DEVILLE: New west deck will be a showplace

After a lengthy wait, it appears LSU will finally play its first game in Tiger Stadium on Saturday when Tennessee comes calling.

The last three weeks have been rather hectic. Katrina, coupled with hundreds of thousands of displaced residents, Baton Rouge traffic, postponed football games and a long trip to Tempe, Tigerland along with the rest of Louisiana is yearning for some sense of normalcy. With Hurricane Katrina now fading in our review mirror a bit (however, no way is she forgotten), things seem to be rounding back toward normal for late September in Baton Rouge.

 

After months and months of waiting for the Les Miles era to begin, it looks as if the first-year coach will finally take the field on Saturday in Tiger Stadium in LSU's home opener. The opponent will be the Tennessee Volunteers with a national stage set as it is probable the ESPN Gameday crew will visit the LSU campus for the third year in a row.

 

The events of the past several weeks have left south Louisiana physically and emotionally exhausted. But think back to those weeks preceding Hurricane Katrina, there were two hot topics around town – who would be LSU's quarterback and would the west upper deck be ready for the season opener versus North Texas?

 

Well, with Russell completing 16 of 29 passes for 232 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including the game winner to Early Doucet with 1:13 remaining in the game at Arizona State, that quarterback issue seems to be settled – at least for the time being.

 

That leaves the upper deck.

 

With all of the destruction that has surrounded Baton Rouge since Katrina, the actual construction of the west upper deck has faded from view lately. After the season opener versus North Texas was postponed, the emphasis on getting the deck habitable for fans was placed on the back burner.

 

Officials had said the deck would be fully operational – rough around the edges – but fully operational by the time LSU and Tennessee tees it up on Sept. 24.

 

While the construction project has shouldered its share of delays due to the hurricane, Ralph Stogner, Tiger Athletic Foundation Project Manager of Facilities and Construction, said all things appear to be on track. Tiger Rag was granted an exclusive tour of the west upper deck late last week. Jason Brown and I were escorted through the facility by Stogner himself.

 

Tiger Rag editor Matt Deville (right) chats with

TAF Special Projects Manager Ralph Stogner. (Photo by MJBrown)

 

"All of the seats in the west upper deck will be ready in time for the Tennessee game," Stogner said.

Stogner said the round the clock construction on the west upper deck would continue through late Sunday (9/18) before all work would be halted. Stogner then said cleanup would commence as crews would prepare the shell of Tiger Stadium's new addition to accommodate fans on Saturday for the Tennessee game.

 

"They are going to work until Sunday night," Stogner said. "Then it will take a week to get everything cleaned up for Saturday."

 

Stogner, a native of Atlanta and a Georgia Tech alum, was hired by the Tiger Athletic Foundation in 2003. He came to Baton Rouge to close out the construction of the Cox Communications Academic Center for Student-Athletes and Mike the Tiger's habitat. Stogner has overseen the construction of the new Football Operations Center and the west upper deck construction.

 

"I have done a lot of things all over the world," Stogner said. "But this is no doubt the most complicated project I have ever been involved with."

 

Since arriving in Baton Rouge, the former member of the Rambling Wreck said he has become a Tiger fan.

 

"I was at Georgia Tech when they were still a member of the SEC," Stogner said. "I can remember back in those days (late 1950s), the most dreaded thing was to come down here (to Baton Rouge) every other year. But I am an LSU fan now.

 

"I could not avoid being an LSU fan. There are great people here. The kids are wonderful. I don't know if I have ever come across a greater group of young people anywhere. I am truly impressed with the people."

 

Our tour began on the ground level some 100-feet below the new structure. We first entered the construction zone on the south side of Lot A. Stogner walked us to a rather large, but awfully rickety freight elevator where we would gain access to the facility. Let's just say, I had to swallow my fear of heights in a hurry.

 

We slowed creaked our way to the lower level of the west upper deck where we were met by construction workers.

 

Within the first few minutes of being there, you could feel a sense of urgency as the workers scurried about with their tasks. Luckily Stogner said there have been n major injuries.

 

"Nothing more than a few smashed fingers," he said. "There has been a very aggressive safety campaign."

 

Some think Hurricane Katrina may have bought LSU and the TAF some time due to the North Texas and Arizona State games being postponed and relocated. However, Stogner explained that is not entirely accurate. Stogner explained a majority of the materials used in the construction are shipped through New Orleans.

 

"Two of the main (shipping) offices are in New Orleans," he said. "We are getting all of the glass for the deck from New Orleans Glass Co. We had and still have ceiling tiles sitting in shipping crates at the Port of New Orleans.

 

"It has been a real chore finding fuel for trucks, hotel rooms and so on. And the shipping problems are endless because everything goes through New Orleans."

 

But Stogner is making no excuses. As promised even before the hurricane, all seats would be ready for the Tennessee. While there are ceilings with no tiles in them, temporary sheet rock walls where glass will one day be and floors of rock-hard concrete, the deck will be ready to accommodate fans on Saturday when Tennessee arrives.

 

"This will definitely be a showplace and a half," Stogner said. "It will be something fans will be very proud of. It will be phenomenal when it is completed."

 

While we took a rather treacherous ride to the upper deck level on the external lifts, fans will be transported from ground level on a series of six elevators, that can accommodate up to 18 people at a time.

 

Our toured continued up into the seating area on the west upper deck. Fans will look forward to a far less steep angle at which to watch the game than the old west deck. When the steepness of the former deck was mentioned, Stogner chuckled while explaining the reason for its steepness.

 

"Not many people know, but the pilings (for the old deck) actually sunk six inches in the direction of the playing field," he said. "That meant the deck was actually steeper than it was originally meant to be."

 

We toured the three levels of club level seating, including a grand concourse area encased in walls of glass. While there is a large temporary wall of sheet rock and plastic covering the back wall of the upper deck, by next season the makeshift wall will be replaced by a sheet of glass revealing a magnificent view of the Mississippi River.

 

The tour continued throughout the new press box, photo deck and coaches booths. And ended as we creaked our way back down to ground level – a spot I was happy to find.

 

In closing, it is understandable that there a number of people are a bit upset with the delays in construction and the way things have played out in the media. But let me try and encourage you to be patient and understanding.

 

The construction of this new deck has been burden and distraction for lots of people, but in the end, this is positive growth for LSU. Let me be one to express my first hand accounts, I echo Stogner's sentiments when I say this will be a phenomenal addition to Tiger Stadium. It was a grand site to stand in that new west upper deck. With the new seats in place on the east side and the west side seats coming next year, Tiger Stadium is no doubt going to be one – of not the – premiere sites for college football, not only for atmosphere but quality of facility.

 

So when you enter Death Valley on Saturday and you are one of the 13,000 or so affected by the new west upper, try and focus really hard through the panes of dirty glass and the glare of a concrete floor and realize where you are. The future will be truly amazing.

 

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Matt Deville is the editor of Tiger Rag Magazine. Reach him at matt@tigerrag.com.


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