time of the Alamo Bowl and Robert having won the Heisman,” McCaw said. “But that provided the catalytic movement to get this project going.”

In March 2012, former Houston Astros owner and alum Drayton McLane got the ball rolling with the largest financial donation in Baylor history. Less than 10 months after Griffin stunned the Sooners, fundraising was complete and Baylor broke ground on its new digs.

“Sure enough, you take that moment and everything just started rolling,” Nicholson said. “Since then, it’s been unbelievable.”

Ever since the first stadium meeting in the summer of 2011, the Bears have gone 28-9. They play for a share of the Big 12 title this weekend, and possibly a trip to a BCS bowl. Griffin’s big year was historic, but this is the dream season.

And every day Baylor players and coaches step onto the practice field, they can see the future off in the distance. The structure, the construction cranes, the progress.

“I think it is kind of a symbolic change of the old Baylor to the new Baylor,” McCaw said. “Baylor Stadium captures the new Baylor, the energy and excitement and state-of-the-art vision of our current program.”

These days, state-of-the-art looks more like an unfinished bowl made of concrete and steel. A crew of up to 500 people working six days a week has kept construction of Baylor Stadium on schedule for the Aug. 31, 2014 opener against SMU.

The 860,000-square-foot stadium sits along the Brazos River and will seat 45,000. Its suites and premium seating sold out in “very rapid fashion,” McCaw said. Baylor has seen its number of season ticketholders triple in the past decade. The demand for a new home for football in this city has never been greater.

“It’s been the convergence of just so many great things around Baylor football,” McCaw said.

Yet there is still something bittersweet about Saturday. Floyd Casey Stadium opened in 1950. It’s seen rough years and tough times and a tarp, but also some special seasons and memories. While Baylor officials have no imminent plans for The Case, a history is being left behind.

"I think it means a lot. Floyd Casey has a lot of tradition,” quarterback Bryce Petty said. “It's our job to make sure that we end it out right. End that tradition on a good note and start a new tradition with the new stadium with a good note. For all the guys that have played there before, it's our job to salute to them."

On Saturday night, the Bears will leave their longtime field and never return. A new era begins next fall in a new palace, rewarding a program and a fanbase hungry to compete with the nation’s best.

Briles, by the way, has yet to visit his future home. He did meet with stadium architects once but made no requests, other this this: “Just blow it out of the park.”

It’s not as if he’s superstitious about visiting or disinterested in the bright, shiny future ahead. He’s just been too busy leading this program’s rise.

“I haven’t even thought about it,” Briles said. “[He will] Hopefully sometime next summer or spring. The Case is still alive and well. We’ve still got some more unfinished business there."