NORMAN — Joe Castiglione was leaving his home on the north side of town for a 5:15 workout one recent morning, and something just looked different.
He turned from Tecumseh Road onto the I-35 onramp and the Embassy Suites hotel on the east side of the interstate — usually a gentle, glowing green — was flashing different colors.
What the heck?
“It was obliterated because there was what looked like a strobe light show going on between what looked like red, white and blue colors,” Castiglione said. “I didn’t know what it was.”
As the University of Oklahoma athletic director drove onto campus, his curiosity was satisfied.
It was the new video board at Memorial Stadium, the crown jewel of OU’s $160 million stadium renovation, performing an early morning test run.
Six miles away.
“That’s when I realized,” Castiglione said, “this is a whole different viewing experience.”
Castiglione and executive associate AD Larry Naifeh gave a press briefing Monday on the status of the renovation, and they swear it will be open for business when the Sooners host Louisiana-Monroe on Sept. 10 — open for business, but not finished.
“A lot of people driving by on Jenkins (Avenue) or Lindsey (Street) take a look at the outside and try to gauge whether or not the stadium will be complete. That’s not our core concern,” Castiglione said. “The core concern is obviously the seating areas, the suites, the loge boxes, the club seats, the bench seating, all of the concourses, the restrooms, the concession stands, all the fan amenities and the access points to allow fans to easily move in and out of the stadium. Those have been the focus.
“As the season goes along, they’ll see more and more of the external area be complete.”
So it’s a work in progress, probably until February, when the interior space is finished and the players, coaches and support staff get to move in.
But Castiglione says he hopes all the cutting edge fan amenities in the Phase I south end zone project — such as enhanced wi-fi, gathering plazas, double the restrooms (from six to 13), 465 television monitors, wider seats and aisles and significant concession upgrades — will spark Phase II and Phase III improvements throughout the rest of the stadium.
“This has obviously been geared toward ultimately creating the world class resources for student athletes,” Castiglione said, “and the other part of that twin goal is an unforgettable experience for our fans. So heavy, heavy emphasis on fan experience. And what we see in the south end zone is the forerunner for the other kinds of work we want to do throughout the stadium as we go along.”
For the record, official capacity for now will be 83,489. That’s up from the previous number of 82,112 (although the attendance record is 86,031 for the Notre Dame game in 2012). Actual attendance figures will exceed the new capacity. But as future renovations happen, handrails will be added and seats and aisles will be widened, so the number of total seats will be reduced.
Castiglione called it “a reconfiguration.” That means the bench seating previously throughout the south end zone structure was removed (that number was reduced by about 35 percent, he said), new concrete was poured, and the new corners and club seats were installed.
It’s the corners, of course, that really stand out. For the first time, Memorial Stadium is bowled in.
When the east stands were erected in 1929 and capacity was doubled to 32,000, the south end zone remained open. When capacity was nearly doubled again to 55,000 and the north end zone was enclosed in 1940, the south end zone remained open. When south end zone stands were finally built in 1957 and capacity rose to 61,836, the structure was freestanding and the corners remained open.
An upper deck went up on the west side in 1975, a new south end zone structure was built in 1980, suites went up on the west side in 1995, and the east side got suites and an upper deck in 2003.
And all the while, the south end zone remained open.
OU administrators, adhering to tradition, were simply reluctant to reconfigure the layout of such an historical venue.
Then, Boone Pickens Stadium unveiled its new, bowled-in west end zone in Stillwater, and minds in Norman began to change. The sheer beauty of Oklahoma State’s new stadium — and the earning potential of additional suites and luxury seating — was too much to ignore.
And Castiglione couldn’t be more proud.
“There are more points of opportunity than there’s ever been in the south end zone,” he said. “So just the ease of getting in and around is a big improvement, but the go-to areas will be those fan plazas. They’re fantastic. And there’s one (about 3,500 square feet) in each corner. When you’re looking at the fan plaza, you see one of the concession stands which actually faces the field, so fans can meet friends, get something there and go back to your seat. But there’s also a large fan plaza (about 10,000 square feet) on the top, right under and behind the video board.”
“Yeah,” Naifeh said, “the second-level concourse is the area that, when you walk people through, probably gets that biggest surprise. I mean, obviously the seats are fantastic, but anybody who has ever walked the south concourse before — not many did because everybody avoided it — but people are just shocked by how much space we were able to create in those concourses, the number of restrooms and concessions we were able to create in those areas.
“You know, when you look at plans and a master plan and stare at drawings, you just don’t quite get the magnitude of it until you actually walk through it. And I think those areas will really surprise people.”
Naifeh said work has been going day and night, and ahead of the home opener will total some 750,000 man hours (it’ll surpass a million by February, he said). Right now, individual lamps are being directionally configured on the two new light standards. Furniture for the suites will be moved in next week.
“I hope no one is trying to move in new furniture to their homes,” Naifeh said, “because we’ve got all of the installers of furniture booked up for about 4-5 days.”
And the new video board — reportedly the second-largest in the U.S. — continues to undergo light and sound checks.
“We’ve already heard from people that are four or five blocks away that have high enough elevation in their structure, they can see the video board operating from over there, Campus Corner, downtown Norman,” Castiglione said. “I didn’t realize we had created balcony seats around Norman by putting the video board up, but that’s what’s happening.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of Further Review with Hoover & Rew and can be heard on The Franchise Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. every weekday with co-host Lauren Rew. Listen on fm107.9, am1270 on the 107.7 Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page.