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Saturday, June 4, 2022

The Long Wait: A look back at empty renovation plans for KU’s Memorial Stadium and where things go from here

The view of David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium from the top of Campanile hill in July 2020.

The view of David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium from the top of Campanile hill in July 2020.

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In late 2009, a large banner was hung on the east side of Memorial Stadium that promised a new future for Kansas' football program.

"Coming Fall 2010: Gridiron Club, Join The Legacy," read the banner, the words printed under images of Gale Sayers, John Hadl, Todd Reesing and Darrell Stuckey.

That September, the Kansas Board of Regents formally approved the creation of the KU Gridiron Club, a membership-based fundraising arm that was designed to finance a $34 million, 3,000-seat addition to the east side of the stadium as well as provide a $40 million commitment to enhance academic programs.

Lew Perkins, then the athletic director, hailed the addition to the stadium as "a premium ticket to Kansas football" and "the place to be on Saturday afternoons."

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Courtesy of Kansas Athletics

An exterior shot of the proposed 3,000-seat addition to Memorial Stadium that will include the Gridiron Club.

After several promises and a dozen years, however, few substantive renovations have taken place at the 100-year-old facility, the most notable being the removal of the athletic track in 2014. Kansas has cycled through six head coaches and four athletic directors since that banner appeared, and 23 wins over 12 seasons have sapped enthusiasm from many of the team's ardent supporters.

Yet under athletic director Travis Goff and football coach Lance Leipold, each of whom just entered their second year at Kansas, there's renewed hope that a transformation may finally be able to go forward.

Goff, who received bachelor's degrees from the university in 2002, told the Journal-World that the athletic department is "working toward and through" an approach to modernizing the stadium and that a strategic plan for the future of the athletic department will be released in the fall.

It has become evident in the past decade, as major conferences have realigned and media rights contracts have ballooned, that achieving success in football is crucial to securing Kansas' place in the upper echelon of college athletics. And if the university wants to remain competitive well into the future, the vehicle through which it must do so is football — despite winning another national championship in men's basketball in April.

"You have to layer on tangible indicators of what's different about Kansas football, and there's nothing more tangible, as a demonstrative indicator about our commitment to where we're trying to go, than that massive facility," Goff said of KU’s football stadium in a recent sit-down interview with the Journal-World. "At the right juncture, with the right plan, no question, that's got to be part of this next X years of demonstrating what's different and what has changed.

"Ultimately, it makes a statement to fans, it makes a statement to our own conference, it makes a statement to our community, it makes a statement to recruits and it also makes a statement to a group of young men that are working hard to get this thing healthy and viable. It's critical. It's not important. It's not nice. It's not, 'Yeah, it'd be great.' It's critical. Yeah, we have to get this right this time."

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Kansas athletic director Travis Goff watches with members of the football team as a South Dakota field goal misses during the first quarter on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021 at Memorial Stadium. (Photo by Nick Krug/Special to the Journal-World)

•••

Kansas was riding a high after the 2007 season, when it went 12-1 and defeated Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl behind players such as Reesing, Stuckey, Aqib Talib, Marcus Henry and Anthony Collins. It was the perfect time for the university to generate support for a nascent program, and it turned to a tried-and-true sales pitch: Donate now to keep this momentum going.

The Gridiron Club was borne of that success. It was modeled on a fundraising program undertaken by California, which had recently included a plan to add 3,000 club seats on a long-term purchase agreement as part of its $321 million renovation of its facility, also called Memorial Stadium. At Kansas, supporters could pay $25,000 for a seat for five years or $105,000 to have that seat for 30 years, but they could sell their stake at any time to another interested party at a market rate.

What was unforeseen, though, was the significant downturn in Kansas' football fortunes. The Jayhawks finished 5-7 in 2009, including losses in their last seven games, and coach Mark Mangino, who led them to their Orange Bowl success, resigned in December amid an investigation into his mistreatment of players. The economic recession, which began in 2008, also affected the ability to raise funds.

By January 2010, only $4.5 million of the $34 million earmarked for the Gridiron Club had been raised, and the athletic department was not willing to begin construction until the entire amount was secured.

"It's a 10-month construction project," associate athletic director Jim Marchiony said at the time. "Even if we started February 1st, you can do the math."

That spring, the athletic department was the subject of a federal investigation into a ticket scalping scandal in which five employees pleaded guilty to selling more than $2 million worth of tickets for personal profit. Federal prosecutors never discovered any evidence that Perkins knowingly participated in the scheme, but Perkins, who had been the athletic director at Kansas since June 2003 and was then 65, retired in September 2010, four months after the investigation was complete, putting plans for the Gridiron Club on ice.

•••

Sheahon Zenger didn't have the easiest first year at Kansas. Hired to replace Perkins, Zenger fired coach Turner Gill on Nov. 27, 2011 and hired Charlie Weis a couple of weeks later while navigating the first wholesale major-conference realignment since the Big 12 was formed.

Zenger, however, didn't waste much time in turning his attention to the fate of Memorial Stadium. In July 2012, he addressed the future of the aging facility, noting that the most immediate concern was heavily cosmetic — the removal of the athletic track.

"We will do something very special with Memorial Stadium," Zenger said then. "But we want to make sure we honor what we have, and we want to make sure we do it right, because we only get one chance."

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Dr Sheahon Zenger, Director of Athletics at KU looks over the track at Memorial Stadium as workmen for Hamm Construction, of Perry, started to take up the Hershberger Track surface at Memorial Stadium on Wednesday, June 25, 2014.

The track could not be removed until another was built, and that finally happened in spring 2014, when Rock Chalk Park opened in northwest Lawrence as part of a public-private partnership that also included new homes for the softball, women's soccer and women's tennis teams. By June, plans were afoot to tear out the track, and it was gone by the start of the football season in what Zenger called "step 1A of four or five steps" after $500,000 was gifted by an anonymous donor.

Two months before the track was removed, Kansas hired HNTB, an architecture firm based in Kansas City, Missouri, to begin drawing blueprints for the renovation. Still, little progress was made for years — in 2016, Zenger said that any reconstruction would be a five-year project — until September 2017, when Kansas formally unveiled a $350 million plan to renovate several athletic facilities, including Memorial Stadium, as part of its Raise the Chant campaign.

In November 2017, chancellor Douglas Girod said the university had raised about $70 million toward that $350 million goal. That included a $50 million pledge over five years from businessman David G. Booth, who received a bachelor's degree from the university in 1968, that led to the renaming of the facility as David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium.

"I buy a lot of art," Booth said in September 2017. "This would buy a lot of art. But every now and then you've just got to stand up because you realize nobody else is going to. And I'm able. Not that many people can, right? A lot of people would give $50 million to the university if they had it."

Like the Gridiron Club before it, the Raise the Chant campaign also fizzled. Zenger was fired in May 2018, and his successor, Jeff Long, slow-played any discussion of stadium renovations for more than a year after he was hired, insisting that the football team needed to be able to draw fans to the stadium before changes could be considered.

In December 2019, Long said there was a goal to raise $25 million over five years for the stadium and that $16 million had already been secured. Populous, an architectural design firm that specializes in sports facilities also based in Kansas City, had been hired to conceptualize ideas, and financing plans were being developed.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and Long resigned in March 2021, two days after football coach Les Miles was fired amid sexual misconduct allegations from his tenure at LSU. Yet again, plans were halted.

•••

Goff, who was hired as Kansas' athletic director in April 2021, has been involved with modernization before. In his seven years as an associate athletic director at Tulane, he led the fundraising for the 30,000-seat Yulman Stadium, which opened in 2014, and during his nine years as a deputy athletic director at Northwestern, the Wildcats raised more than $400 million toward new or renovated athletic facilities.

"To me, it's the experience I have in the process that I will continue to lean on here," Goff said.

In April, the Kansas Board of Regents included a two-phase, $350 million renovation to Memorial Stadium as part of its capital improvement requests for fiscal year 2024 and its five-year plans. Doing so, however, does not guarantee work on the stadium, or any project, will be undertaken. Instead, it indicates a willingness by the university to raise and/or finance money should an opportunity arise.

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An aerial shot from the east of David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium in 2017.

Goff has not solicited any donations earmarked solely for a football stadium, but he said "philanthropy is going to have to have to drive the successful outcome."

Given the price and the athletic department's inability to cover any gaps in fundraising in the past, there is a possibility that stadium renovations could include a level of public financing.

"Maybe one of the more unique, or added, layers that we're trying to focus on is what's the broader campus benefit that we can create?" Goff said. "Or, the broader university outcomes that we can help facilitate with this project, with this stadium, and how does it help impact the Lawrence community? Profoundly. How does it impact the state and the region as an economic driver?

"If there's a process that's different this time than last time — maybe; I didn't do last time, so I don't know — it's that we've taken off any blinder that says, 'This is just about Kansas football or Kansas athletics.' This is about all those entities and broad-based positive impact."

Goff expects Leipold, whom he hired a month after his own appointment, to have "a strong voice" in the project. He also wants to include players' input as well as hold focus groups and surveys to incorporate a variety of perspectives.

Ultimately, any work on a new stadium experience will need to stem from results and growth, which Kansas has not experienced since Mangino's departure. Renovations would take years to complete, depending on the scale, meaning the football team will need to win games and sustain that success for the investments to be worthwhile.

"(Starting the process again) is not anything negative about what's been done," Goff said. "It literally is that in 2022, a stadium project is absolutely going to be very different from one that would have been done in 2018. Some of that is pandemic-driven. Some of that is just the change in consumers. Some of that is the expectations of what experience looks like in premium and accessibility. But absolutely, this has to be what the next 25, 35, 50 years of the stadium needs to be at the University of Kansas."

Comments

Michael Maris 4 months ago

Thanks for writing an update on this Stadium renovation subject.

But, it's actually time to see words placed into action......

Reading this story, it appears that close to $100,000,000.00,'s has been collected.

Yet, still nothing is being done...... So, where's the $$$$$$$ at? If there's NO ACTUAL commitment to such renovations......

Then, stop talking about it and move on.....

David Robinett 4 months ago

I personally am not bothered by Memorial Stadium. It’s still a great place to see a football game. Would I like to have a fancy stadium? Yes. But I’d much rather have a winning football team. If we had that I would be much more patient about any enhancements to the stadium.

Dirk Medema 4 months ago

As said years ago, the team has to win or there’s no sense improving a half full/empty stadium.

It inevitably will be fancier because it won’t be 100 years old but the challenges to maximizing the impact of the stadium are bigger than that.

I forget the exact numbers but it has to do with the inclination of the stands. Our memorial stadium is down around 20 degrees where more impactful stadiums are 25+ (?). This is significant because it brings the sound of the fans closer to the action as well as containing the sound to a greater extent. It’s part of what makes AFH so effective. The horseshoe opening exacerbates the situation and is no longer needed to accommodate the track.

IMO, the stadium needs to be rebuilt in 3 parts; east then north and potentially west. The last is trickier due to the press box.

Robert Brock 4 months ago

Memorial Stadium is a living example of KU’s lack of interest in football.

Ryan Mullen 4 months ago

OK I wasn’t ready but after reading this article I’m prepared to make a massive commitment to help with renovations. They are going to have to rename the stadium after me though.

Gary Wirsig 3 months, 4 weeks ago

Would we see your icon on the 50 yard line as well? :)

Dirk Medema 4 months ago

The Ryan Mullen Memorial Stadium seems ominous.

😉

Brett McCabe 3 months, 4 weeks ago

I agree with David that the stadium is fine.

But if we are going to change it, let's think a little bigger. We have possibly the most beautiful setting for college football in the country. So, instead of half-measures, let's do the right thing: Move the home games to the KC Football team stadium for two years, implode the existing structure and build something that absolutely takes advantage of the fantastic setting.

While this may sound far-fetched, wouldn't donors get more excited about an all-new stadium, than replacing the pee troughs? I think they would.

And Robert is also right. If you want to get real, then let's start thinking bigger. And let's make the thing astonishingly beautiful.

While many may say, "you can't move poor KU football to Kansas City for two years", I would reply with two things: attendance might actually go up, and what does every coach on this planet say? Put in the sacrifice now for the payoff later. It would be nice to see Goff step up, show the discipline to live through the pain for two years, and build something of real value.

Josh Galler 3 months, 4 weeks ago

Brian besides GEHRA at Arrowhead lets stay in Kansas and play at Children's Mercy There has been some div 2 FB games there, money stay in KS more sell out potential than at Arrowhead

Doug Roberts 3 months, 4 weeks ago

Don't put the cart before the horse. Load the wagon.

Joey Meyer 3 months, 4 weeks ago

Not going to lie, this is a topic I obsess a little too much about.

The stadium is the face of the football program, like it or not, and leaving it to continue to languish only reflects the commitment to the program. I'd really love for us to get this right with a major renovation or a new stadium.

Look at what Baylor did. It's an incredible stadium and it seats less than Memorial. Look at what TCU did. If you want easier examples, check out Colorado State or San Diego State.

Like Brett said, we have the luxury of an absolutely beautiful campus setting. Make great use of it, build a cozy/intimate/purposeful stadium. Having something much less "open sky" and more setting-focused (think a multi-tiered Children Mercy Park open to the hill) and watch some excitement come back to the fans.

Problems with halftime attendance? Problems with attendance overall? Make the stadium fun and contain the energy and win a few more football games and people will come back to watch.

Benny Armstrong 3 months, 4 weeks ago

I think you're going to have a hard time selling a complete demo/rebuild considering the history tied to it. Per the KU Athletics website, it is the first stadium built on a college campus west of the Mississippi, and is a memorial to the students who died during WWI. Add in the nice but otherwise irrelevant story of John Wooden helping lay concrete to build it during one summer and I think the administration will see too much history to completely scrap it.

That being said, we can and should improve on it. I've said this elsewhere in the myriad of prior stadium articles, but my suggestions would be first to widen the seats. This has the dual purpose of giving fans a little more room and shrinks the total capacity so we aren't trying to fill 50k seats each week and improves optics slightly (filling 20k of 40k total looks better than 20k of 50k). Second, cover the entire facade in limestone like AFH and the rest of the buildings on campus. The concrete superstructure on both sides looks awful there's only so much you can cover with banners and signage. Finally, others mentioned sound retention being an issue and I completely agree. I'd add a partial red metal roof structure (again like AFH) that overhangs part of the stands and can provide some shade but also redirect sound back to the field like you see with soccer stadiums. If we could go really crazy in this moment, I'd demolish the upper half of the both sides of the stadium and start over. Get rid of the gradual slope to the last row, add loge boxes/suites at the current midpoint and then leave room for expansion of an upper section on top of not out from both sides.

Ultimately, I have faith and confidence in Goff to get this sorted out considering his experience with fundraising for stadiums/facilities at prior stops. Having renders and a plan in place to show recruits during their visits will go a long way to demonstrating our investment in the future of the program. The other thing that'll help is seeing more fans in the seats. The end of last year showed a ton of promise and we should be able to build on that and be more competitive in year 2 of the Leipold era.

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